Addressing the Crisis of Psychological Abuse by Julie A. Ferraro

This is a story about a priest who believed he could get away with behaving badly, and has, to date, done just that.

His quote, “As long as I’m not caught in bed with a woman, or a man, or looking at porn on a computer, nothing will happen,” sums up his attitude.

For obvious reasons, the name of the priest—and the victim who reported him—will be omitted. This priest is a Franciscan friar (OFM). His provincial superior did nothing to assist the victim when she first reported the horrendous psychological, emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse inflicted upon her in 2016, and her repeated efforts to have this sort of abuse recognized as equally damaging as clergy sex abuse have been discounted and dismissed.

Even the submission of a 27-page log detailing the priest’s treatment—not just of the reporting victim, but of others—to the religious superiors (up to and including Rome) and the local bishop have left her dealing with PTSD on her own. This priest has been reelected to a leadership role, almost as a way to confirm the friars’ disbelief of the victim’s reports.

There are others who have been abused in this way by priests. Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) acknowledges as much. When this victim sought assistance from that organization, however, they claimed to be able to do nothing.

How many voices must cry out in pain from being mentally tortured, confused, insulted, and mistreated before the church, and the people who supposedly advocate for victims, press for action? When will they realize that this manner of abuse is just as harmful as sexual abuse?

Most recently, with six provinces of OFMs merging into one province—officially in October 2023—this victim contacted the friar who has been appointed the new provincial by the Franciscans’ General Definitory in Rome. He forwarded her email to the new victim-assistance coordinator, who emailed the victim requesting more information.

Once this coordinator read the log, however, her response was the same as others’: “I realize that there isn’t much more that I can offer, being that it’s outside the realm of sexual abuse.”

Come on, really?

While more and more dioceses file for bankruptcy protection because they “can’t afford” the cost of the hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits filed against credibly accused priests, shortchanging and negating the pain of victims whose lives have been permanently disrupted because of abuse that was ignored for decades, psychological and emotional types of abuse are swept under the rug entirely, as if they don’t exist or even merit notice.

Victims are left to doubt their faith, leave the church, engage in self-destructive behaviors, or deal with PTSD unaided, even considering suicide, because their cries are not heard.

The church is so wrapped up in the possibility that its reputation will be sullied by priests who have been convicted of abuse and sentenced to jail, or that bishops are being forced to acknowledge their supposedly righteous ordained minions are not the saints they pretend to be, that they close their eyes to the broad spectrum of abuse that continues to take place.

Case in point: Marko Rupnik, the former Jesuit who was expelled from the Society of Jesus after countless reports of abuse. Even Pope Francis has been implicated in allowing this predator to repeat his offenses time and again without censure or removal, because he is a “great artist” with pieces in many famous churches, and his victims were adult women. Even now, he remains a priest, not that any diocese would accept him for a ministry position.

Adult or child, when a priest considers himself superior to the laity, able to speak or behave with impunity, disregarding complaints sent to his bishop or religious superior because he is aware that “nothing will happen” and those complaints will disappear, never be placed in his record, shredded, and so forth, then the laity need to rise up—without waiting for the results of the upcoming Synod on Synodality—and refuse to contribute their hard-earned money, stage protests outside diocesan and religious community offices, and demand that all forms of abuse be recognized and dealt with as Jesus would have done.

Unless that happens, the confidence of the laity in anything the church does will continue to falter, and the downward spiral of numbers in the pews will accelerate until recovery will not be possible.

Abuse by priests—in any shape or form—must not be tolerated by any church authority! ♦

Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Idaho. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.

Image: Grant Whitty / Unsplash

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