Trading on the attractiveness of Christ
Trading on the attractiveness of Christ
Fr Simon Blakesley discusses a priestly problem
One aspect of the clergy abuse crisis that has not received sufficient attention is the chronic misuse of the charisms and opportunities of priestly ministry which is a facet of most clergy abuse cases. Although there is no guarantee that a priest who is ordained for service in the church will be an attractive person in the physical sense, there are many elements of how a priest’s personality is put at the service of his ministry that invariably lead to an inter-twining of his own positive human qualities and those that he enjoys when acting in persona Christi. From time to time a priest may have ‘film-star’ good looks; one priest of my acquaintance was dubbed “Father What-a-Waste” by some of the ladies of the parish. What is said here of priests must necessarily be all the more true of bishops or cardinals.
It was when I was watching the recent documentary about Michael Jackson ‘Leaving Neverland’ that I realised just how engaging a human being can be when his whole persona has become everything and overwhelms the normal criteria of human judgement. In some senses one doesn’t expect a child to have this sense of emotional distance, but their parents and other adults surely should. In the Michael Jackson case, his grooming of the parents was almost more intricate than that of grooming their children. This was also very much the case with Jimmy Saville and his modus operandi; and although one might say that priests are not ‘media personalities’ yet there is an expectation that a priest will use his own set of charismatic gifts in the service of his ministry. There was a phase in ministerial formation in my own seminary at Ushaw in the 1980’s when thebroadcaster Terry Wogan was held up as an example of being a ‘fantastic communicator’. Priests, particularly when they are tempted to play at being ‘larger than life’ characters, tend to attract a kind of ‘cult status’. I am for Paul, I am for Apollos, I am for Cephas; there is nothing new under the sun.
In an article in Faith magazine in 1992 entitled ‘The Liturgy Vacuum’, criticising some aspects of how our current liturgy is celebrated, Andrew Nash drew parallels between the role of the celebrant in our current liturgies and that of the ‘anchor-man’ in current affairs or news programmes. He pointed out that this person is always ‘on your side’, someone you would always trust, and is above all unfailingly nice. Does this actually place limits on how a priest can then expect to interact with his people? In a recent book God is Not Nice dominance of what I call the culture of “Cosy-God PLC”. This theme was also addressed quite presciently by Arnold Lunn and Garth Lean in their 1965 book The Cult of Softness.
A distorted expectation
There seems to have developed a general presumption that priests are expected to be unfailingly warm and compassionate human beings, always revealing the gentleness and mercy of Christ. This is indeed a foundational aspect of priestly ministry, but it can lead to a distorted expectation whereby Father is always going to be ‘lovely’ about anything that is run past him in the everyday business of parish life. Being a ‘good priest’ all too easily becomes a popularity contest. The Father Ted episode with ‘The Golden Cleric’ hit a nerve here. However, even a cursory reading of the Gospels will tell us that the Lord Jesus had a wide variety of responses within his emotional orchestra, and sometimes the bass notes of chastisement and challenge were very much to the fore. Perhaps one shouldn’t even dare mention St. John the Baptist.
There can be, however, and often are, situations where the priest’s very attractiveness in persona Christi becomes unhealthily dominant, and the ‘loveliness’ of the priest becomes a cover for the initial stages of what we now refer to as grooming. A priest who was very much influential in the formation of my vocation was once criticised for being “Too much of a father-figure…” and his response was to say “I believe in being a Father-figure, God the Father started it all anyway…”. However, I can imagine that today even he would, with sadness, question whether the ‘master-disciple’ relationship is at all possible given the safeguarding principles that we are now bound to implement in parish and pastoral life. The Lord Jesus did indeed form his disciples, but we must be able to discern those elements of forming young people, whether towards religious life and ministry or not, that are acceptable and those that are inherently dangerous.
