I have an hypothesis that partially explains why some priests fall into grave sins, whether the sins are lust or greed or whatever else. I call it the Mask of Holiness.
Many priests are Christians of ordinary even mediocre holiness. They sometimes fall into mortal sin, and then repent. They have lukewarm faith. They have doubts and some disbeliefs concerning Church teaching. But they are in the state of grace, and they are relatively faithful to their role in the Church.
However, their parishioners think of them as being holier than they are. They consider the priest to be more faithful, more wise, more everything than is the case. And so the priest ends up wearing a mask of holiness, really more imposed on him by the expectations and misperceptions of others, than of his own making.
Living for a long time behind that mask, the priest realizes that he can sin many times, even gravely, and there is no change in the way that he is treated. The mask protects him. He is anonymous in his sins. His spiritual life can fall into an utter shambles, and no one notices. His sinning can increase progressively, with no negative repercussions from persons who surround him.
And this process can reach such an extreme, that the priest begins embezzling money from the parish, or has an affair with a woman, or begins to sexually abuse kids or teens. And the mask holds up. He remains hidden behind the mask. And if he is accused, the mask protects him. Very many persons will not believe the accusation. He can get away with more and more sins, without consequences.
Now this is only part of the problem of the priest abuse crisis. I stand by my earlier remarks on the difference between homosexual priests and abuser priests. But the whole explanation cannot be that we keep choosing abusers to become priests. Something is causing priests to fall into grave sin while they are in the priesthood.
Another part of the problem may be the loneliness of the job. And it may be that the priest shortage takes away from the priest the former comradery that was present when there were many priests. It is certainly also true that sinful secular society tempts the priest toward sexual sins. So there are many factors. This idea of the mask of holiness does seem to me to be a substantial part of the problem.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian