ASK FATHER: “I have often felt used and abused spiritually, psychologically and emotionally by bitchy, nosy, petty, likely psychopathic/narcissist church people.”

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

I have often felt used and abused spiritually, psychologically and emotionally by bitchy, nosy, petty, likely psychopathic/narcissist church people. What was once a naive and blind trust and obedience was crushed by the sadistic cackling of Witch Hazel, Evil Genius and Marvin the Martian like characters from a Looney Tunes cartoon. I have attempted reconciliation through sacramental Confession several times, but each time I get the same result. Am I obliged to keep trying to go to Confession if there is a very high chance I will be abused again? Should I even bother going to church if Father Priest-Voice will play his little word games at Mass or in the homily surreptitiously maligning people like me with false crimes and sins (that mind you, were NOT confessed 20 minutes before) to keep control and a sense of careerist security in his little aging and geriatric suburban fiefdom? What just punishments would these types of people await in Dante’s version of hell, if any at all? Are they justified in this behavior? Is it really a matter of Millenial me having to crush my entitled sense of pride to submit to endless Boomerisms and Gen-X neuroses of seemingly evil church people or am I permitted to have even a sliver of dignity and self-worth as a believing Christian? What would it take for me to WANT to even start going to church again? Am I not allowed even one nice thing from the church founded by the same Jesus who healed the sick, raised the dead, gave the Sermon on the Mount? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Friend, I thought for quite a while about your missive and your string of questions – I explicitly ask people not to send strings of questions – which aren’t really questions, but implicit statements with which I suspect you think I ought to validate.

One of the questions, …

Am I obliged to keep trying to go to Confession if there is a very high chance I will be abused again?

Well, yes. You are, I am, we all are obliged to go to confession at least once a year.

That said, no one is bound to the impossible.

However, your situation is – I’ll go out on a limb here – not impossible.

A simple answer is GO TO CONFESSION… at another parish.  99.9% of priests are at least kind in the confession, even if they are a little stupid or have goofy notions.

Now, let’s address this:

What just punishments would these types of people await in Dante’s version of hell, if any at all?

I had a flash of Luke 18:9-14.

Here’s a mind exercise.

You don’t like going to a particular confessor because he is demeaning in the confessional and from the pulpit. Hence, knowing the need for the Sacrament of Penance, you refuse to go because you don’t like the priest, who can give you valid absolution whether you like his style or not.

You are hit by a meteor.

Moments later, after your encounter with your Judge and Creator, you find yourself in Hell because of your unconfessed and unshriven mortal sins.

Now the mind exercise:

Sit very still, away from the computer or any other distraction.

Try to imagine what goes through the mind of someone during those first 5 minutes of Hell.

Your Savior chose fragile, unworthy men to be His instruments of grace in your life.  Forgive us if we fail in living up your expectations.

At the same time, you should get over yourself a little.  Rather than framing yourself as a victim, you can chalk up your less than perfect encounters with priests and others in the Church by reflecting on the words of the immortal Gracie Allen: “People are funnier than anyone!”, and move on.

GO TO CONFESSION.  Don’t play around with hellfire.

Two things for the PRIESTS who might be reading this.

Firstly, about the “priest voice”.  Father… do you hear yourself?  We all know exactly what the “priest voice” is.  Knock it off.  It rings false and you are fooling no one.  It makes my flesh crawl and I’ll bet that at least three-quarters of the congregation find it slimy.

Fathers, if you are harsh, dismissive or too lax with people in the confessional, not compassionate but lax, or if you don’t hear confessions, or if you give counsel which you know is contrary to the Church’s teaching, you are probably going to go to Hell.  As a priest.  A priest… in Hell.  That’ll be special.  I have a mind exercise for you guys, too.

I want to kick this over to an answer from another priest with whom I shared this ASK FATHER submission.

