US Catholic priests describe turmoil amid sex abuse crisis

In this Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019 photo, Rev. William Tourigny, 66, pastor of St. Rose de Lima Parish, in Chicopee, Mass., arranges vestments while preparing to offer Mass at the Catholic church. When Tourigny was ordained in 1980, the Springfield diocese had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have shrunk by more than half and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed. For Tourigny, it’s meant many more funerals to handle, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy drinking.

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More than a century ago, waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland and Quebec settled in Chicopee and other western Massachusetts mill towns, helping build churches, rectories and schools to accommodate their faith. Today the priests leading those churches are under siege due to stresses, challenges and sex abuse scandals complicating their lives and those of their fellow priests across the United States.

The Rev. Mark Stelzer is among those trying to persevere. He’s a professor at a Roman Catholic college in Chicopee, and its chaplain. He travels frequently to out-of-state events organized by a Catholic addiction-treatment provider, recounting his own recovery from alcoholism.

Last year, his busy schedule got busier. Amid a worsening shortage of priests, the Diocese of Springfield named him administrator of a parish in Holyoke, Chicopee’s northern neighbor, where he lives alone in a mansion-sized rectory while serving as spiritual leader to the 500 families of St. Jerome’s Church.

“I’m at an age where I thought I’d be doing less rather than doing more,” said Stelzer, 62.

Stelzer loves being a priest, yet he’s frank about the ever-evolving stresses of his vocation that leave him nostalgic for the priesthood he entered in 1983.

“It was a lot simpler then,” he said. “There’s a real longing, a mourning for the church that was — when there was a greater fraternity among priests, and the church was not facing these scandals that are now emerging every day.”

Stelzer’s concerns echoed those of other priests, and some of their psychological caregivers, who were interviewed by The Associated Press.

Weighing on the entire Catholic clergy in the U.S. is the ripple effect of their church’s long-running crisis arising from sex abuse committed by priests. It’s caused many honorable priests to sense an erosion of public support and to question the leadership of some of their bishops. That dismay is often compounded by increased workloads due to the priest shortage, and increased isolation as multi-priest parishes grow scarce. They see trauma firsthand. Some priests minister in parishes wracked by gun violence; others preside frequently over funerals of drug-overdose victims.

One such victim was a 31-year-old woman whose family was among Stelzer’s closest friends. “This is one of the few times I actually felt my voice quivering,” he said of the funeral service he led last year.

Burnout has been a perennial problem for clergy of many faiths. But Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at California’s Santa Clara University who has screened or treated hundreds of Catholic clerics, sees new forms of it as the sex abuse crisis persists and many parishioners lose trust in Catholic leadership.

“You’re just trying to be a good priest and now everyone thinks you’re a sex offender,” he said. “If you walk in a park with your collar on, people think you’re on the lookout for children. … Some have been spat upon.”

The Springfield diocese, like many across the U.S., has a long history of sex-abuse scandals. In the early 1990s, priest Richard Lavigne was defrocked and several of his victims received cash settlements. In 2004, a grand jury indicted Thomas Dupre on two counts of child molestation soon after he resigned following a 13-year stint as Springfield’s bishop.

Stelzer had hoped the abuse crisis was abating but it resurfaced dramatically over the past two years. Abuse allegations led to former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s ouster from the priesthood and a Pennsylvania grand jury report asserted that about 300 priests had abused at least 1,000 children in the state over seven decades.

“It opened up an old wound, and now we’re back to ground zero,” Stelzer said in an interview at the College of Our Lady of the Elms.

In this Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019 photo, Rev. Mark Stelzer, center, administrator of St. Jerome’s Parish, in Holyoke, Mass., puts on vestments before offering Mass at the Catholic church, in Holyoke. Stelzer, who is also a professor and chaplain at College of Our Lady of the Elms, in Chicopee, Mass., lives alone in the rectory at St. Jerome’s while serving as spiritual leader to the 500 families in the parish.

The wound is self-inflicted, said Rev. Philip Schmitter, 74, who has served for 50 years in Flint, Michigan. His stance endears him to an African American community where he lived in public housing for three decades to maintain close ties.

“This cover up, this ‘Let’s protect the institution’ was just a heinous, utterly unchristian kind of behavior,” he said.

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Two miles north of Stelzer’s campus, on a recent Sunday, the Rev. William Tourigny was getting ready for the 4 p.m. Mass — his fourth and last of the day — at Ste. Rose de Lima Church.

