4 Nov 2008

Weeding out those unfit for the priesthood

Irish Times - November 4, 2008

OPINION: The Vatican wants would-be priests to be assessed psychologically. They already are in Ireland, writes Desmond O'Donnell

IN The Art of Being Ruled , Wyndham Lewis wrote: "Priesthood is a social expedient of great use, extracting from society the practically unfit and so offering a suitable occupation to people who would otherwise be a drag on the active community."

An occasional priest may fit this description, but even minimal acquaintance with the priests in the Catholic Church or the Church of Ireland casts clear doubts on this assessment of priests in general.

And yet, priesthood in any religion can be refuge or a challenge. Dysfunctional people often find religion and religious institutions a refuge in which to nurse or receive some relief from their problems.

The recent call by the Vatican for careful psychological testing of candidates for priesthood ( The Irish Times , October 31st) might give the impression that this is the first time the professional procedure was asked for by the Vatican. In fact it has been asked for on at least seven occasions since the 1950s. In the past, inadequate accountability was demanded after ordination, and the history of sex abuse in the church confirms this.

Diagnostic testing is one way to assess suitability or unsuitability for priestly ministry prior to ordination. It was initiated in Ireland by the first president of the Irish Psychological Society, Dr Feithin O'Doherty, but regretfully his findings on some dysfunctional people were not acted on.

It is on record that he recommended that the convicted paedophile, Fr Fortune, not be readmitted into active ministry.

The use of pre-acceptance testing in Ireland was intermittent after his death, but is now practised in most dioceses.

This may explain why there has not been any priest accused of sex abuse who was ordained in the last 20 years.

Over the past eight years, I have accepted responsibility for psychological assessments of applicants before they enter the National Seminary in Maynooth.

The bishops have asked me to retest all the students at the commencement of their third year in the seminary.

I also assess all candidates for the Church of Ireland (Dublin diocese) before their admission to the Theological College.

Psychological testing is only part of a wider assessment to enable the applicant and his or her bishop to determine whether he or she has the personality structure and the qualities to sustain priesthood as a way of life at this time. The bishop usually consults a medical doctor concerning the applicant's physical health, and consults a priest who knows him or her concerning their spiritual health.

Their academic achievements and curricula vitae are looked at to assess functioning intelligence. Then, a psychologist writes a report on the applicant's emotional and mental health.

The standard psychological tests used by all psychologists engaged in diagnostic work are used to examine each candidate.

On the behavioural level, the assessment aims to discover the applicant's attitude to the testing, his or her experience of early family life, the level of functioning intelligence, his or her judgment and main positive behavioural qualities.

On the deeper level, the assessment then aims to discover the presence or absence of psychopathology, maturity-at-age, ego strength, emotional quotient, value pattern, motivational index, interpersonal strengths and weaknesses, psychosexual integration, attitude to authority, leadership ability, addiction potential, quality and depth of spirituality, conscious and subconscious vocational motivation and the applicant's level of personal insight.

The final decision about the applicant's suitability is made by the bishop and his council.

Their decision may or may not agree with the psychological assessment.

Hopefully, this new Vatican document will further the need for more careful discernment.

It was good to find it on page one of The Irish Times .

• Desmond O'Donnell is a registered psychologist

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