GUEST PRIEST:

My gut reaction, reading this, is that this gentleman is a bit of a drama queen. While yes, there are priests who are abusive in many ways, and its an awful thing, to feel oneself victimized “each time” one goes to confession is more than a bit much. Put on your big boy pants and stop being a victim. If the priest is unkind, or nasty, or abusive – give it right back to him then and there, tell him you don’t deserve to be treated like that and if it’s something actionable, call the bishop. Or, be satisfied knowing, as he states, that punishment awaits those who mistreat others.

Go to a different parish, even if you have to drive a ways out of your suburban fiefdom. Find a monastery, religious house.

Is one entitled to a sliver of dignity and self-worth as a believing Christian? Ego sum vermis et non homo.

My dignity and self-worth does not come from what anyone else thinks of me or says of me. My dignity and self-worth comes from the knowledge that, abject sinner though I am, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, deigned to debase Himself and lay down His life on the Cross for me. Let others call me foolish, or dumb, or ignorant, or whatever.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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23 Comments

  1. Jim Dorchak says:

    As a Catholic, a Traditional Catholic, who can not go to ANY Mass, I would deal With the pain and go to confession if I were you. (Oh how I pray).

    I wish we had confession! I wish my son could have his confirmation and Mass. I wish my wife and I could see Our Lord just one more time.

    We are not welcome at our Church due to our Vax status.

    I used to have a girl friend in high school who said “Use him. Abuse him. Lose him.” Apply this to the confessional if he will let you in. Get on with a holy life.
    Times are hard. Go to confession.

  2. ArthurH says:

    Great reply, Guest Father :)

  3. React as you will, folks, but I am not sure I know what the “priest voice” is. I very much want to avoid it, and know if it is a flaw in me of which I am unaware.

  4. daughteroflight says:

    In reading autobiographical accounts of the saints, it always strikes me how frequently they speak of the pleasure and joy they receive from ridicule or slander at the hands of their neighbors (saving, of course, the concern they have for their neighbors’ souls). St. Teresa of Avila had a long string of just terrible spiritual directors, and Jesus told her it was because they were helping her remove her faults – and she was bound in strict obedience to these dolts! God bless and keep them, they gave us one of the greatest mystics ever produced.

    Embrace the difficult people – they are only difficult because you have a fault that needs removing!

  5. snegopad says:

    I read something recently, that might be helpful —in addition to the answers of You, Father Z and of the Guest Priest:
    https://aleteia.org/2022/08/02/have-you-been-hurt-by-the-church-st-alphonsus-can-help/
    …..this is a precious article , that helped me a lot in a similar situation…

    I pray for you, dear reader—-I can understand you…
    and I am praying for Father Z and Guest Priest

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  7. Bthompson says:

    Fr Fox,
    I think the “priest voice” is that kind of airy, soft, maybe a little effeminate, pseudo-wise sounding affect that one sometimes hears.

  8. Patrick-K says:

    Fr. Fox, I think it’s referring to a sing-songy type voice as if you’re speaking to a child and trying to assure them you’re a nice person.

  9. Falconchetto says:

    “Sadness is looking at ourselves, happiness is looking towards God.”
    -Blessed Carlo Acutis

  10. Senor Quixana says:

    Congratulations to both of you for providing answers to this. I would not have attempted it. My thought was that there is enough there to keep a competent psychologist in business for a decade or two.

    The only part of it I could think of a response for is “Is it really a matter of Millenial me having to crush my entitled sense of pride?” Well, yes. If you have an entitled sense of pride either you or the world is going to have to crush it if you have hope of salvation. You can’t take that into Heaven, so crush it now yourself or realize that if the world does it for you it is doing you a favor.

    Not in response to any question but to the letter in its entirety, I can add, “It’s not ALL about you.”

    I admire the diplomatic response both of you gave.