Many young people as they struggle to integrate their faith and sexuality are massively ambivalent about their image and their own self-worth. To be thought of as somehow ‘special’ or different by a significant adult can become hugely important and a driver of addictive behaviours and structures. In safeguarding protocols there is consistent advice for priests and teachers to avoid giving signs of favouritism, and this surely is just professional horse-sense that must be generations old. In many parish situations, however, such basic good sense can be conveniently ignored, and now that it is often young girls who stay on as teenagers to be the experienced core of altar servers there can be occasions for dangerous favouritisms to develop. This can be further exacerbated by someone, male or female, being seen as a ‘troubled soul’, often from a broken home, in need of priestly advice and counsel, whether this is within the sacramental forum or not.
A basic healthy distance
In most ‘Youth Club’ ‘Diocesan Youth-gathers’ or similar set-ups today the laity are quite rightly involved in leadership roles, and the priest (or better several priests) may be an invited and welcome guest at their events whether these are sacramental or otherwise, but a basic healthy distance should be maintained. This, sadly, is not always the case, and the advent of social media has become a potential snare as a priest may or may not deal appropriately with ‘friend requests’ etc. and this can lead to different levels of inappropriateness in messages (their timing - late at night - and content) and shared images. It has become another considerable platform and vector for grooming that can lead to disastrous results, although in its initial stages it is not a visible reality unless a third party is monitoring mobile phone or e-mail messages.
In all of this, a young person who is aware that Father is meant to be celibate and chaste, even though they may not necessarily have those words to describe his situation, will be excited to think that ‘he has acted differently towards me…’. This aspect of being tempted to taste of the ‘forbidden fruit’ is a perennial facet of human emotional and sexual relationships, and the sense of being ‘the one’ for whom ‘Father has broken the rules’ is a powerful driver of feeling ‘really special’. This can then, with a clear power imbalance, develop more or less quickly into serious boundary violations that all can recognise as being unprofessional, mortally sinful and mutually damaging in the longer term.
There are some chronic dangers when priests are relatively wealthy (compared to most students), have a decent car and some flexibility about days off and holidays. Priests tend to socialise easily around alcohol and can engineer times when they are going to be alone in their presbyteries. In addition to the ordinary priestly qualities, some have musical, culinary or other talents that give them a Pied Piper quality, and these are used, even subconsciously, as part of the grooming process. Younger clergy are often quite sophisticated in their tastes and interests, and this forms a part of their attractiveness. It may also be true of boundary transgressive relationships for priests (or for other professionals who trade on their status in general) that they might fall into a physical relationship with a much more attractive partner than would otherwise be the case on a level playing field.
At the service of Christ
Any priest, particularly when he is alone in a parish, can develop into being regarded as ‘The Special One’, a term famously coined by José Mourhino. However, the social and emotional dynamics or expectations that accompany such a role will be familiar to many parish priests whether they welcome such attention or not. In a time when the church is struggling for priests, the more dynamic and charismatic any priest is, the more welcome he may be, but there are always co-terminous dangers. The personality of any and every priest must be put at the service of Christ, and he should seek to reveal every facet of the Lord’s own personality, both his attractiveness but also his call to hear and live the truth. Above all, the Lord has a searing desire for justice and for the true care of all of our vulnerable young people.
The Lord’s own love
It is just too easy for a priest, and perhaps a fortiori for a bishop or a cardinal, to use the warmth of the Lord’s own love, of which he is but an unworthy minister, to ingratiate himself with a young person and their close family. He may often, consciously or not, take up the role of the absent or weak father and then callously abuse the trust with which he has been accepted and the real-time needs of the family to violate boundaries of behaviour and emotional attachment that should remain intact. A priest must not trade, to his own emotional advantage, on the attractiveness of Christ.
Fr. Simon Blakesley is a prest of the Diocese of East Anglia. He is a trained canon lawyer and has processed several cases for imposed laicisation to be heard in Rome. He also advises his own Diocesan Safeguarding Commission on matters of canonical process.