Heal Me, Father

For Dr. Thomas Plante, rooting out a priest likely to commit sex crimes is a lot like stripping away the layers of an all-too-familiar fruit.

"There are many ways to peel an apple," he said. "You slice at it from different angles."

Few have compared priests to the fruit of original sin. But after 14 years of experience working as a psychological counselor for Catholic priests from dioceses around the country, Plante has rare credentials. Chair of the psychology department at Santa Clara University and editor of the book "Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests," he has screened 150 potential priests and nuns for emotional problems when they're applying to take their vows. And he's treated about 50 priests accused of sexual misconduct, including those charged with pedophilia or sexual abuse.

The growing scandal over priest sexual abuse brought American cardinals to the Vatican this week, where they are meeting with the Pope to talk about dealing with the crisis and strategies for preventing abuse.

Handling Priest Sexual Misconduct

During a telephone interview from his home office, Plante said he's not sure how new church policy will change his work. He added that he's worked with numerous dioceses that have handled priest sexual misconduct "quite professionally," adding that his own tests for uncovering sex abuse trouble have been very effective.

"I'm often able to discover things that the church doesn't during its own process of screening," said Plante. "But I don't decide if priests are accepted or not. I say this is who this person is, and the Church decides themselves."

Plante, a practicing Catholic, said the church first approached him in 1988, asking him to evaluate those interested in becoming priests and nuns. He said Catholic dioceses approached him because they liked the idea of having a psychologist who's in the church.

During each psychological evaluation, Plante spends a half-day with a potential priest or nun. He first asks questions about family history, sexual and sexual abuse experiences and educational backgrounds. The second aspect of his testing focuses on questions about religious life, exploring "which of the vows are going to be the hardest to manage."

Plante said that if a priest admits celibacy will be a struggle, it's not automatic cause for concern. Although many church critics view celibacy vows as a cause of sexual abuse, he sees them as separate issues. He believes his clinical, psychological and personality tests, combined with the applicants autobiographical statements and church evaluations, develop a comprehensive view of each applicant.

Deception and Treatment
He has only had a few people who were "deceptive," and said most potential priests he has analyzed were honest and straightforward. And he said applicants are not predisposed to pedophilia.

"Sexual abuse of adolescents occurs in every segment of society," Plante said. "The issue of men committing sex crimes with minors is not unique to the Catholic Church."

For example, his research has found that two to five percent of the country's 600,000 priests, a number which includes retired priests, are sex abusers, compared to about eight percent of the general American male population.

But the percentage of priests who are pedophiles is disputed by Tom Economus, executive director of The Linkup, a national organization for victims of clergy sexual abuse. He has argued that six to 16 percent of priests are pedophiles.

"The Christian clergy ends up being a safe dating service for pedophiles," Economus wrote on his group's website.

Plante declined to discuss specific priests' cases because of confidentiality agreements, but said religious superiors from various dioceses usually call to arrange therapy sessions for their priests.

His counseling is sometimes only a one-time session, but said he has worked with "severe cases" for years. He has referred others to Saint Luke Institute, a Maryland-based in-patient facility for troubled priests that has a specialized program for sexual abusers.

"They get an intensive treatment there that is psychological, spiritual, biological," he said. "St. Luke's really does a bang-up job. This is assuming the priests aren't in jail."

Plante has also counseled priests struggling with alcoholism and depression, and others who have broken celibacy vows during relationships with consenting adults. But the most controversial aspect of Plante's and other priest therapists' work seems to be the process of counseling sessions with sexually abusive priests, or those suspected of pedophilia.

Victims and Survivors of Abuse

Ray, a San Jose, Calif.-based member of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the Church's handling of sexual abusive priests has alienated him from Catholicism. Ray asked that his last name not be used, but talked openly about the priest who molested him while he was a teen -- before attempting to molest his younger brother.

"Everybody says that they're sick, it's a disease," Ray said. "But I don't think you can cure these guys."

Ray, who is now in his mid-40s, said the secrecy and denial of the Church allowed priests to continue abuse, sometimes for years.

"It doesn't go with anything they teach at the pulpit -- chastity and celibacy," he said. "Then they go out and fornicate with children. Can you cure a mass murderer? No, you got to lock him away."

Ray said that in his case the offending priest refused lie detector tests, then was investigated and defrocked. Ray was given a settlement payment, but added that he spent years coping with post-traumatic stress. He feels the church should have offered him counseling, rather than trying "to buy my silence."

Terrie Light, director of the Northwest Coast Regional Office of SNAP, said taking years to recover from clergy sexual abuse is very common. Light, who was raped by a priest when she was 7 years old, said going inside a church could trigger flashbacks.

"Some survivors get horrible post-traumatic stress syndrome when they are surrounded by crucifixes, stained glass, and Roman collars," she said. "It signifies danger."

Light said knowing that sexually abusive priests have been counseled, and then transferred to another church, can worsen survivors' fears -- and further alienate them from Catholicism. She has been working with Diocese of Oakland Chancellor Sister Barbara Flannery, who is currently setting up a ministry for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

Helping Those 'Hurting'

Plante has counseled survivors too, and said he is concerned about their trauma. He said he would contact the police if he believed children to be at risk after a counseling session with a priest (as required by California law), but has never had to because by the time he gets involved, lawyers and law enforcement have already been contacted.

But he has counseled priests whom he evaluated when they were applying for the job. Still he said he refuses to condemn all accused priests, adding that his studies show, statistically, 20 percent of claims of sexual abuse against priests are untrue.

"Some people come in and say they're having sex with the Pope," Plante said. "Or with Napoleon. You wouldn't immediately call the police -- you have to make some assessment."

Plante, who is currently working on a book about ethics titled "Do the Right Thing," admits that he has won some enemies among some clergy abuse survivor advocacy groups. But he says he needs to stay focused on his role as a counselor, for both survivors and those accused of abuse.

"My job is to help people who are hurting," he said.

Mary Spicuzza writes frequently for AlterNet and has been published in Newsday, East Bay Express, Metro San Jose and Metro Santa Cruz. She is currently pursuing her master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

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