Corruption, Complacency, Cowardice and Criticism

What should a Catholic do in a parish where the leadership is involved in some form of corruption? Maybe the priest is behaving in an immoral manner. Maybe he is financially corrupt. Maybe he is doctrinally off base and his teaching is opposed to the Catholic faith.

I receive emails and have conversations all the time about this problem. “I want to stay loyal to my parish father, but how much do I have to put up with? The priest is openly homosexual, preaches in favor of women’s ordination and says we have to ‘be guided by our conscience’ when it comes to contraception, abortion, co habitation etc.” Or another person says, “My priest is doctrinally and morally okay, but he’s living like a Renaissance Pope. He has absolute control of the parish checkbook and spends money like a prince. He lives in a huge house all by himself, drives a new car every year, eats out at fine restaurants, has a maid, and the stories keep coming out about his wild personal extravagance.” Or another person writes and says, “I’m trying hard to work with my priest, but he’s suspicious, manipulative and completely lacking in pastoral skills. He alienates everyone, has a terrible temper and he’s universally disliked.” What should we do?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m not in favor of parish shopping. I think Catholics should decide which parish they belong to and then stay put. However, this doesn’t mean that the faithful should be uncritical. I think one of the main problems with the Catholic Church is that too often priests have been given a pass. The people (out of rightful respect) have tried to think the best. They have made excuses and forgiven and have not only given priest a second chance, but a third, fourth and fifth chance. That’s a good thing, but the laypeople also need to be more involved. It could be that their forgiving and positive attitude hides a certain amount of complacency and cowardice. Maybe the priest abuse scandal wouldn’t have been so bad if not only the bishops, but also the people had not covered up and dismissed the charges as gossip, had a bit more courage and got involved.

If a priest is misbehaving, it’s a good thing to remain loyal to that priest and parish, but loyalty also means being critical in a positive, adult and constructive manner. When a priest is corrupt in some way, without ganging up and attacking him, the parishioners should have the sort of relationship where they can ask for a meeting and tell the priest just what rumors are going around, advise him on where they feel he has gone wrong and help him put things right. This requires a huge amount of tact and care, but from the stories I hear of the state of some parishes and the relationships with priests who have drifted, maybe it’s time that the people got more involved.

God knows I’m only a beginner when it comes to managing a Catholic parish, but the more I get my head around the task at hand, the I more I value my parish council. I want the parish council to be staffed with people who know what is going on, on the ground. I want them to be able to advise me and correct me if need be. I’ve seen too many leaders surround themselves with mediocre minds, toadies and sycophants while the brilliant and gifted people quietly drift away.

The fact of the matter is, criticism (like publicity) is never bad. Even when criticism is badly expressed it is good for the soul. Even if the criticism is wrong or badly informed it’s good for you. Criticism is good for you, even when it’s painful, because, like physical pain, it is informing you of something that is wrong.

So if you’re in a parish where things are headed South (and I don’t mean to Greenville) get involved. Find your courage. Get together with some folks and have a meeting. Decide if the problems are minor, and only have to do with ordinary human failings or frailty. If however, things are worse than that, arrange a meeting with Padre. Express your concerns. Look for change. Hope for change. Then, if things don’t change, if he digs in his heels, and things actually get worse, you’ve done the best you can do.

Either write to the bishop with your concerns and ask for a change of leadership, or pack your bags and start looking for a new parish home… but what do you think?

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  • Fr Jay Scott Newman

    Nicely put, Fr Longenecker. The one thing I would add to your excellent advice is this: Do not say about the parish priest what you would not say to him. In fact, this principle could be applied to anyone, but in the case of parish priests, I think it is especially important. When people talk about the priest rather than talking to him, then gossip turns to detraction and detraction turns to slander all too quickly, and nothing is more corrosive in the life of a parish. If you don't have the courage to speak to the priest to his face, then have the courtesy to keep your opinions to yourself. The same applies to priests about their brother priests and their bishop. If we could observe this simple precept, the Church would be all the stronger for it.

