NPR

Amidst Church Scandals, Who Still Joins The Priesthood

A decade after news of the sex abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese of the Catholic Church broke, reports of abuse continue to emerge. The number of priests in the U.S. is in rapid decline, raising questions about who still chooses the job and how the work has changed after high-profile abuse scandals.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's now more than 10 years since the Boston Globe first broke the news that the archdiocese there covered up for priests who sexually abused children. Just this week, similar reports erupted in Los Angeles after lawyers for the church lost a long battle to keep tens of thousands of damning documents secret.

The long series of scandals has contributed to another problem for the Catholic Church: a shortage of priests. According to one survey, the number of priests in the United States has declined from 58,000 in 1965 to 39,000 in 2011. And amid this crisis, who might decide to enter the priesthood and why?

If you've considered becoming a priest, call and tell us what you decided to do. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, a newcomer shakes up Israeli politics.

But first, who's becoming a priest? Jeff Kirby is a Catholic priest and vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston, where he advises those interested in joining the priesthood. He joins us now by smartphone from his office in Charleston. Nice to have you with us today.

THE REV. JEFF KIRBY: Thank you, Neal, it's good to be here.

CONAN: And you were in seminary when news broke about the scandal there in Boston. I wonder, did it give you a moment's pause?

KIRBY: My goodness, I think any person of goodwill was definitely surprised by the scandal, of course the abuse of minors by priests and of course the lack of response by leadership. So - but I think that through it all, there really is a discernment of, you know, what is the actions of individual people and what is the priesthood.

So for myself, while I was in the seminary, that distinction was very important. You know, I said, well, these are men who have committed horrible acts, but this is not the priesthood.

CONAN: So in the end, after some consideration you decided to continue.

KIRBY: I did, I did. I was ordained in 2007 a priest, and as you were mentioning currently serve as the vicar of vocations. So it's kind of like a recruiter to help other men think about the priesthood.

CONAN: We want to hear from those who have made that consideration in our audience and about the decisions they made, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And John(ph) is on the line with us from Chicago. And John's left us. We'll try to get some other callers up as soon as we can get some calls in. In the meantime, if we go back to Father Jeff Kirby, as you talk to people these days, how much does this series of scandals, I guess we have to call it, how much does that enter their thinking?

KIRBY: Well, I think it's definitely a reality on most people's minds and just in general, in the general population, but also, you know, within the Catholic Church and certainly in the hearts of young men who are thinking about priestly service and the church.

So it's a reality that has and should affect the way that we think and approach the priesthood.

CONAN: Is it simply the question of how could their fellow priests or their future fellow priests do such a thing, how could the church protect them but also how they might come to be regarded by, I guess you'll excuse the expression, civilians?

KIRBY: Absolutely. Myself, I thought of that myself sitting in the seminary. I thought gosh, do I make all these sacrifices and know that there is a possible veil of suspicion in regards to myself or, you know, my desire to help people, serve people? And so I think that is real. And oftentimes it's realizing, well, I know who I am, I know why I desire to serve.

And I think the majority of people who know their local priest or local pastor, they begin to understand what the priesthood truly is.

CONAN: And is - again, this is a crisis. Is it special to be of service in a crisis?

KIRBY: In particular, and in fact as our national numbers have seen a decline, what we are seeing right now as far as entrance to the priesthood, our number is actually going up. In fact some of our highest numbers were right after this scandal in Boston. And I suspect that part of that was, you know, some young men in their church who are thinking do I make this leap, do I say yes to this possible call to the priesthood, and I think as they see bad examples and they see the way that some people view the priesthood, that kind of inspires them, saying you know what, I'm going to take the leap, I know what the priesthood really is, I know what I want to do, and I know the challenge right now that really the entire church has to regain an aspect of trust.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Chris(ph), Chris on the line with us from New York.

CHRIS: Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CHRIS: OK, I just wanted to comment about the, you know, the involvement with everything that was going on. I was actually, I've been a youth mentor for quite some time. And, you know, I had a couple of times in my life where I was, you know, considering becoming a priest, you know, getting into the church a little more.

And at the time, this is going back about 15, 20 years ago, one of my colleagues, it came to light that he was actually an ex-priest. And that was something that was very new. I had no idea that he, you know, was a priest at any time. And he had kind of hinted towards some internal things that were going on within the Catholic Church that were, you know, being swept under the table.

And this was before a lot of the scandals were even brought to light. So it kind of influenced me to dig a little deeper into what was going on. And then a couple years, you know, into knowing this, it actually started coming out that there were all these sexual allegations regarding priests.

