HAWORTH, N.J. — A New Jersey priest is providing a rare, intensive look inside a Roman Catholic priesthood tarred and shaken by the child-sex-abuse scandals.
The crisis didn’t just harm victims and test the faith of believers, asserts the Rev. Stephen Fichter, pastor of Sacred Heart parish. It also affected priests innocent of any wrongdoing.
Some priests were angered at diocesan leaders for their lack of action, and others felt shame for the church and for themselves as its representatives. There was paranoia they could be accused falsely, and many said the incidents made them wary of interactions with congregants, especially kids. Some even stopped wearing their collars in public for fear of heckling.
Those are among the findings of the recently published book, “Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II,” (Liturgical Press 2012), in which Fichter and co-authors explored changes in the priesthood over the past 40 years through interviews with hundreds of priests nationwide.
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“I felt great pain. It was terribly hurtful. … It’s like losing a member of the family,” one interviewed priest said in the book. “One accused priest in my order had been my confessor and spiritual director. There was a lot of pain hearing what was being said about him and others.”
Fichter, who has a doctorate in sociology and does research for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said, “We knew we couldn’t stick our head in the sand and pretend it didn’t happen. We recognized what a horrific tragedy it was.
“The weekend the news came out about the scandal in Boston in 2002, I tried to deliver a homily in church and I broke down and cried. We realized that what we were trying to address was a tragedy. … But in our book, we try to look at how it affected the good priests — the 99.9 percent who never molested a child — what was it like for them, who maybe knew the guy and served in the same church and thought he was a good guy and then found out he was fondling an altar boy.”
Fichter himself could relate to the sense of betrayal and mourning: “I found out a guy I was friends with was a monster,” he said. “It absolutely shatters you.”
James Davidson, professor emeritus in the sociology of religion at Purdue University, called Fichter’s findings “an important book” and said “the reason the book is going to get a lot of coverage is because it’s got some of the best data out there on today’s priests. It’s got a longitudinal look out there dating back to the 1970s and gives us a sense of how they are different from priests 40 years ago.”
And Davidson agreed that the child-sex scandals “continue to haunt the American Catholic Church. The fact that there has been such an episode seems beyond belief. … The priests have been as troubled by it as anybody. It’s been their colleagues who have been entangled in this episode. It affects their sense of who they are and the careers that they have dedicated themselves to. … As a result, everybody is looking for answers and wanting to look at implications of this whole mess.”
Another topic in the book is the graying of the American priesthood. In 1970, the average age of a priest was 35 and now it’s 63, said Fichter, 44. As a result of a shortage of Americans going into the priesthood, many bishops have turned to other lands. That multiculturalism brought with it blessings as well as challenges, Fichter said. “In some dioceses, the majority of priests were born outside the U.S.”
Davidson called the demographic information one of the book’s most important findings. But he also notes indications that even with their increasing average age and dealing with a growing Catholic population, “it’s remarkable that they are as satisfied with their ministries as they are, considering the conditions that they are working under.”
Fichter’s own calling came gradually. He grew up in Tenafly, N.J., graduated from Bergen Catholic High School as salutatorian and received an Air Force ROTC scholarship. He planned on college. And when his best friend told him he wanted to join the priesthood, Fichter talked him out of it: “I told him he was crazy and asked why he’d want to waste his life.”
But after high school, he left church one morning and an elderly woman placed a Miraculous Medal in his hand, saying: “When you are a priest one day, I want you to give this to someone.” Fichter had no idea he’d be a fit in the priesthood, but the incident got him thinking. And while hitchhiking through Ireland in 1986, he encountered many types of clergy that further inspired him.
One night he prayed for divine guidance. The next day, as he walked on a beach, he met a nun, who told him she saw the “priestly vocation” in his eyes. Several weeks later, he was in a car that flipped. As it crashed in a ditch, Fichter vowed that if he came out alive, he would become a priest. Everyone survived, and he stuck to that vow.
Now at Sacred Heart, Fichter said the best part of the priesthood is being there for the big moments in peoples’ lives: “People share their difficulties and struggles, and you help them work through a crisis. But you also share happy moments with them, like at baptisms. You become part of their family.“
On a given Saturday, he might conduct a funeral at 10 a.m. and then during the afternoon preside over a wedding, hear confessions and celebrate Mass. “Dealing with people in this way is a beautiful career or, as we call it in the church, a vocation,” he said.
His biggest sacrifice, he conceded, is not being able to marry and have children of his own. But that, he said, is part of the compact. “Every good priest I know has struggled with this.”
Apparently, many colleagues also have similarly made their peace: Amid all the recent turmoil, priests reported being content.
“One might think that all these older guys who have more work and are spread so thin (sometimes in several parishes) would be burnt out and unhappy,” he said. But he found just the opposite.
“Does this vocation have its share of trials and difficulties? Without a doubt,” he said. “As a priest, you’re never really ‘off duty.’ Even on my days off, I always keep my cellphone handy in case someone needs me.”