  • David L. Hall

    Excellent! Thank you for addressing this.

  • Whimsy

    I generally try to keep the same rules of engagement with the parish priest that I have with my little sister:1. Limit the comment for something that has a very definitive problem (i.e. Canon Law xyz sez . . .)2. Say it once. It only takes one time for Father to know your perspective on the situation.

  • Anneg

    Fr L, as I thought about your excellent post I couldn't help but see how similar the relationship in a parish is to a marriage. We have to learn to work things out, not let things fester, not complain to friends about our spouse, realize that he, too has concerns and perspectives I'm not aware of and that we are all on the road to sanctification, in "earthen vessels." Maybe building community is really about what you mention, working through these issues. AnneG in NC

  • Paul

    I'd like to think that, if we live in genuine Charity, all our actions and words, rather than making our priest resist, subvert, or go to ground, would lead him to trust and repentance.

  • the Egyptian

    I feel blessed to finally known several Priests that are good men and priests, do I agree with them all the time, NO, but on matters of religion YES. Believe me I have known my share of outright jerks, one priest drove me from church for 5 years until I met my wife, a Methodist, she got me to go back and converted herself. I swear that man didn't have civil bone in his body, I heard that in later years after he finally settled down and accepted the fact that he would never be a bishop, he kind of liked the little country parish of my youth, he died there, even enduring throat cancer and said mass all the way through it, lost almost all his voice, he wrote out the sermon and the deacon from a neighboring parish read it for him, correcting it along the way. i am just so thankful that the parish council stood their ground and prevented him from destroying the church, his remodeling ideas were atrocious. I should write a book

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    i think by 'their fruits you shall know them'poncey 'priests' driving new cars are quite obviously in need of a new career in 'finanacial consultancy' or some other form of mammonrylook over at Voice of Russia todayyou will see two young girls, orphaned and living on their own were in danger of being evicted because they couldn't pay their utility billsthey got a phone call from The Patriarch of Moscow to assure them they would be helped by the ChurchFr David Bryce of St Andrews Greenville- yup, 'wrong' side of the tracks and the Tiber lived in austere circumstances giving his small income to the poor and runnig a soup kitchennow i wonder who fits the bill:'we cannot do great things, only small things with great love'-Mother Teresa of Calcuttayes, it is just that plain and simple

  • BHG

    Good post, Father, but from where I sit the problem is more with parishioners who pillory any priest who comes along, who resent any priest who tries to toe the doctrinal line, and will resist any priest who has the temerity to suggest that parishioners can't, won't and shouldn't always get their way in matters of liturgy, governance and the sacramental life of the parish. How about a post on how we can respond to our fellow parishioners when their arrogance and pride wound good priests? How about tips for responding to powerful folk, and big donors, and used to getting their own way?

  • Catherine

    I have enjoyed your posts about refraining from church hopping over the past few months and my husband and I (both converts) have stayed the course with our local parish. We became Catholic so we WOULDN"T have to church hop! I know you don't want to hear people say they look for a better parish "for the children", I have six. My oldest wants to be a liturgical dancer and doesn't understand why it's not okay, since she sees them at church. The CCD teachers do not attend Mass. I have no spiritual guidance of any kind aside from what I read in books, and a liberal priest who doesn't seem to believe in the Real Presence. Our liturgical abuses during the Mass abound. Our Bishop is worse. We pray for them, but at what point do you draw the line? Can I really progress on my own path to heaven, can my husband and my children, with no one to offer any soild guidance? I come out of the confessional shaking my head sometimes, often receiving advice that is contrary to Catholic teaching.I have no need or desire to become some legalistic super traditionalist, I actually prefer a reverent NO mass to Latin. But if you go too far to the other side and have no standards at all except your zip code, well…how exactly are we supposed to form the next generation of good Catholics? I'm new to the faith myself…. how do I sort out the good from the bad so that I can teach my kids what is okay and what is not okay? How do I even know who/what to trust? When our own priest undermines what I have taught my kids at home, well, what do I say to them?

