When a priest leaves a parish in which he has lived and worked for some time, there is usually a period of advance notice during which he can take his leave and parishioners can say their goodbyes. The pastoral relationship between a priest and parishioners can be very close and mutually satisfying, so when it is drawing to a close it is to be expected that there will be some sense of loss and sadness, but there is also an opportunity to mark the priest’s departure with liturgy and other celebrations.
However, when a priest has to step aside at short notice because a concern has arisen about a possibility that he may have abused a child, a crisis situation arises for him and for the parishioners who are given no time to prepare for his leaving. The feelings that can arise for parishioners in these circumstances can be varied, and can include shock, disappointment, anger and confusion. People can feel abandoned, especially if they had been working closely with the priest in some element of parish life.
Cradock and Gardner describe the different ‘target populations’ in a parish that can be adversely affected by the sudden departure of their priest. These include:
- Complainants and their families;
- Potential complainants and their families;
- The respondent priest’s family and friends;
- The other priests and religious in the parish;
- Lay ministers;
- Parish and parochial school staff;
- Parish leadership teams;
- Parish council members;
- The wider parish community.
Cradock and Gardner speak of the allegation, or concern, as being the precipitating event that triggers needs in these various target populations. The challenge to the parish and the diocese in which it is located is to identify and bring together the resources that are required to effectively address these needs.
General principles for interventions
Cradock and Gardner suggest that there are three general principles that should guide the responses to be made:
- The Church, through the Bishop, must take the initiative in this situation in reaching out to, rather than retreating from, the members of the parish community;
- Opportunities must be established in which relevant groups of parishioners can air their fears and concerns, and obtain the information that they need;
- It is always best to use the parish’s natural networks and leadership, with other professionals providing consultation, education, guidance and support as needed.
It is the Bishop’s prerogative to decide, in consultation with the respondent priest and other key parties, if an announcement or other form of explanatory statement will be made to parishioners concerning their departing priest. A decision regarding the composition and issuing of a press release may also be required.
Some obvious sensitivities need to be addressed, not least the fact that the priest is innocent by law, at least until some future time when a full investigation of concerns has been concluded, and so his name and reputation must be protected. In some situations, the respondent priest remains living in the parish with the permission and support of his Bishop.
Confidentiality is required, and advice will be needed on what can be shared, by whom and with whom. Parishioners cannot be told everything, but they do need an explanation for the sudden unavailability of the priest for a period. What they are told should be the truth.
The parish community will need the support and assistance of the diocesan safeguarding team, as the situation is too emotionally challenging and complex for parishes to deal with on their own. The availability of the diocesan DLP to meet with concerned parishioners provides an important opportunity for people to share any child safeguarding concerns they may have.
An action plan needs to be devised by members of the safeguarding team, in consultation with the Bishop and key people in the parish, including the other priests ministering there.
Cradock and Gardner suggest that the method for devising an action plan involves three steps:
- Assessing the target groups and needs;
- Determining resources and interventions;
- Assigning roles and a timetable. Who are the vulnerable individuals and groups? What problems are anticipated? Who is in the best position to deal with these? What context or setting would be most effective for doing so? In what order should the steps be taken, and when? These are the kinds of questions that will lead to a systematic plan of action.
According to Cradock and Gardner, parishioners in this situation need:
- Assistance in managing feelings; their strong and potentially ambivalent feelings need to be normalised for them. These may include for some a sense of betrayal, and for some a crisis of faith;
- Information and education about an unusual and distressing event that will be outside their previous experience. Some may have a lot of questions or worries and anxiety about the unknown.
Some parishioners may want to pray together about their concerns, and consideration can be given to how this can be facilitated. It can happen that parishioners are divided in their attitude and loyalties, with some expressing compassion towards the priest and disbelief about what is being suggested, while others may blame the priest or the Bishop, and may express strong anger towards one or other. It is not unusual for people to come together to support and advocate on behalf of the respondent priest.
Particular stress can be experienced by other priests of an affected parish who, in the short term, have an increased workload as they take up the duties of the respondent priest. They do so at the same time they are coming to terms with their own feelings about what has happened, while also trying to support and assist the parishioners. It is important that they have someone from whom they can draw support and encouragement.
Without any undue haste, a return to regular parish routines as soon as is practicable should be supported, as people are reassured by familiar routines.
It may be appropriate for the Bishop to attend in person to listen and talk to the people of the parish.
The Bishop should:
• Consider inviting another person to accompany him, such as the DLP or another priest, to provide additional support for the parishioners and for him.
• Explain to parishioners that the aim of the meeting is to be available to listen to their anxieties.
• Respond honestly to questions:as far as possible providing parishioners with facts without breaching any data protection rights of individuals.
• Invite anyone who has a safeguarding concern to come forward and report.
• Highlight the needs of anyone who has been harmed and recognise their right to receive support from the Diocese.
• Make himself personally available to meet people on an individual basis.
• Advise the parish about the safeguards that are in place and working today, including the manner in which you respond to suspicions, concerns, knowledge or allegations.
• Invite people to pray with him.
Cradock, C. and Gardner, J., ‘Psychological Intervention for Parishes Following Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse’, Slayer of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Rossetti, S., ed. (Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990).