CONAN: And was that the only factor that made you reconsider?

CHRIS: No, it was just something that was close to my heart. I had a - there are a lot of factors. I prayed upon it a lot and just, you know, really questioned what was going on, and, you know...

CONAN: And are you still close to the church?

CHRIS: Unfortunately not, you know. I've kind of lost my faith, in a way. You know, I'm not really comfortable with the fact that, you know, these people who were put in charge of many different things and were very close to the community could have had this, you know, inner demon that nobody knew about. And, you know, I didn't want to be a part of that.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is James Martin, a Jesuit priest, editor-at-large for America magazine, also author of "The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life." He joins us now from studios at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Good of you to be with us today.

THE REV. JAMES MARTIN: My pleasure.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about that last caller. There have been a lot of people who question their faith and of course a lot of men who question their - whether they should go into the priesthood as a result of this scandal.

MARTIN: Yeah, it's not surprising. I think that if a person doesn't think seriously about this particular issue, about the sex abuse crisis, before they enter the seminary or religious life, they're - you know, they need to have their head examined, I mean, because it's - I mean, I'd be surprised if somebody didn't know about it, and I also would be surprised if they didn't consider it carefully.

But in my experience, it may slow things down, it may keep some people away, but I always compare it to something like divorce. I mean, you still have people getting married even though the divorce rate is something like 50 percent. Even knowing that, people come into a, you know, into that life knowing that there might be problems.

So for most guys, it might slow them down, but - excuse me, it might slow them down a little bit, but for most guys they'll still enter. So it should be on their mind, but often it doesn't stop them, you know, dead in their tracks.

CONAN: And as you talk to people in and outside of the church, has - you know, there's the local priest, as Jeff Kirby was mentioning. There's also the institution of the church. Do people view those things separately?

MARTIN: It depends on the person. Normally, you know, the people that I spoke with, and, you know, we worked on this issue at America magazine, they'll say that they might be suspicious of the local bishop or the hierarchy, so-called, or the institutional church, but they love, you know, their local pastor, they love Father So-and-So. That's kind of the norm.

On the other hand, you know, you meet people who are in parishes where the pastor has been removed, you know, and so it's even exacerbated. I mean, they feel betrayed, you know, almost on a personal basis. That's much more difficult for people. So it's really been - it's been a real crucifixion for the church, mostly, you know, for the victims above all, but I think there's no Catholic that hasn't felt the sting of this.

CONAN: And then you see the reports again this week from Los Angeles, and here we go again.

MARTIN: Yeah, here we go again. On the other hand, a lot of these - this is not to minimize it in any way. I see it as, you know, a continuation of the same scandal because these are, you know, older cases that are coming up. It's still demoralizing. But I think it also needs to be said that the church has put in incredible amounts of time to making sure this doesn't happen again.

Funny enough, just today I received in the mail yet another background check. We have to have background checks every three years. And so the church has made a lot of steps in the right direction. But it's not a scandal and it's not a problem that's over by any means.

CONAN: Jeff Kirby, some of those changes in terms of background checks and in training for seminarians now.

KIRBY: Oh absolutely, we - definitely, the - when a man - first of all, just his general discernment in regards to a - you know, within a community of faith or Catholic university, and then when he begins the actual application process, which can spend several months, it involves all kinds of aspects of - first of all, an autobiography.

It's always very interesting to see how a person describes himself, and then of course there are all kinds of letters of recommendation from teachers and coaches, and if the man was involved in any type of ministry with vulnerable persons, so children or older folks, then we want to hear from people who are involved in that.

And then of course there's a psychological evaluation, which is an extensive series of batteries that include all kinds of tests for deviant behavior, narcissism and all kinds of things that even 10 years ago we may not have done or done as extensively that we are definitely doing now.

As I sometimes tell people with the applications we're looking for three H's: healthy, happy and someone who is desiring to be holy.

CONAN: We're talking with two Catholic priests today: Jeff Kirby, who you just heard; also Jim Martin, about who wants to become a priest these days amid the scandals that afflict the Catholic Church. If you've considered becoming a Catholic priest, call, tell us what happened. Did you decide to join? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In November of last year, Boston magazine ran a long piece called "Resurrection," which posed a question: What kind of man wants to become a priest? The author of that article, Patrick Doyle, joins us shortly. He profiled Eric Cadin, now Father Eric Cadin, who entered St. John's Seminary in the fall of 2004, just a couple of years after the Boston Globe broke news of the abuse scandal in that city's archdiocese.

