CSA: Screening Applicants to the Priesthood

CSA is childhood sexual abuse. The issue affects every institution that deals with children: schools, athletic and recreational organizations, healthcare systems, religions, and families. This series of articles addresses different aspects of the problem. The author, Ronald L. Conte Jr., worked with many victims of sexual abuse for 2 years on 2 hospital psychiatric units, one for teens, the other for younger children. About 75% of the population on those units were patients specifically because of psychological problems caused by CSA.

The Issue of Screening

Can the problem of the abuse of children and teens by priests be ameliorated by better screening of applicants to the priesthood or religious life? It’s easy to answer with a “Yes, let’s have better screening!” But what is better screening? It is naïve to think that any screening process can identify who will and will not abuse children, when they eventually become a priest.

I’ve met dozens of abusers. The treatment team would often suspect that a child or teen’s behavior problems were caused by CSA. Family members were allowed on the units for supervised visits. The staff would observe and chart on family interactions. Eventually, quite often, we would find out that the abuser was one of the family members who had visited. No one on the treatment team — psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, psychiatric nurses, childcare workers — could tell which family member, if any, was abusing any particular child. Sometimes the abuser would be a likeable well-spoken professional person, with seemingly good interactions with his own family and with the staff. Family members, upon learning who the abuser was, would often express surprise or incredulity.

You can’t tell who is and is not an abuser, even if the person is a family member, coworker, fellow student, or fellow priest, and neither can experts in psychology. We cannot know until there is some type of proof, such as an admission by the victim or a discovery by a third party.

Screening processes do not identify current or future abusers. A psychologist who interviews and gives psychological tests to applicants does not report which persons are future abusers and which are not. It’s more a question of the psychological health of the applicant, and any possible issues regarding sexuality. So when a diocese or religious order screens out some applicants, they are mostly screening out persons who would not have become abusers. In fact, there is no empirical evidence that screening works to diminish the number of priests who abuse children. It seems a reasonable hypothesis that persons who have serious psychological problems are more likely to become abusers. But that hypothesis also cannot be true in all cases.

Persons who abuse children are guilty of a crime; they are guilty of a grave sin. They are choosing a behavior which every mentally competent reasonable person knows is gravely immoral and contrary to law as well as societal mores. And they choose the behavior nonetheless. Are sins and crimes only committed by persons who are mentally ill or psychologically unhealthy? Would that not imply that the commission of the crime or sin lacks culpability? In other words, are all abusers of children “not guilty by reason of” serious psychological problems?

I would say, “No. They are culpable.” The abusers I’ve met have generally been persons with no mental illness known to the psychiatrists, psychologists, and family therapist. And this suggests that not all abusers can be detected or predicted by psychological interview and testing. There may be no substantial psychological problem to detect. Another issue is that the applicant for the seminary might not be an abuser yet. They might develop into an abuser later.

In one case on the psych unit where I worked, a patient claimed she was raped by her father, became pregnant, and was forced to get an abortion by him. The father denied all this. The patient was taken to the State Police for a polygraph test (upon court order). The testing showed she was telling the truth. Then the father took a polygraph test, and he also passed. (I believed the daughter.) You can’t always detect an abuser by interview or testing.

So there is a limit to what screening can do. You cannot simply choose “better” screening. The choice is whether to screen out more applicants or fewer applicants. And when you choose to screen out more, you are choosing to prevent some men from becoming good and holy priests, in order to increase the chances that you will screen out more abusers. The real question is: “How many good and holy men are you willing to screen out, in order to also screen out some abusers?” And since abusers are a small and in all likelihood single-digit percentage of priests, you have to screen out more non-abusers than abusers. And that ratio is not low. For every 100 applicants denied a vocation, only a few would have become an abuser. The reason is that screening does not detect abusers, but merely factors related to psychological problems.

And mental health is a matter of degrees. None of us fallen sinners are entirely perfect in mental health. We all have issues, baggage, psychological weaknesses, and emotional problems, to one degree or another. So the testing and interview process is not distinguishing between bad apples and good apples, but between degrees of fitness for a particular role in society and in the Church. And the field of psychology is not really designed to recognize that latter type of fitness (i.e. for roles in the Church).

Secular measures of psychological health are not necessarily indicative of holiness. Psychologically healthy persons still commit sins. If all sin was the result of mental illness, no one would be culpable. And a holy person might have some degree of psychological issues. I’ve worked with hundreds of teens and children who were placed on an inpatient locked psychiatric hospital unit. They had emotional and mental problems, of varying degrees and types, yet many were wonderful human beings. Of course, a person with a severe psychological problem should not be admitted to the priesthood. But admitting only persons who test well and interview well — from the point of view of psychology — is not an indication of who will be holy and faithful as a priest.

Good persons, who would make good priests, might not do well on psychological testing. And some abusers will pass psychological testing with flying colors. Screening out more applicants will not screen out all current abusers, and cannot screen out most future abusers. Many persons abuse children, not because they have a psychological problem, but because they choose to do so.

Screening has the problem of false positives, persons screened out who would have been good priests, and false negatives, persons who were screened in, who turn out to be abusers later on. A “better” screening process is most likely to take the form of more stringent screening, with more persons screened out. This ensures that many potential good vocations are extinguished. It also is a near certitude that most persons screened out would not have become abusers. And it is nearly as certain that among those screened out, very few would have become abusers.