  11. Catherine in Aurora says:

    I believe it was St. John Vianney who said that if a priest makes fun of you or your sins, or belittles you in confession, to seek another confessor priest at once.
    That said, I suspect our inquirer may be seeking to be affirmed and then confirmed in his sins, rather than to do the very hard work required to conquer habitual sin and to seek true holiness of life. The tone used suggests we have a snowflake here.
    If the inquirer really has an abusive confessor priest, then the solution is to make an appointment with that priest (for confession) and then tell him face-to-face what he believes the situation to be. And then be receptive to the priest’s side of the story.
    If you really do feel the need to go elsewhere for confession, then you should probably ask around the parish, as this is not all that uncommon for a variety of reasons. In general, I have found that religious order priests, being in community, have a little more time and flexibility than diocesan priests, who are being stretched very, very thin these days.

  12. redneckpride4ever says:

    I’d like to know what exactly happened to make someone write this.

    I have no way to dicern whether this is based on a legit case of a priest being a jackhole or if its simply the harangue of a dramatist.

  13. TonyO says:

    It never, ever occurred to me that I should KEEP ON going to the same priest for confession, regardless of how he treats me. Why would it, ever? There is not only no rule saying you must, there is no unwritten “rule” or “tradition” or custom or anything suggesting it. Just go to a different priest. And keep looking until you get decent treatment.

    Unless you are trying to get a priest to say “it’s OK, that’s not a sin” to something that is a sin. But then, I wouldn’t think you are doing that, as you are presenting it in confession.

    Ok, in the incredibly uncommon situation that you are in the hinterlands where there is only 1 priest within a day’s travel, there, you might have a problem. But you mention the priest having a suburban fiefdom, so that doesn’t apply. Just go elsewhere. Not all priests are jerks, most are decent and many are very good.

  14. Grumpy Beggar says:

    In his biography of the founder of St Joseph’s Oratory here in Montreal – St André Bessette , entitled The Wonder Man of Mount Royal, Fr H.P. Bergeron c.s.c., recounts that the good Brother often admitted to certain spells of impatience with the pilgrims. With that in mind, I’ll paraphrase something I’d read in that biography: It is said that when people approached (Saint) Brother André with the comments, “Oh we don’t go to Mass or go to Confession because we don’t like the priest,” he would answer, “So ? You still buy groceries even if you don’t like the cashier – don’t you ?”
    I believe his emphasis here is not so much geared towards the “suck it up” aspect as much as it is meant to draw from the analogy that we need the sacraments to survive – just as surely as we need food to survive ; period.
    daughteroflight mentions St. Theresa of Avila. To concede a point to the reader who feels “abused psychologically and emotionally” who’s question you quote: In Chapter 5 of her work WAY OF PERFECTION , St Theresa is quite adamant about her nuns having access to more than one confessor – for some of the same reasons as your reader mentions, along with other reasons as well. During her day, for a religious order, it was considered the exception – if not unusual.
    A similar version of what is happening to Jim Dorchak happened to me on and off for over 2 years. You think I would’ve learned my lesson – after being deprived of the sacraments for so long, not to take them for granted. And yet, in this slightly better interim aftermath, there have been a couple of times where, when wrestling with presumption . . . well, let’s just say that if I were a contortionist, I would’ve found a way to kick myself in the butt by now.
    We need the sacraments to survive.
    Padre: Arguably, the best 3 words you have ever written and will continue to write may well be, “Go to Confession.”
    Thank you for every time you’ve written it in your blog.

    God bless you.

  15. BT, Patrick K – thanks for your answers.

    Here is serious advice which I do realize is hard, but here it is:

    I agree with Catherine in saying, go see that abusive priest. If necessary, take someone with you. Understand that the seal of the confessional greatly limits his ability to respond; indeed, I’d leave nothing to chance, and say, preemptively: “I know you cannot talk about a prior confession and I don’t want you to; but I want you to know how I reacted to the last time I came to you for confession…”

    Yes, I realize this is hard to do. But here’s the thing: there really is such a thing as “passive aggression,” and it can come out when we choose not to confront someon directly about something offensive or irritating. And, boy, can I tell you stories about passive-aggressive behavior in parishes. Having to confront bad behavior is something everyone has to deal with sooner or later. Confronting a priest — unpleasant as it can be — could be a very charitable thing, if done the right way.