Cadin grew up Catholic, as a child thought becoming a priest might be a good idea. He returned to that idea as a college student, experimented with celibacy and began meeting with other men considering the seminary. He enrolled and after a detour through medical school then back to St. John's, graduated and became a priest.

So call, tell us: If you've considered becoming a priest, what did you decide to do? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jeff Kirby, Catholic priest and vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston; and Jim Martin, Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America magazine, are our guests. And let's get another caller in. This is David, David on the line with us from Columbia, Tennessee.

DAVID: Thank you for taking my phone call there.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAVID: OK, I just wanted to make a comment that it's not the priesthood itself or the religion or any of that that causes these bad things to happen. It's the individuals, and, you know, their contagion that affects these individuals. With so many bad things in the world, the explosion in homosexuality, abortion, we need more priests out there to stand firm in their beliefs and, you know, to fight off that temptation and the temptations of other people.

You know, they're the closest thing to God that we've got. They're a conduit to holiness, and we need them. And...

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, David, but it was not just those who committed these terrible crimes. It was the systematic cover-up of those crimes.

DAVID: Well, I understand that, but if you try to get rid of everybody that's come in - I understand it was wrong to do that, but the depths in which it goes could destroy the priesthood itself if it goes too far. And I mean, there may need to be a shake-up, some kind of realignment, you know, to get good priests back - you know, to separate the good priests from the ones who are being, you know, tempted. There may need to be some kind of oversight, you know, something like that where people go in and confront each other on a regular basis or something like that.

CONAN: And are you considering the priesthood?

DAVID: Yeah, I've considered it for a long time now. I'm actually still considering it. And, you know, one or two things that are really stopping me are I have a very short temperament, and I can't help that.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: And, you know, just there's several other procedural things that I just - I haven't been able to apply myself to. But that's mainly the gist of it right there.

CONAN: All right, David, thanks very much for the call. Good luck with that temper.

DAVID: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And he mentioned some of the efforts to clean up the problems as they happened. That has happened nowhere more than in Boston, where this story broke. Patrick Doyle is the executive editor for Boston magazine. He wrote that piece we mentioned called "Resurrection" in the November 2012 issue of Boston magazine. That's a piece that inspired the conversation we're having now. Patrick Doyle joins us now from his office there in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

PATRICK DOYLE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: And you say that in large part the archdiocese of Boston turned this around by essentially hiring a turnaround artist.

DOYLE: They did, they did. You know, Archbishop, now, you know, Cardinal O'Malley has had great success in turning around the archdiocese and he, you know, did it twice before, most recently locally in Fall River, Massachusetts.

CONAN: And in part by, as soon as he took over from the disgraced predecessor, he tried to make a settlement with the victims as soon as possible.

DOYLE: Absolutely, within a few weeks he took, I think, the very smart step of talking with the victims of the crimes and immediately offering a settlement, dropping any arguments that, you know, the church wasn't wrong and looking to move beyond and, you know, kind of create a new chapter, I think, in the Boston archdiocese.

CONAN: And also sold off a lot of church property to pay the settlement fees.

DOYLE: Hundreds of millions of dollars in property, yeah. Most of it went to Boston College, who is expanding their campus quickly.

CONAN: And most of the area right around the seminary among the property sold.

DOYLE: Indeed, it was - they used to call it Little Rome in Boston, these beautiful, old buildings that the seminary owned and the church ran out of, and by selling them, the seminary is kind of this one remaining outpost over there in Newton.

CONAN: And you describe it, as the scandal broke, as a nearly deserted, quiet place. And that's changed.

DOYLE: Absolutely, and, you know, around 2002 when the scandal broke, I think there was about 60 students or so at the seminary, down from a peak of about 400 at mid-century. And, you know, by 2004 it was down to 30. And since then, since, you know, Cardinal O'Malley has made his changes, you know, currently I believe there's 120 students over at the seminary. It's the highest in 20 or 30 years.

CONAN: And we were talking earlier with Jim Martin, who said in a way this is a scandal that is in the past, these are for the most part older allegations that are just coming to light, in part in Los Angeles because lawyers for the church resisted the publication of these documents for so long. But in any case, there in Boston, what is the rate of new allegations, and how does it compare with the past?

DOYLE: The new allegations are pretty low. The vast majority occurred before 1990. And a lot of the changes they've made in the training and selection of seminarians and then actually the training of students and church staff I think has really cut down, you know, on these terrible crimes.