When Tourigny, now 66, was ordained in 1980, the Springfield diocese had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have shrunk by more than half and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed. For Tourigny, it’s meant many more funerals to handle, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy drinking.

Even his own family has been scarred: Tourigny says the 27-year-old daughter of his first cousin was killed in circumstances he describes as fueled by her drug habit.

“But for her addiction, she was a wonderful mother,” Tourigny said.

Tourigny says he’s worked nearly 40 years without a real vacation. For years, he’s had therapy sessions, which he describes as “crucially important,” and he strives to minister compassionately without being engulfed in the emotions of those he consoles.

“I can share their pain but I can’t enter into it,” he said. “I’d be overwhelmed by grief.”

With 2,500 families, many of Polish and French Canadian descent, Tourigny’s parish has fared better with membership and finances than several nearby parishes. Yet Tourigny says many Catholics now mistrust the church hierarchy because of the flawed response to the abuse scandals.

“I was ordained at a time when the church was so alive — there was so much optimism,” he said. “Then things began to change quickly. It has changed the way people look at us. The church has lost credibility and it’s hard to get credibility back again.”

Plante, the California psychologist, says even priests deeply devoted to their work are upset.

“A lot are angry at bishops and the institutional church for screwing up — a lot of them feel they’ve been thrown under the bus,” he said. “They’re also concerned that one of these days someone will accuse them of misbehavior, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re asking, ‘Did I do something 30 years ago that could be misconstrued, that will come back and haunt me?’”

The Rev. Stephen Fichter, pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey, said he has counseled people who’ve been abused by Catholic clergy and understands the “pain and horror” they experienced. Yet he voiced concerns on behalf of priests with unblemished careers who feel vulnerable to unwarranted suspicions.

“Sometimes a priest is confronted by an anonymous accusation from 30 or 40 years ago, and doesn’t have a chance to defend himself,” Fichter said. “It used to be innocent until proven guilty. Now a lot of priests feel it’s been turned upside down.”

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Mark Stelzer proudly identifies himself as an alumnus of Guest House, a residential facility in Michigan that has specialized in addiction treatment for Catholic clergy since 1956. He travels frequently to make presentations on behalf of Guest House, and teaches a course at his Chicopee college titled “Addiction and Recovery.”

By the time he was ordained, Stelzer says, he was consuming alcohol daily. Only after five more years of steady drinking did acquaintances suggest he had a problem, leading to his stay at Guest House.

Guest House’s president, Jeff Henrich, is an experienced drug and alcohol counselor. He says substance abuse among priests is a longstanding problem but has been aggravated by recent developments — including the “residual shame” arising from the sex-abuse scandals and increased isolation as more priests now manage parishes on their own.

Since 1985, according to researchers at Georgetown University, the Catholic population in the U.S. has risen by nearly 20%, but the number of priests has plunged from more than 57,000 to under 37,000.

“There’s fewer of them and more work to do,” Henrich said. “That means you’re far more likely to live alone than ever before — and very few of us were meant to live alone.”

In response, treatment experts urge priests in recovery to find companionship in a support group and to form friendships outside their ministry.

Stelzer agrees that isolation raises the risks of substance abuse.

“We’re lone rangers,” he said. “Substance abuse might go undetected for longer when you’re living alone. A lot of those in treatment now say it was because of isolation, working harder and longer, and not feeling support from leadership.”

The harmful consequences of the priest shortage have come to the attention of the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Addressing U.S. bishops in November, he urged them to be attentive to their priests’ health, spiritual well-being and sense of priestly fraternity.

“Many priests are saying they no longer know one another,” Pierre said. “Others, due to the priest shortage, are forced to live in isolation, managing multiple parishes.”

Stress, burnout, depression and addictions are among the conditions treated at St. Luke Institute, a residential treatment center for Catholic clergy and lay leaders, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

St. Luke’s president, the Rev. David Songy, is a psychologist who has worked extensively with troubled priests. One growing problem, he says, is that new priests are now often assigned their own parish within three years, instead of 10 or more in the past, and may be ill-prepared to oversee finances and personnel as well as pastoral duties.

“Some of the younger people that come to us — they’ve been overwhelmed and weren’t sure how to deal with things,” Songy said.

Other stressful changes relate to ideological differences. Tourigny considers himself a progressive and has welcomed lesbian couples into Ste. Rita. He says many young priests now emerging from seminary are less tolerant of LGBTQ congregants and eager to revive the tradition of celebrating Mass in Latin.

Another change noted by several priests: Some parishioners, rather than showing deference to their pastors, openly challenge them.

“In the past they might have disagreed, but they’d be courteous. Now it’s different,” said Fichter. “They think you are not Republican enough or Democratic enough depending on which end of the political spectrum they occupy. … They want you to preach what they want to hear, and they will confront you.”

At St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York — just north of New York City — there’s increased emphasis on screening applicants for their ability to handle stress and avoid the burnout that’s now affecting some priests even early in their ministry.

“There’s no doubt these men coming forward are facing what will be a very stressful life,” said the Rev. Thomas Berg, the seminary’s vice rector. “We must be sure they have the skill set or will be able to develop it.”

“On top of that, in some places, you don’t have a sense that their bishop supports them,” added Berg. “In plenty of dioceses, priests are essentially treated as outside contractors — there’s a lack of a genuinely caring relationship.”

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Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are collectively labeled first responders. Henrich, the Guest House president, says priests also merit that label.

“They see trauma and loss on a very regular basis,” he said. “They get called out to hospitals, deal with grieving families, with lost and dead children.”

Gun violence is the plague besetting the Rev. Mike Pfleger’s parish in an African American area of Chicago.

“It’s a war zone,” says Pfleger, an outspoken pastor at Saint Sabina Church since 1981. “Doing funerals of children is the hardest for me.”

The violence has ripple effects: He says parents of slain young people go through divorce, mental breakdowns, addiction.

“It becomes overwhelming when it’s day in and day out, and you don’t have the resources to meet the needs,” he said.

Now 70, Pfleger says his health is good, and his work rewarding. Yet he says he and his colleagues risk being overwhelmed by the crises facing their neighborhood of Auburn Gresham.

“I was seeing myself becoming depressed, after several violent deaths in a short span,” he said. “I needed to make sure I talked to somebody.

“Last year I didn’t take any days off — I realized that was a big mistake,” he added. “It’s important to have people around you to say, ‘Are you OK?’”

In Brunswick, Ohio, a town of 34,000 people 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland, the Rev. Robert Stec’s priorities have been transformed, due to the scourge of opioids, since he became pastor of St. Ambrose Church in 2005.

In 2016, Brunswick’s Medina County reported 20 opioid-related deaths. Stec presided over six funerals of those victims in a short span. While sharing parishioners’ grief, Stec resolved to combat the opioid epidemic and founded a multifaith coalition of northeast Ohio religious leaders.

Stec is grateful that Brunswick has better-than-average mental health services. But he and his fellow priests in drug-ravaged towns still employ a triage policy, seeking help for the most dire cases, because they can’t provide comprehensive support to every affected parishioner.

“We weren’t trained for this in the seminary,” he said.

Still the priests treasure their jobs despite the challenges. Mark Stelzer holds onto his role as a comforter. “For a lot of people, I’m the last person they saw while they were still alive,” he said. “There’s an energy and grace in those moments.”

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Years after ‘date-rape drug’ conviction, Peoria diocese priest is again removed from ministry

The Rev. Jeffrey Windy, 31, a priest from Peru, Ill., leaves U.S. District Court on Jan. 29, 2002. He later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture the date-rape drug gamma-hydroxybutyrate, also known as GHB.

By David Heinzmann

When the pastor of Ottawa’s Catholic parishes announced in March that his assistant, the Rev. Jeffrey Windy, was being removed from ministry, the abrupt and mysterious departure came as a shock to people who had grown to like the young priest over the last nine months.

To others, the brief notice of the removal in the local newspaper brought a different kind of shock — that Windy had been serving as a priest at all.

He was, after all, an ex-con who had been arrested while assigned to a different parish in 2002 and served time in federal prison for manufacturing and selling gamma-hydroxybutyrate, more commonly known as GHB, or the date-rape drug.

Despite Windy’s criminal past, the bishop in Peoria had decided in 2013 to return Windy to parish work, first in Bloomington and then in Ottawa, just a few minutes from Windy’s hometown of Peru. Now he was being removed from ministry again — and the church wasn’t saying why.

People in the central Illinois towns of Ottawa, LaSalle-Peru and a handful of smaller communities that hug the banks of the Illinois River were left to wonder what had happened.

