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“Ask a Priest: What to Do When Priests Are Scandalous?”
Q: This might be a controversial question, but I am quite sure that I am not the only one with this question. How do we navigate the hierarchy of moral authority in the Church when we know that our parish priests are more fallen and self-seeking than we are? I have been given concrete proof that a couple of my parish priests have manipulated the parishioners for desperate funds for travel that was not necessary. They have also asked for basic need funds such as dental care and other health-care needs already provided by the archdiocese. I know for a fact that many of these young diocesan priests have “girlfriends” and have no sinful remorse for their relationships. They have no conflict of interest doing the Mass and distributing the Eucharist, all the while they are sinning themselves. How do I turn to priests for consolation and confession when I know that they are more fallen and indifferent to moral codes than I am? Thank you for your answer. -P.D.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Thanks for your heartfelt questions. I can sense that you love the Church deeply.
Your inquiry brings to mind a quote cited by St. Alphonsus Liguori in his classic Dignity and Duties of the Priest: Clerics “are the devil’s choice food.” Wherever there is scandal, the Enemy is lurking nearby.
First, though, it is always good to be cautious about judging other people. Often we don’t have all the facts or we pick up things through hearsay. And God alone knows the heart of any given soul.
That said, you raise a valid question. There are clergy who have caused and who continue to cause scandal. I can only hope that God’s grace changes their hearts.
But what does that mean for you as a Catholic at a practical level?
First, as far the moral authority of scandalous priests goes, Our Lord himself gave counsel: “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Matthew 23:3).
Second, it is good to remember that the sacraments work ex opere operato, that is, they confer grace if administered correctly, even if the priest is in a state of mortal sin. Grace comes from God alone, and he is the source of the power of a sacrament.
Third, it is always wise to seek out prudent and dependable priests whenever possible. This is especially the case when you seek a regular confessor or spiritual director.
Fourth, all this should be a motivation to pray for priests and for holy vocations. The Church needs good priests, holy priests, in every generation. You might check to see if there is a way you can promote Eucharistic adoration for vocations (and the perseverance of priests) in your archdiocese.
Fifth, if you know for sure of grievous misbehavior on the part of a priest, you might consider a discreet word to the pastor or to the chancery.
Sixth, try not to let the bad example of others in the Church hold you back from your own relationship with Christ. He is the head of the Church. He makes the Church holy. He is the reason why we are here. It is Christ we proclaim in our creed, him we follow. We aren’t here to follow scandal-causers. We don’t abandon Jesus because of Judas.
So keep up your prayer life and your sacramental life, no matter what. Stay close to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And remember to pray for holy vocations.