BY Ryan McDougall | October 25 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Priests reflect on the burdens of abuse crisis and lasting trauma

Ryan McDougall interviews author Fr Barry O'Sullivan, who looks at the difficulties for parishes and priests who cope with the fallout from scandal in the Church.

While the scandal of abuse in the Church has rightly focussed on the suffering of victims, another group impacted by the crimes of criminal clergy are the parishes and priests left behind to deal with the fallout.

Many priests feel disheartened due to the horrific crimes committed by those who were supposed to have shared in the same mission.

With last year’s scandal over Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in the United States, good priests around the world have become the object of unfounded criticism from those angry at the scandals within the Church.

Pope’s letter

In August, Pope Francis’ wrote a letter to more than 400,000 priests worldwide in solidarity with those often treated with contempt, suspicion or ridicule as a result of the scandal.

“I want to say a word to each of you who, often without fanfare and at personal cost, amid weariness, infirmity and sorrow, carry out your mission of service to God and to your people,” he wrote.

He added that ‘despite the hardships of the journey, you are writing the finest pages of priestly life.’

The sentiment in the Pope’s letter is echoed in Fr Barry O’Sullivan’s book, The Burden of Betrayal: Non-Offending Priests and the Clergy Child Sexual Abuse Scandals.


Fr O’Sullivan, a priest of Salford Diocese, England, is a qualified counsellor, and interviewed several of his fellow clergymen as part of a study that ultimately became the main focus of the book.

In the book, he reveals the damage felt by the clergymen and other professionals dealing with the fallout from the abuse crisis.

“The victims themselves have absolute priority, of course,” Fr O’Sullivan said. “The secondary victims though are families, the parish, the Catholic community and the priests who hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Fr O’Sullivan, ordained in 1987, is a leading proponent of child safeguarding in England and Wales, having spent a decade as the Salford Diocesan Child Protection coordinator.

In his book, in which the priests interviewed are given pseudonyms, he reveals their biggest fears included others’ perception of them, stating they felt horrified and overwhelmed by stories of the abuse crisis.


He also revealed that the priests experienced a grief and loss of their identities, a loss of confidence in the Church, a fear of being subject to false allegations themselves and a sense of betrayal by priests who abused minors and from Church authorities.

“The other theses listed in the book include existential angst, trauma and disillusionment,” Fr O’Sullivan said.

“But it ends with tenacity and loyalty, as all the priests I met with said it didn’t affect their Faith.

“The whole premise of the book is to have a conversation about the crisis. Everyone is worried about it but nobody talks about it.”

Fr O’Sullivan praised the Pope’s recent letter to priests.

“It’s certainly a shot in the arm and was a good thing to do for parish priests. I thought it was a really pastoral thing for him to do,” he said.


Fr O’Sullivan was inspired to write his book in part by his time as a prison chaplain from 1995-1999, where he worked as a group facilitator in the Sex Offender Treatment Programme.

He said his book ‘gives [non-offending clergy] a voice, taking readers inside their world, while retaining dignity and respect for the children who suffered. He added: “It’s a book for the clergy, for the wider Church and even for policy makers and law enforcement.

“Some of our brother priests have committed unthinkable crimes, for which they should be justly dealt with—and it’s a culture within the Church which stains everyone, no matter how faithful they are to God and the word of the law. It’s something we need to discuss.”

Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton praised the book’s engagement with a difficult issue many would rather avoid discussing.

“This is a very attractive and well-researched book on safeguarding which should be very popular with the clergy and with the wider Church,” he said.


Mgr Stephen J Rossetti PhD of the Catholic University of America, added that it ‘highlights the rippling waves of trauma in the tragedy of child sexual abuse.’

Mgr Rossetti, like Fr O’Sullivan, reiterated that the child must always be the first concern, adding: “But closely following the victim’s trauma is the pain of the family, and then all those closely connected.

“This includes the parish where the abuse occurred, especially if the perpetrator is a priest.

“Fr O’Sullivan has convincingly demonstrated the profound effects even upon non-offending priests; feelings of betrayal, fear, shame and grief are not uncommon.”


Asked if he believes the book can bring hope to the priests affected second-hand, he said: “Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Bishops of dioceses in which abuse occurs also suffer from the same feelings of shame and guilt as priests, Fr O’Sullivan said.

He reflected on a conference where bishops met with victims of abuse.

“Victims and survivors said to the bishops, ‘we’re not here to condemn you, but here to tell you where you got it wrong,’” he said.

“The bishops were quite anxious about meeting them, but I said, ‘this is a great conversation and is much needed,’ as we had to have the bishops and victims in the same room.”

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