In fact, the explanation does not fit neatly into the usual narrative of priest misconduct. Late last winter, Windy’s superiors in Peoria learned that Windy had involved himself in a criminal court case, paying a visit to an 82-year-old crime victim along with the father of the woman who had robbed her. That man later would be charged with attempted harassment of the victim.

Windy’s role in the matter drew the attention of Ottawa police, who eventually showed up at church to question both the priest and his boss, the Rev. David Kipfer.

Within a few days, Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky removed Windy from ministry, setting off a scramble among the priest’s supporters in Ottawa. At the request of a lawyer who is helping Windy, the LaSalle County state’s attorney and at least one other lawyer involved in the case wrote letters to Jenky explaining that the priest was not facing criminal charges. But the bishop has not changed his mind.

Windy declined to comment on his situation, but the prominent Ottawa-area lawyer advising him — former LaSalle County State’s Attorney Gary Peterlin — said the diocese is seeking to remove Windy from the priesthood permanently. Peterlin said the priest has done nothing that would justify removing him from ministry.

Jenky’s vicar general, Monsignor James Kruse, confirmed that Jenky has filed a canon law case in Rome seeking further action on Windy’s status. The fact that Windy did not seek the counsel of superiors in Peoria before involving himself in the criminal case, nor immediately report the police interview to the chancery, showed Windy had not overcome “a pattern of imprudence” that had marred his behavior for years, Kruse said.

Jenky “was immediately unnerved by the fact that he did not know about it,” Kruse said.

The bishop’s position is a turnaround from a decade ago, when Jenky repeatedly supported Windy’s efforts to win early termination of his parole. Jenky twice supported efforts to move Windy out of the Peoria Diocese so he could re-enter ministry away from central Illinois, where the “negative implications” of his date-rape drug conviction would be less of an issue, according to federal court records.

At a time when the public spotlight is again fixed on how the Catholic clergy deals with misconduct in its ranks, Windy’s case raises questions about how, when and with what oversight the church decides to return troubled priests to ministry, regardless of the nature of their transgressions.

“It’s amazing he was put back in,” said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, a Boston-based advocacy group that has tracked the Catholic hierarchy’s record in dealing with priest misconduct. The fact that Windy has now been removed again “does seem to indicate that the diocese had not thought it through.”

Kruse said years of thought went into the decision to give Windy another chance after his conviction and drug-related problems.

“There was a probationary period to see if he was in a position to reintegrate into ministry,” Kruse said. Ultimately, diocesan officials felt as though Windy deserved compassion and had earned a chance. No one had ever alleged sexual misconduct of any kind, Kruse noted, and “with his addiction … it was something that had been overcome.”

The Peoria Diocese initially declined to comment to the Tribune, maintaining that the situation was a private personnel matter. Jenky agreed to allow Kruse to respond after the Tribune said the newspaper was going to write about the case regardless, based on documents and lawyers’ statements.
‘A terrible mistake’

In early 2002, Windy was a 31-year-old pastor running two parishes in tiny farming towns an hour north of Peoria. Young and athletic, he was popular with parishioners and often seen lifting weights in the garage of the parish house. That image was shattered when Windy was arrested in late January 2002 on federal drug charges.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Iowa alleged that Windy and five men from the Quad Cities had been manufacturing and selling GHB. Windy ordered chemicals and used church property to mix the drug, according to federal prosecutors.

At the time of their arrest, Windy and his codefendants said they were using the drug primarily as a bodybuilding supplement. However, the science underlying its purported muscle-building qualities is dubious at best, experts said.

“Is it legit? No,” said Mark Rasenick, a professor of physiology, biophysics and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It is the fabric of urban legend. When you take GHB — it’s sedating. If you sleep well, you make more human growth hormone. And bodybuilders are known to inject human growth hormone. None of this has ever been proven to work.”

During his sentencing hearing, Windy acknowledged that he was addicted to the drug, which produces feelings of euphoria and relaxation as well as drowsiness. As Windy began to read a statement asking the judge for leniency, he broke down crying and asked his attorney to read what he had written, according to a transcript of the hearing.

“I know I have made a terrible mistake in using drugs and in purchasing the chemicals for the manufacturing of the same,” Windy wrote. “I have shamed my family, my parish, my brother priests and the lives that I have touched.”

The judge sentenced Windy to 70 months in federal prison, citing abuse of a position of trust as an aggravating factor. The priest spent four years in prison and was released on Dec. 12, 2006, according to court records. He then was subject to an additional three years of mandatory supervised release, the federal version of parole. Church officials said he underwent further counseling and evaluation.