  16. Deacon RobertB says:

    Although the answers given were good, if I may, I would like to offer a different perspective. A couple of years ago I had one foot out the door of the Church due to some of the similar treatment I received. Without going into too much detail, when my family and I were being sorely mistreated by a priest on loan from another diocese, I did contact the bishop to report the bad behavior. Immediately I was not believed and had my faculties suspended, was forced to undergo the “evaluations to determine suitability for ministry,” which I passed with flying colors, as they say. As soon as this ordeal was completed and my faculties restored and moved to a different parish, this priest was quickly and quietly sent back to his diocese. It completely destroyed my trust in those who I thought I could trust to do the right thing.
    If it weren’t for a good spiritual director who is in another country and a confidant in one of my fellow deacons in a different state, as well as my study and work in forgiveness, I would have left the Church completely. I had to work on forgiving those, which is still a work in progress as God’s forgiveness is immediate and efficacious while our human forgiveness can be long and messy. It has been difficult to find a good confessor, but I still go when I need to. Forgiveness done not mean continuing to put up with bad behavior and in some cases to protect my family, I had to forgive from a distance. As an example of what I mean, you can forgive a compulsive gambler for gambling the family’s money away, but you would never put that gambler in charge of the family finances. I would encourage those who have been hurt by people in the Church, especially by the clergy to begin the journey of forgiveness. The first step in forgiveness is do no harm; stop the negative (evil) thoughts about the other and when and where possible begin to have more positive thoughts and actions, and even pray for them. In forgiving those who trespass against us we die to ourselves for the greater good and for the glory of God who forgives us our trespasses.

  17. MB says:

    Phew! Kudos all around on this one. Kudos to the gladiator for having the courage it takes to express this kind of emotional pain, and kudos to Fr. Z and guest priest for having the courage to try to give him some sort of answer. I’ve been in a lot confessionals, and I have to say I’ve encountered way more bad confessors than good ones. Way more. I’ve also had priests humiliate me about what I just said in confession in his homily. (Super-fun!) But, when I’m trying to mentally drown out some tyrant who’s trying to spin some heretical yarn, and then wants to condescend that (in his best priest-voice), well I’m just too orthodox and therefore too stupid to function at his spiritual ‘level,’ I just tell myself, all I need to hear is “I absolve you from your sins.” Whatever, I have to go through to get that … it’s worth it. Just run the gauntlet people.

  18. Hidden One says:

    Since no one seems to have said it yet:

    If you’ve suffered from mistreatment from priests, pray for priests and seminarians.

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    The original comment says:

    “ I have often felt used and abused spiritually, psychologically and emotionally by bitchy, nosy, petty, likely psychopathic/narcissist church people. What was once a naive and blind trust and obedience was crushed by the sadistic cackling of Witch Hazel, Evil Genius and Marvin the Martian like characters from a Looney Tunes cartoon.”

    His/her comment then said that in attempting to get reconciliation for these acts by people in the parish, that he/she was, further, abused by the priest, so that they could find no solace, anywhere. I did not read this as a cri de cur specifically about priests in confession, but about parishioners, in general.

    This is important because it raises two possible lines of discussion. The first concerns the original commenter and the second concerns his parish-mates.

    First, I do not feel comfortable giving advice about a situation of which I have little direct knowledge. I do not know how the commenter was formed, what they were told to expect from the Church, etc. I do not know how much Church history they know (reading Church history can be eye-opening). I do not know their theological background nor their religious/ascetical practices.

    Likewise, I do not know the parishioners. There are, usually, some very holy and some very petty people coexisting in the same parish. Sometimes, we just get stuck with a bad sampling.

    No one writing a comment in this combox has any data beyond the original comment, so we all must proceed carefully and without jumping to conclusions in the recommendations we make.

    Speaking generally, however, I know of three reasons for this level of sensitivity to human interactions within a parish:

    1. Petty slights suffered without sufficient detachment. In some churches, when I go to confession after Mass, the congregation is saying the rosary. Fine, but every once in a while a parishioner, usually right behind (or near) me in the confession line, will be praying the rosary with gusto. It is great that they are prepared for confession, but I am trying to recollect myself and rehearse my confession and their well-meaning praying is nails-on-blackboards distracting, so much so that by the time I get into the confessional, I have to confess an additional sin of anger! It does make me wonder about the consideration we give to others by our actions and whether “situational awareness” only applies to looking out for people with guns. These little grains of sand in our shoes can add up, over time.

    2. There might be some genuine sociopaths in the parish. The only remedy for that is to flee.

    I have observed that many people in modern parishes are poorly catechized about genuine Christian behavior (just look at the state of dress) and give offense not because they want to harm, but because they are poorly trained in what Christ asks of us with regards to our neighbor. This is a big problem in many churches. In this case, baring psychopathology, we have a duty to model Christian behavior for our brethren.

    3. The original commenter might have a condition that makes them extraordinarily sensitive to criticism. Something like a mild personality disorder can make otherwise neutral actions come across as judgmental. I have no information from which to judge, however.

    Secondly, it is sad that people learn Christian behavior, today, without an accompanying sense of responsibility and sin. How many people in parishes are afflicted by the modern psychological falsehood that they are good just as they are? This psychological idolatry is true, especially among young people. This tend to breed narcissism. Jordan Peterson has some comments about this:

    https://youtu.be/I6-2ETgyP8w

    I suspect that the majority of people in parishes may be a cross to others not because of malice, but because of ignorance of proper Christian etiquette. It is something that should be more widely addressed from the pulpit (as well as Catholic moral theology, in general).

    I can appreciate the feelings of psychological abuse by the commenter. Spiritual abuse takes a more specific form, however. It does not, usually, occur in an adult setting unless there is a restriction dynamic in play, such as one might see in settings where there is some vow of obedience (this happens in Protestant Discipleship groups, as well, where there is an overseer who supposedly speaks for God to the individual). Ordinarily, in a more diffuse setting, such as a parish, the laity can appeal to a higher authority much more easily than in a restricted environment, so any commands of obedience are more diffuse. In addition, if one priest give a triggering penance in the confessional, another priest can change it. Spiritual abuse is real and it is so much worse than psychological abuse that I cannot describe it’s pain other that to say that it touches the soul (unlike psychological abuse) and the soul is the most sensitive part of the person. I don’t want to teach a seminar on spiritual abuse, here, but one needs to be careful in throwing that word around. The original commenter might feel spiritually abused, but that feeling likely results from not understanding the nature of what is and is not obedience. Few of the laity do, I suspect.

    Obviously, the church the commenter attends is toxic to them, so the simple solution is to attend a variety of local parishes and for the time-being, try not to get locked into or get involved in the quirks of people of the parishes (don’t interact with them except in cases of necessity), but treat it as a place where you and God meet.

    The Chicken

  20. Alaskamama says:

    If you don’t get where this questioner is coming from, then count your blessings. I think most Catholics living in the same state as me would understand completely. Sure, I could go to confession to another priest, but they were all complete heretics who abused any actual Catholic at each and every opportunity. I’d force myself to undergo the humiliation of confession, knowing that most of the priests wouldn’t offer valid absolution anyway. Hundreds/thousands of Catholics stopped coming to Mass, knowing that the homily would be attacking the Church each and every week, and attacking the beliefs of any Catholic who was actually in communion with the Church. Taylor Marshall’s book Infiltration talked about the macrocosm of which my area was the microcosm. Yes, we’d meet with the priests, meet with the bishop (s), and there was no relief. The people in the Church who want to destroy the Church have a lot of power. Eventually, decades of prayer won out, and we are in a better position now. I’m no snowflake, and I’m not a Millenial, but I’ve had many homilies preached against me and my family for being Catholic. There’s a lot of evil in the Church, but you can only fight it if you stay in the church, and fight strengthened by the sacraments. (And even if the sacraments you are trying to receive aren’t valid or licit, at least you know you’ve done your best to receive them, and God will supply graces.)