Should gay men be screened out of the seminary and priesthood?

An adult who sexually abuses children is a pedophile. However, the term pedophile is also used more narrowly for persons who are solely or mainly sexually attracted to children. Most abusers are not pedophiles in the narrow sense. The most common abuser is the situational generalist, an adult heterosexual male who abuses boys and/or girls, despite his natural attraction to adult women.

The percentage of child abusers who have a homosexual orientation is about 1 to 3%. So screening out gay men, merely for being gay, does not screen out many abusers. A gay person, by definition, is not a pedophile in the narrow sense of the word. A small percentage of gay men could be generalists, that is, an adult with a sexual attraction to other adults, but who nevertheless abuses children. But few abusers are gay men and fewer are gay women.

Most child abusers are heterosexual men. The percent of women who abuse children (as a percentage of all child abusers) is probably in the single digits. I can think of about a half dozen female abusers that we identified when I was working child psych. I worked with about 200 or so victims. But we did not identify every perpetrator in every suspected case of child abuse.

If the Church ordained women, would the percentage of ordained persons who abuse children decrease? It might, since women are less commonly abusers of children. However, many cases of women teachers abusing students have been reported in the media. There is certainly a (strange) media bias, preferring to cover stories where a female teacher abuses. But more than a few such cases are known.

In addition, the role of an ordained person may be one of the factors that influences certain persons to become abusers. Some candidates to the seminary do not become abusers until years after they become priests. Something about that role, for some persons, leads them to abuse children. It may be, in part, because they are automatically seen as holy, no matter what they do or say. It may be, in part, because many priests live a solitary life. They are surrounded by persons, very few of whom, if any, really know them as individuals. This mask of holiness and solitary life may tempt some persons to choose an ever more sinful set of behaviors, since there is no social interaction that leads them away from a path of sinfulness, and they are seen as holy regardless of their hidden behaviors. Thus, when some persons are screened out, they might never become abusers. And when some persons are screened in, they are not in any sense an abuser, yet.

What percentage of priests who abuse children were not abusers when they were applicants to the seminary? Perhaps it is a large percentage. It’s easy to imagine that an abuser is a bad apple, somehow rotten from childhood. But that idea is contrary to Scripture and Catholic teaching. All the angels were holy before they were put to the test and some fell away, to become devils. Some good persons become bad persons, due to some new temptation. We are good or bad depending on our choices in life; it is not set in stone from childhood, nor from young adulthood.

Some good priests fall into greater and greater sin, eventually to the point of committing one type of grave sexual sin or another. Screening cannot detect good and holy persons who will later fall to temptation and become child abusers — or become sinful in some other way. This is not a case of a false negative. The screening may properly indicate that the applicant is a good candidate. And yet he becomes an abuser later on.


The question is not, “Should we do better at screening applicants to the priesthood?” but rather, “How many good vocations are we willing to throw away, in order to screen out a few more potential abusers?” I suggest that screening be used only to screen out clearly unfit candidates, so that fewer persons are screened out, rather than more. This approach will let through the screening process many more good future priests, and a few more abusers — who should be detected later on, when they actually show clear indications they are unfit or corrupt. Using psychological screening as a crystal ball, to try to screen out most or all abusers, will do more harm than good. It will screen out too many good candidates for each potential abuser, and it relies too much on one point in time.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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10 Responses to CSA: Screening Applicants to the Priesthood

  1. Thomas Mazanec says:

    We cannot know until there is some type of proof, such as an admission by the victim or a discovery by a third party.

    Admission by the victim? Anyone can accuse. Don’t you mean by the victimizer?

    And is media bias in favor of reporting female abusers, or male?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Children rarely make false accusations. I’m speaking from my experience working with children and teens. As for adults, the rate of false accusations is still quite low. Media have a bias toward stories with female teachers as abusers. Abuser, not victimizer.

  2. King Robert the Bruce says:

    Ron do you think God judges repentant sexual deviants harshly like us humans do I am wondering why is the Catholic church plagued by this sexual abuse problem much worse than any other denomination is this the smoke of Satan that was prophesised years ago it does seem supernatural the way it has engulfed Catholicism.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Repentant persons are forgiven by God, with temporal punishment due (as for any sins). God is more harsh with sins against religion than sexual sins. I don’t know that it is worse. Too much is made of that one comment on the smoke of Satan. Abuse is an ongoing problem in society generally.

  3. DAS says:

    In the past, nuns would live together in a convent. Assuming a priest comes from a “good Catholic family” (generally, a fruitful one), then it should be perfectly natural for him to live in community, like the order priests do. Except for a rural priest, it seems to me living in isolation is both unnatural and unnecessary.

  4. Sunimal Fernando says:

    Your back pain? Pray for others specially corona virus. Put something in your site. Then believe, no pain to you.

  5. Thomas Mazanec says:

    If all sin was the result of mental illness, no one would be culpable.

    How can ANY sin be inculpable by reason on mental illness? A defect in the brain cannot affect the soul, which is immaterial.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Paranoid schizophrenics, for example, might have delusions or hallucinations which remove culpability for their decisions. Sin is a deliberate knowing immoral choice. The soul is the form of the body, such that the brain and the soul are working together. A mental illness might also reduce culpability, to a degree. This issue of reduced culpability is explained in the CCC.

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