In summer 2008, Windy began to ask the court to end his parole early so he could serve as a priest outside Illinois, first as a military chaplain and then, when that did not come to pass, as a parish priest in Brooklyn, N.Y. In a series of motions, his lawyer noted that the church was in need of his services because of “a worldwide shortage of priests.”

The motions acknowledged that “since his release from custody, his superiors have been reluctant to assign him to public pastoral duties, so as to avoid the negative implications associated with this pending case.” The court filings also stated that Bishop Jenky supported Windy’s efforts to rejoin active ministry elsewhere.

The Brooklyn appointment fell through “at the last minute,” Kruse said, when Windy “demonstrated some point of imprudence. It had to do with some things on his Facebook page.”

Kruse did not explain further. Windy’s Facebook posts over the years have mixed pastoral and religious messages with selfies from vacations and restaurants, often with a cocktail in hand.

Windy did not rejoin active ministry until he was placed in a Bloomington parish in 2013.

He served there for four years before transferring to Ottawa in June 2017 to serve three combined parishes — St. Patrick’s, St. Columba and St. Francis of Assisi — close to his hometown of Peru. In Ottawa he reconnected with old friends and relatives and gained supporters who liked his homilies and outgoing demeanor. But while Windy was getting settled, the trouble that would eventually reach him was growing.
‘No, he’s done’

A year ago, in October 2017, a 33-year-old woman named Deanna Rowley told an elderly couple outside an Ottawa steakhouse that she would open the door for them, according to police. As the 82-year-old woman passed by, Rowley grabbed her purse and tried to run. The woman struggled with her, and Rowley grabbed a wallet from the bag, jumped into her van and drove off.

Rowley eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery of an elderly person and hoped to be placed in a drug treatment program. However, prosecutors were seeking a 12-year prison sentence.

This is where Windy entered the picture.

Rowley’s lawyer, Matthew Mueller, wanted to appeal to the elderly victim to make a statement supporting leniency, according to a letter he later wrote to Jenky in support of Windy. However, Mueller was concerned about reaching out directly for fear of intimidating the woman, he wrote.

Mueller relayed his concerns to Rowley’s father, Gary, the letter said. A few days later, Windy called Mueller to say that Gary Rowley, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s, had contacted him about the matter. The priest also asked “if it was illegal or even frowned upon” for him to reach out to the victim, according to the letter.

Mueller assured him it was common practice for a defense team to seek the support of the victim. According to Peterlin, Windy then went to see the victim at her home and Gary Rowley went with him, in a separate car.

The elder Rowley has a significant criminal history. Among his previous cases was a 2009 conviction for unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. He also had been charged with a felony for allegedly assaulting a pregnant woman.

After Windy talked to the elderly woman and introduced her to Gary Rowley, she called Mueller and, as the lawyer relayed in his letter, “indicated she did want to talk to me about the case and that she understood I was Deanna Rowley’s attorney. She expressed many good things about Father Windy.”

On Feb. 23, Gary Rowley was arrested and charged with felony attempted harassment of a witness, according to a statement from the Ottawa Police Department. “Rowley is accused of taking a substantial step in contacting a victim in a pending legal proceeding, being the robbery case of his daughter Deanna Rowley, with the intent to harass or annoy the victim,” it said.

Rowley’s attempted harassment case, as well as his felony assault charge, are scheduled for trial in January, prosecutors said.

As police investigated the allegations against Rowley, they questioned both Windy and the pastor, Kipfer.

LaSalle County State’s Attorney Karen Donnelly, whose office prosecuted Deanna Rowley, said she received a phone call from the Peoria Diocese’s top lawyer, Patricia Gibson, after the priests were questioned, asking if she was going to press charges.

Donnelly said she told Gibson “there was not enough to justify charges.” Only Gary Rowley would be charged with trying to intimidate the elderly woman, she said.

Windy was removed from ministry anyway. As parishioners mounted an effort to help him, Peterlin approached Donnelly and asked if she would state her position on the case in a letter to the bishop, Donnelly said. She ended up writing a second letter after the first had no effect on Windy’s status.

“Father Jeffrey J. Windy has never been considered for possible arrest in regard to his interaction with the victim,” Donnelly wrote in the second letter, dated April 28. “At no time was this office asked to pursue charges against Father Windy.”