CONAN: Is it fair to say the archdiocese there in Boston has gone a ways in recovering the trust of its - of church members, of the parents and indeed of the victims?

DOYLE: I think that it's going to be a long road, still, to travel. You know, back in the 1960s, around 76 percent of Catholics were going to Mass weekly. In Boston now I believe it's about 16 percent of area Catholics are going to Mass. So there's a lot that they can really improve. And they've got a new marketing campaign. Now I'm not sure how successful it's been, but they really are trying to bring people back to the church.

CONAN: Well, thanks, and it was a really interesting piece, and we thank you for prompting our conversation.

DOYLE: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Patrick Doyle, executive editor for Boston Magazine, with us from his office in Boston. You can find a link to his piece on our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Jeff Kirby, vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston, with us by smartphone from his office there; and James Martin, editor-at-large for America magazine, author of "The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything," with us from Carnegie Hall Studios in New York.

And I wanted to ask you, Jim Martin, we were talking about the Archdiocese of Boston there. How much does it matter, archdiocese to archdiocese, location to location, how the church has responded to this crisis?

MARTIN: Well, I think you have different bishops who initially took it, you know, more seriously than others. I think there was a little bit of resistance at the beginning. But, you know, frankly there are nationwide standards now that everyone has to follow that come from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that has an entire office of what's called Child and Youth Protection.

So I think maybe there are some bishops who might be more sort of open to, say, meeting with victims, those kinds of things, maybe more, you know, proactive. But, you know, there's a kind of baseline that you can't go beneath in terms of as the writer was saying, Mr. Doyle, some of the new standards that are being set forth by the church.

So, you know, and thank God, I mean, because, you know, if we hadn't, you know, taken a look at this and hadn't sort of faced this squarely, I mean, you know, it's a very - it's the only Christian response, basically. But to answer your question, I think there's a baseline, you know, below which no bishop or archbishop can go.

CONAN: And is one of those national standards that allegations of molestation are treated as criminal charges?

MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. Any credible allegation means that the priest, you know, or brother or sister, you know, whoever it might be in the church, or as Father Kirby was saying, a lay worker in the church, is removed, you know, from ministry, you know, until there's an investigation.

So it's really strict. I mean, it's very draconian. And, you know - but I should also point out that other, you know, institutions are also struggling with this, as well. You know, you look at something like Penn State or the BBC. So I think it's an issue that, you know, all institutions are struggling to grapple with, and that the Catholic Church is trying to take the lead on it.

CONAN: Here's an email from Father Jim in Kentucky: Personally, I was raised Roman Catholic and felt called to the priesthood during elementary school. While in Catholic high school, I had some questions and problems with a variety of Catholic dogma and practice, felt drawn to the Episcopal Church after my father joined that church in our neighborhood.

Through all of that, my mentor priests in the Roman Catholic Church were wonderful role models and counselors. Before he died last year, my oldest brother revealed to the family that he'd been abused by the parish priest at our home church. While this is indeed a horrid revelation, it doesn't do much to smear my memories of the wonderful priests I grew up with.

My identity as an Episcopal priest, I find, has always been grounded and formed by my Catholic roots. Let's go next to Sateesh(ph) Sateesh is on the line with us from Dayton.

SATEESH: Yeah. I came to this country in 2000 and I'm originally from India. I came ordained as a priest for five years and that is when - first of all, the September 11th attack happened and I would travel about the country with my collar and I felt safe. And then the child abuse scandal hit, and going on an airplane, wearing of collar then became problematic. I would get stares.

In any case, the reason that I called was because the child abuse crisis was one of the reasons why I stayed back in the United States. I saw the challenge that was going to come. I had a great ministry here at Immaculate Conception Parish in Dayton, Ohio, and I was very close to the children. Then I heard priests stopping interacting with kids, going to the schools to visit with the kids. And I took a different approach. I said I'm going to do everything right. And I stayed back in this country, and I still have a very vibrant ministry in the parish with children and with young people.

But the reason - one of the reasons that I stayed back after my masters and my Ph.D. at the University of Dayton was to, in some way, personally address the challenges that emerged from the crisis. I want to be a better priest. I wanted to do things better than we have done in the past, and it has paid off. I have a fabulous relationship with the parishioners and the kids at school and our youth ministry here in the parish.

And in some way, I think the crisis brought the better, at least, in me. And I know that now we have nationwide standards for all, and we're implementing all these meticulously. I think the church is a much safer place. And if we can, as priests, commit ourselves to our kids and our young people, I think that itself will be a great favor to the church.

CONAN: Sateesh, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

SATEESH: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Jeff Kirby, I wanted to turn to you. Are the young men you're finding or the men you're finding - they're not all young, I suspect. The men finding - that are interested in the priesthood, are they coming from different places than they used to?

KIRBY: Oh, definitely. We are seeing a unique contribution in regards to vocational interest to the priesthood. Two in particular that always seem to stand out and are of interest to people; first, in regards to the amount of converts to the Catholic faith who are now expressing just an amazing interest in the priesthood.

So a lot of times when someone converts, we ask about three to five years that they would live as a Catholic before we really start to talk about the priesthood just to make sure any newness wears off and all. But we see even after those three to five years, an intense interest in the priesthood among converts to the Catholic Church that we just haven't seen in the past.

And then secondly, in regards to first-generation Hispanic young men who are bilingual, which is a tremendous gift, especially in the Southeast, but also just come with a passion and a real desire for service. Many of them having grown up maybe with parents who did not have legal status or see in the community of migrant workers, you know, domestic violence, drug abuse and various things, and say, you know, I want to make a difference. I want to be a part to make this better.

So while we still have our general interest among middle-class young men who are Anglo-Saxon and so on, we are seeing an incredible interest by converts and then this first generation among Hispanics.

CONAN: Jeff Kirby is a vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston. Also with us, Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Nathan's with us from Pensacola.

NATHAN: Hey, how are you guys doing today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

NATHAN: Yeah. I'm a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and as such, you know, we wear similar garb. And I was out, you know, one day with my children, and one day someone made some very upsetting remarks about me being with children. And I had a long conversation with a friend of mine about, you know, should I go out wearing my clericals, should I be seen as a priest. You know, what effect will that end up having on, you know, my reputation on, you know, on my children and so on and so forth.

And a very interesting thing happened shortly after that. I was walking downtown and I was in my clericals and a man came running up to me and just fell down in front of me and started weeping. And he was heading to the bay to go kill himself because his son had died in the war. And he just saw me and just started weeping and confessed to me what he was going to do. And I was able to take him to the hospital. And I realized, if I had allowed my fear to dictate my action, then that man might not be here today.

And so the role of the priesthood in the community is so important and it shouldn't be overshadowed by this atrocity - and it is an atrocity and one that I've spoken out against - and many priests have spoken out against. But, you know, we don't look at police officers in light of just, you know, police brutality, and we don't look in - at teachers as all being, you know, slap you on the hand with a ruler even though, of course, those things have happened and that's why that stereotype exists.

But we need also look at the importance of what the priesthood brings to a community, that they feed the poor, that they take care of the sick, that they visit the elderly and infirmed. And that gets lost, I think, in the shadows.

CONAN: I wanted to read this email, interesting, from the Rev. Carl(ph): I'd like to point out that the scandals of the Catholic Church have reached beyond their priesthood. I'm a Universalist minister. Even I face judgment from people who opine that only pedophilia would drive someone to be a man of faith. This has become an issue to the whole religious community, and our differing faiths need to work together to fix these wounds.

And, Nathan, thank you for that story. It's quite a story.

NATHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to read this email from Mark in Duluth: I'm seriously considering becoming a Jesuit priest. I'm drawn to the priesthood and specifically to the Jesuits because of the work they're doing amongst the poor and education and missions around the world. I'm currently beginning spiritual direction and looking forward to entering the novitiate in the fall of 2015.

Jim Martin, if he does that, what, it's going to be five or six years before he can expect to become ordained.

MARTIN: Longer than that. He - he'll enter the Jesuit novitiate and become a Jesuit the day he enters, but it takes Jesuits about 10 or 11 years before they're ordained. But we're happy to have good men.

CONAN: And that's a long process.

MARTIN: It is a long process, yeah. I joked with a friend of mine. I said I could be a brain surgeon in less time. And he was a physician, actually, a Jesuit physician, and he closed his eyes and thought, and he said, yeah, you're right. You could be a brain surgeon in less time.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for your time, and we're sorry you squandered all that time to become a journalist.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Exactly.

CONAN: James Martin, a Jesuit priest, editor at large for America magazine, a national Catholic weekly, joined us from studios at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Our thanks as well to Jeff Kirby, also a Catholic priest, a vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston. He spent a long time studying for that too. Thank you very much for your time today.

KIRBY: My pleasure.

CONAN: After a short break, we'll get an update on the surprising results in yesterday's elections in Israel. Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular