WASHINGTON — A study said to be the largest national survey of Catholic priests in more than 50 years has found that despite relatively high levels of personal well-being and satisfaction among priests overall, a significant percentage of priests have problems with burnout, mistrust of their bishop, and fear of being falsely accused of misconduct.
Conducted by the Catholic Project, a research group at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the study, released at a press conference on Oct. 19, used responses from a survey of 3,516 priests in 191 dioceses and dioceses in the United States.
The study is also based on in-depth interviews with 100 of these priests and a survey of US bishops, 131 of whom – or about two-thirds of the total – responded.
The study was framed in part in the context of the landmark 2002 rules known as the Dallas Charter, which came in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the US
“Two decades after the implementation of the Dallas Charter, clergy in the United States continue to support its core policies and remain confident in the Church’s effectiveness in protecting the vulnerable,” the report said.
“American Catholic priests continue to demonstrate that they are thriving in their vocations,” it noted. “However, this good news is tempered by worrying indications of burnout among younger priests, a lack of confidence in existing due process protections for priests accused of misconduct, and a corresponding lack of confidence in bishops who have begun to perceived less as fathers and brothers than as administrators.’
A large percentage of priests and bishops surveyed reported high levels of well-being: 77 percent of priests and 81 percent of bishops could be categorized as “thriving” based on a measurement called the Harvard Thriving Index.
“Priestly formation equips priests with regular practices to cultivate intimacy with God and healthy relationships in their community. Such practices contribute significantly to the well-being of priests,” the report noted.
The high levels of well-being found in this study contrast with those of an unrelated recent large survey of priests, released in late 2021, which suggested a more “pessimistic” view of the Catholic Church among American priests today than in 2002. This study found that 72.1% of priests in 2002 said they were “very satisfied” with their life as a priest, falling to 62% saying the same in 2021.
However, the Catholic Project’s findings acknowledge that priests are under pressure.
“Among the very real occupations of priests for satisfaction and satisfaction, in our interviews we found ample evidence of their challenges and stress.” Some of these stressors contribute to burnout in priestly ministry,” the report states.
On the subject of burnout, the report said 45 percent of priests surveyed reported at least one symptom of ministry burnout, unevenly split between diocesan (50 percent) and religious (33 percent) priests. Only 9 percent showed severe burnout, the report said, but the report’s authors cautioned that younger priests were significantly more likely than older priests to experience burnout.
Trust issues with bishops
Turning to the topic of trust, the report states that an average of 49% of diocesan priests as a whole today express trust in their bishop. Levels of trust vary widely among dioceses, and the data show that the level of trust has fallen from 63% in 2001, the year before the sexual abuse crisis, which has included many revelations of bishops mishandling cases of abuse, erupted in the US
“Diocesan priests report significantly lower levels of trust in their bishops than religious priests in their superiors. Trust in America’s bishops is generally low among priests in general, with only 24% expressing confidence in the leadership and decision-making of bishops in general,” the report said.
At Wednesday’s press conference, the researchers said they would not release information about which priests from which dioceses participated, citing confidentiality agreements.
Trust issues between priests and their bishop were associated with an average 11.5% decrease in the priest’s level of well-being. There was also a discrepancy between perceptions of whether bishops would help priests in personal struggles. Ninety-two percent of bishops said they would help a priest with personal struggles “very well,” while only 36 percent of diocesan priests said this about their bishop. In addition, a small majority of priests said they viewed their bishop primarily as an administrator rather than a spiritual father.
Most of the priests surveyed relied on their parishioners and lay friends for support more than their bishop, the report noted.
“The relationship of trust with the bishop is strongly related to every dimension of priests’ well-being … priests who have more trust in their bishops do much better than everyone else,” the report said.
Fears of false accusations
Regarding the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis, 90% of priests see their dioceses as having a strong culture of child safety and protection, and nearly 70% of diocesan priests see the policy as positively demonstrating the Church’s values and important to rebuilding trust in the general public.
At the same time, however, 40% of priests see the “zero tolerance” policy for misconduct as too harsh, and many fear that a single false allegation of sexual abuse could bring them down, the report said. Among the priests surveyed, a large majority – 82% – said they regularly fear false allegations. And many diocesan priests fear being abandoned by their diocese and bishop if they find themselves falsely accused, more than religious priests.
“Living in constant fear of lifelong indictment definitely puts a cloud over the priesthood,” an anonymous diocesan priest told the researchers.
“And frankly, I think most priests have that. Because a charge that ends a life doesn’t have to be based on any reality. You know, it could just come out of someone’s three years of recovered memory, therapy, and have no basis in anything that ever really happened, but you’re still doomed when it happens,” the priest said. “And everyone knows that.”
Some priests have also expressed concern about relatively recent developments in the Church to strengthen protections for “vulnerable adults” as potentially being too broad and leading to a lack of due process for priests accused of misconduct involving vulnerable adults.
“Pursuing the goals of the Dallas Charter to create a safe environment, provide healing, reconciliation and justice for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and hold perpetrators and enablers accountable should not be seen as inconsistent with providing support and due process for the priests,” the report says.
“Justice requires the Church to protect the innocent, including innocent priests,” the report stressed.
Ideas for progress
The priests interviewed by the researchers offered several recommendations for improving priests’ trust in their bishops and superiors.
They recommended that bishops strengthen their ties with priests in a family way, not in an executive or employer way; knowing priests’ names, authentically engaging with priests at social events, and finding ways to interact with priests humbly and in a non-bureaucratic way.
Priests also asked for more open and clear communication on issues such as planning and finances.
“The priests also emphasized the need for transparency about the process of reviewing abuse allegations, ensuring due process, providing more clarity about allegations against priests, and treating accused priests as innocent until proven guilty,” the report said.
Finally, many priests also emphasized the need for bishops to restore trust between priests and laity. Recent cases of Church officials quietly or leniently dealing with allegations of abuse have undermined priests’ confidence in the accountability of their bishops, the report said.