Cathy Ciszweski, a retired nurse who attends St. Francis of Assisi parish, wrote a stern letter to the editor of the local paper in which she addressed Jenky directly, asking: “You have chosen to crucify Rev. Windy for what may I ask?”

She pledged to withhold her annual donation to the diocese until the bishop reinstates Windy. “He is a very good priest, in spite of what happened to him years ago,” she said in an interview. “I feel that he’s used that experience to be helpful.”

Kruse said the letters from Donnelly and others were beside the point.

“The fundamental reason Father Windy was removed was because of his tremendous lack of pastoral prudence in that he didn’t first contact the diocese when he first became involved in the Rowley case,” Kruse said. “That’s the reason the bishop said, ‘No, he’s done. He’s out.’”

Peterlin said he objects to the way the diocese keeps leaning on that one term.

“They can make their decision, but they should not be arbitrary decisions,” Peterlin said. “To come up with this ‘imprudent’ … that’s a judgment call. What I can see is that we’ve got some real overkill here on the part of the diocese.”

Kruse said that the day after the bishop learned of the police interview “we met with Windy and talked with him about the conversation with the police, and talked about all of the details.

“In general, let’s say he confirmed everything, and he said, with some sadness and distress, ‘Yes, I was very imprudent.’”

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The hidden world of addiction and recovery among women religious

When Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick was struggling with alcohol addiction in the late 1970s, there weren’t a lot of options for Catholic women religious.

“There was nothing for sisters,” Merrick said.

The then-28-year-old middle school teacher spent three months at Alina Lodge, a treatment center in Blairstown, New Jersey.

“People didn’t expect me to have issues with God or issues as a woman,” said Merrick, now executive director of the women’s program at Guest House, a residential treatment facility in Lake Orion, Michigan, for priests and religious.

She was hesitant to share her innermost thoughts with the laywomen in the program at Alina Lodge.

“It did help me, but there were areas like my spirituality and my sexuality that I didn’t feel comfortable mentioning because no one expected me to need to discuss these areas,” Merrick said.

Public accounts of mental health disorders and addictions among women religious have been rare, as have details of treatment and recovery. That may in part be because of the pervasive shame those illnesses can elicit, as well as a historical tendency for those who struggle with them to be directed only to spend more time in solitary prayer.

That is changing as knowledge and attitudes about mental illness evolve. Though difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it’s become clearer over time that addiction and mental health disorders are pegged to a combination of factors, including chemical imbalances and possibly brain abnormalities. Some individuals have also experienced grief and depression as they watch their communities cope with declining numbers and aging membership.

There’s “still such a strong stigma in mental health,” said Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, CEO at Southdown, a treatment center in Holland Landing, Ontario, that now is open to men and women in Christian ministry. “It’s in part the belief system that ‘If I’m helping people, I can’t be weak.’ It’s embarrassment and probably shame.”

For a time, she said, “most of our facilities, us included, kept a low profile to protect the people we have. [But] more and more of us are saying that doesn’t counteract the stigma.”

Overlooked and underserved

This newer sensibility has led to a quiet revolution in mental health care tailored to the needs of women.

“When we started our program, it was clear that women religious tend to be underserved by the medical community,” said  Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a priest and psychologist who headed the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, and now teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Women were trained not to take care of their own needs, not to complain and to look after everyone else … especially women religious.”

Changes in how the church now approaches mental health issues among its own can be traced back about 70 years (though well before the clergy sex abuse crisis became public knowledge), when Catholic religious congregations became more rigorous in the way they approached vocational discernment.

“Others supported Ripley’s pursuit but eventually favored a center that would serve ‘all professionals,’ ” Gardner said. “Ripley’s insistence on a priests-only facility removed him from the venture, but he continued to pursue his mission to open a Guest House for alcoholic priests.”

The Guest House program for clergy and men religious was launched in the 1950s, and a program for women on the Lake Orion campus opened in the 1990s. (Hazelden, founded in 1949 and with 17 locations in the country, was an early resource for women religious and other people of faith.)

Sister Frances (not her real name), then a schoolteacher, arrived at Guest House more than a decade ago because her provincial leader told her she needed to get help. Frances is now part of a different community.

During her nine months at Guest House, Frances said, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Previously treated for depression and part of a 12-step program, Frances said that when she arrived, she was “not very far from drinking again because of the difficulties I was having, whether they were my moods or my relationships. That confused me: Why was I being sent to a treatment center?”

Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, right, with staff at Southdown

Part of the reason Frances spent such a long time at Guest House was the challenge of weaning her off the medications she’d been prescribed and finding a new treatment baseline, said Merrick, head of the women’s program there who has stayed in touch with Frances.

At the end of her treatment, Frances had discovered, as she grew to trust the staff and her companions, that “I was lovable. I’m able to love and be loved because I’m Frances.”

Mental health screening for candidates considering religious life wasn’t generally practiced before the 1960s, says Georgetown University medical ethicist and research scholar Daniel Sulmasy, who spent more than 25 years as a Franciscan friar. “People who were very quiet and talked about seeing angels were considered mystics and moved along in the system. Only after taking vows were they considered mentally ill and sent to places like state mental hospitals.”

Vatican II: questioning convention

The reforms that came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s were a watershed moment for Catholic sisters. They modified their dress, pursued professional degrees, went out to eat, and applied for their own credit cards. But for those who might have a mental disorder or a suppressed addiction problem, the new freedoms brought potential danger as well as opportunity.

It was a time when many who had embraced religious vocations in a top-down, highly controlled structure actually became adults, says Southdown’s Heiderscheit. Some left religious life to get married or because they determined it wasn’t for them.

Many stayed, but some struggled with the transition, she said: “People who had entered religious life at a very young age in communities with a controlling, authoritative style didn’t trust their judgment as adults.”

While this story focuses on women, men religious and clergy grapple with the same issues.

“When you look at the pathology rate around the world, including the United States, we see that women and men are similar, but they also have psychological and spiritual differences,” Rossetti said.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, a 1988 graduate of the Guest House program, is candid about his sobriety — but he doesn’t parade it. That’s because of his belief, he said, that the journey away from addiction “isn’t my recovery, and isn’t my achievement. It’s a gift from God. I’m gratefully testifying to what I’ve been given. But I also think that AA and other 12-step programs have a very healthy suspicion of [self-] promotion.”

Rates of depression are higher for women, who are more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Rossetti said, while men have higher rates of sociopathy and malignant narcissism.

Treatment protocols for women also differ, he said. When the women’s program at St. Luke began three decades ago, Rossetti turned to the women in management, both members of religious orders and laypeople, for help. “It was very different, with a greater emphasis on group work and treating pathologies more prevalent in women as well as time for communal prayer and Scripture.”

While women were very supportive of each other, sometimes they needed to be able to challenge one another and learn to use their anger in a positive way, he said. The St. Luke program integrates single- and mixed-gender sessions, Rossetti said.

A network for addicted sisters

Sr. Mary Gene Kinney, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, co-directs the Inter-Congregational Addictions Program, which helps congregations in 31 states and the province of Ontario intervene, find treatment resources and support aftercare for chemically dependent sisters.

A piano teacher and, later, a music therapist, Kinney, who would use the money she made to buy booze for herself, recalled that parishioners at the time were “delighted to give you a bottle” of liquor as a gift.

In the early 1970s, when Kinney was seeking help for her addiction to alcohol, “it was treated in the mental health field and not as the brain disease it is,” she said.

Though she saw mental health professionals, she didn’t make progress. Instead, she became hooked on medication. While a stint at Hazelden was helpful, she said, “I couldn’t sustain it. I was too intellectual for AA. I couldn’t picture myself in it. I didn’t want anyone to know I had this awful disease.”

Kinney applauds the creation of specialized programs for women, saying they do better in community-based settings. When she and program co-founder Sr. Letitia Close began their work in the 1970s, the main addictions for sisters were alcohol and prescription drugs. Eventually, their network expanded to include eating disorders.

Left: Srs. Letitia Close and Mary Gene McKinney, co-founders of the Inter-Congregational Addictions Program. Right: Sr. Mary Gene McKinney gives a presentation.

Now, sisters in the support system are grappling with shopping, spending, gambling and hoarding. Looking ahead, Kinney said, “We haven’t yet seen the full-blown effect of the internet on the brain.”

She said she and Close launched their network in part to counter the isolation that can come with fighting an addiction. They gave their first workshop in a convent infirmary, concerned that older sisters would think their subject matter was scandalous. As it turned out, she said, most of their seniors knew someone who had died of alcoholism.

“Like anything else, the more a substance becomes accessible, the more the addiction shows up, but it’s still always there.” She tells of a contemplative sister she knows who said she never bought alcohol for herself — but fermented it in her cell.

While they didn’t focus specifically on mental health, many women’s congregations have long emphasized a proactive approach to overall wellness, Heiderscheit said.

A battery of psychological tests has been a pre-entrance requirement for more than 40 years among the Adrian Dominicans, says Sr. Patricia Siemen, the congregational prioress. In the year she’s been in leadership, she’s taken part in two mental-health-related interventions in her 641-woman community.

After meeting Merrick at a conference last year, Siemen attended one of the Guest House “Walking with the Wounded” seminars for sisters in leadership.

“One of the things we hope to do as congregational leaders is to open up the topic of addiction and educate our women. It could happen to any of us, depending on our DNA,” she said.

Merrick and other Guest House staff work closely with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, attend professional meetings to publicize their work, and are invited to give workshops around the country.

At Guest House, many female residents are treated for addictions like alcohol or overeating. Men are more likely to be abusing drugs such as heroin and cocaine or becoming enmeshed in sex addiction, Merrick said.

The treatment center and congregation jointly work out ways to make care possible.

“We run $2 million in the hole each year,” Merrick said. “We take care of it by doing fundraisers and through donations. Somehow, God provides.”

A typical Guest House stay includes individual therapy once a week, group meetings four times weekly, and a spirituality group, as well as informal time with other sisters.

“I look for balance being restored in a person’s life,” Merrick said. “Some of the best therapy happens after the staff goes home.”

Facilities for the Guest House female clients include private suites, a dining hall and their own chapel.

Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick sits at the Guest House exhibit booth at the 2017 Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly, held Aug. 8-11 in Orlando, Florida.

When a sister is ready to return home, a Guest House staff member helps reintegrate her back into her community by doing a workshop focused on the disorder or addiction, Merrick said. Sisters may return to the center every three to six months for a week’s refresher.

Now provincial superior for the Sisters of Notre Dame, Sr. Mary Anncarla Costello was the vicar for religious for the Los Angeles Archdiocese when she heard about the Guest House program. When she became leader of her community, she attended an introductory seminar with other team members and has referred sisters to the treatment center.

“One of the unique things about Guest House is that it provides care and support with an understanding of the religious life,” including prayer and access to the daily liturgy, Costello said. “We talk about being holy sisters, brothers and priests, but we also want to be whole.”

The long view

Religious communities can face a more general mental-health challenge as vocations ebb and friends, many advanced in age, get sick or die. Since she became congregational prioress last year, Siemen said, 41 members of her order have died.

“Women’s congregations are dealing with a tremendous amount of loss,” she said, including the end of a ministry, death or departure of sister colleagues and friends, and depletion of energy. If they aren’t doing the necessary work of grieving or are doing it alone, their depression is liable to increase, she said. “We know that grief is better accomplished together and not as a solitary.”

Heiderscheit says the sadness runs deep and has myriad causes.

“There’s always a debate over whether it’s depression or anger that we have shoved underground into depression about our future,” she said.

But somehow, the work will continue, she said. “The charism will be passed on to somebody else. We need to be gracious and gentle women and let it go.”

While loss may cast a shadow on their lives, women religious continue to rely on spiritual and communal resources, mining the latest insights from science.

Levo now consults on well-being and how to promote it, within both congregations and individuals. “What does that look like across the board: physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally? This is a personal journey, but it’s also a social and a communal journey.”

Tobin takes the long view. It’s worth remembering, he said, that priests and religious are emerging from an “anomalous” period in religious life in the United States — one that in the 19th and 20th centuries saw a surge of vocations. A sense of loss (he said he feels it sometimes himself when he visits fellow religious in a medical center and sees the “great men of my generation so weak and feeble”) can lead to diminishment and depression, or it can result in a greater sense of divine care and providence.

Though there has been an “ebb and flow, religious life will always be a part of the church,” he said.

Others who have spent decades as counselors, administrators and researchers also see reason to be encouraged.

The use of psychological testing and other screenings, as well as extensive time in formation before taking vows, has resulted in priests and sisters who are often healthier than the general population, Rossetti said. Living in community, helping others and embracing the discipline of spiritual practice all promote sound living, he said.

“As women move toward equal standing [in society], then they can be more proactive about dealing with their mental health. People are beginning to realize that women have a right to be helped when they need it.”

Heiderscheit said she sees a positive trend in the work that goes on at Southdown.

“A lot of what’s turning the tide are the new things we are learning about addiction and mental health,” she said.

“My part is to help other women religious be healthy and well; then I think I’m doing what God wants me to do in this part of my life.”

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