  21. jameeka says:

    The thing is….it can often take a long time to understand and really KNOW that my “dignity and self-worth does not come from what anyone else thinks or says of me”. It is really a Gift from God.

    At least one good parent helps, a lot. One good priest, one good teacher, one good friend, one good counselor. Without that…you can find yourself in the Abyss, and prey to all sorts of horrible people and the Devil.

    Priests themselves have to understand this, and believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What’s more, they have to convey it to their sheep. Otherwise, how can people trust them to be an Alter Christus? At Mass, and in the Confessional? And build up the Kingdom of God.

    So, priests, if you do not believe in Jesus Christ, do us all a favor and leave. Bishops, support and defend your priests, especially the good ones, but all of them.

    For all the rest of us, there is a lot of work to be done, as teachers, as parents, as friends, as pray-ers and intercessors for so many many souls who still worry about what “other people” think of them. That is Satan’s trick, not from God.

  22. Imrahil says:

    This is a rather interesting discussion.

    My first reaction would have been, I admit, rather like the dear Senor Quixana’s, except for his reaction to the “Is it really a matter of Millenial me having to crush my entitled sense of pride?” question. The questioner was obviously not referring to an entitled sense of pride in the theological sense of the term as an actual thing. Such a thing would of course need to be crushed. But:

    what he obviously was referring to was the feeling: “Why is it always me”, as Neville Longbottom quoted Emperor Francis Joseph. To him, every new occasion of something he doesn’t like (whether or not he is right or wrong in this) in Catholic life around where he lives comes as a personal blow, with an imaginary inner motivational speaker attached that says to him “it’s not going your way, so grow in your humility, crush your pride”, etc. (Some of these blows may be an actual motivational speaker saying precisely this.) The peculiar thing is that such occasions can, at least in retrospect, stimulate humility – which makes it so difficult to talk back to this inner motivational speaker…

    but still you can get to much of them, you need[*] your breaks, your (dare I use the word) safe spaces, your pats on the back, etc., and not all refusing an occasion to learn yet more humility is actual pride.

    [*”need”: in the usual use of the word. In a “spiritual martyrdom situation”, we might survive without, but coming to think of it this is probably a miracle on sort-of the same level as a saint who lives off Holy Communion without eating anything else.]

    He deserves at least that we understand that. Apart from that, I regret to say it but “suck it up” does seem, from the facts presented, an advice coming rather naturally to the mind.

    I do not, by the way, read the questioner to complain about having been abused in sacramental confession. He mentions the two things in one sentence, but still – and especially since he returns to the same Confessor, which pretty much no man in the world would to an actual spiritual abuser if he has the chance of going to another one – the more natural reading of what he says is:

    “I’m abused in my parish by Church people, e. g. by what my pastor does when he celebrates Holy Mass and preaches, and the voice he uses for that, etc. I repeatedly go to Confession in the hope that the Sacrament and the forgiveness of sins has the effect of changing that situation. But that doesn’t work; is there a point of me in continuing?”

    This would be not so absurd as it may seem; after all, it does make sense that forgiveness of sin and sanctifying grace might make 1. you able to bear more without even noticing, also because you get actual graces, 2. you might shine more with friendliness causing others to be friendly to you in reverse, 3. maybe God might punish less if He has less to punish for (granting that He still has enough to punish for in any case). However, to expect it as something certain and even doubt the efficacy of the Sacrament if it fails to materialize is obviously bogus. The actual point of the Sacrament of Penance is forgiveness of sin and restoration of sanctifying grace.

  23. Imrahil says:

    PS: And with all due compassion, his desire to revel in the images of “the punishments in Dante’s type of hell” (why Dante, specifically, by the way?) of his (actual or perceived) abusers is rather shocking.

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