  • Paul

    Hello Catherine.Thank you so much for your post. Not just that it was heartfelt, but that I could relate to what you’ve said, and my heart goes out to you. It’s two posts worth, but I hope they help…I was confirmed in 1990 after being away from the church since my first communion. But that day I was confirmed I was no wiser about the faith than when I was 8. Even then, as an adult, I had no instruction, and since that day, I have had none. Sadly, our common experience is an indictment of, and evidence of the error of, dissent.As you point out, the dissent goes both ways: extreme traditionalism (integrism), and relativism (syncretism). The first group are nearly always aggressive (‘bigotted’), the second, sickly sweet – until they realise you reject syncretism – and then they turn just as nasty, and will often accuse you of being a traditionalist (‘bigot’). :)It would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic. It is so hard. I have had to teach myself, and I’ve made plenty of wrong turns, and no doubt will make more. But take heart! ‘Be not afraid!’ as JP II said constantly!Firstly, God is closer to you than you are to yourself. Your desire to grow closer to him means so much to him. Secondly, especially through the sacraments and our feeble efforts, He always makes up for what we lack.What had happened before Vatican II was that the belief in the power of the sacraments had become distorted, and so had become mechanical, like visiting a vending machine every Sunday. However, ‘The Church’ is like a huge oil tanker, whilst the local parish Church is like being a passenger in a rally car at 90 miles an hour over rough terrain! It’s at the parish level that the problems arise. ‘It’s where the tyre hits the road’, to use another driving analogy.Sadly, One of the biggest problems we have, as Catholics, is that we are no where as good as Evangelicals at communicating the faith at a level ‘the laity’ can grasp.Practical advice: Continued…

  • Paul

    Continued…OK, how would you teach yourself? I’d start with the Universal Catechism (yes, the big fat one!), but don’t try to read it like a novel! I’d start with the last section on Prayer (#2558+), but especially #2759 to the end (An exposition of ‘The Our Father’). [The ‘#’ indicates paragraph numbers in the Catechism ‘CCC’.] For, nothing is as important as that relationship. I found the Catechism HARD to understand at first – but it’s just like learning to play the piano, yet somehow we want to struggle on, keep up the practice, fight our weakness to achieve the goal at being able to play the piano, but don’t think we have to ’practice’ the faith, or think it should fall into our laps with ease, as if the journey of faith should be in a hammock with a pina colada!After beginning to get to grips with the notion of ‘Our Father’ (noting esp. #2779 as my relationship with my earthly father has always been hard!), I’d read Scot Hahn’s ‘The Father who Keeps his Promises’, to come to understand an overview of the story of the Bible (‘Salvation History’), and then ‘First Comes Love’, about how the Trinity, Church, and family life, are all intimately linked.Then, read some great books like Fr L’s, Christianity Pure and Simple, or Adventures in Orthodoxy.So, that seems like a lot for a busy parent. Yup. But I REALLY sympathise. You’re not alone! Just do your best! At times I’ve let my study get in the way of family responsibility because I’ve let myself get carried away, and that’s wrong, because God makes up for what we lack. He is a God of mercy as well as justice.What about all those big words? Buy some 5×3 index cards, and Google the terms, and distil what you find onto them. I’ve done this with terms like sacrament, mystery, symbol, ‘economy of salvation’, etc., and when I come across something which clarifies them further, I just add it to the correct card(s). My one for ‘mystery’ now spans several cards! You’ll begin to be able to sense which definitions are in line with Church teaching as time goes on through ‘the hierarchy of truth’. That is, the faith ‘hangs together’ (an ‘organic’ unity, as the Catechism puts it), and so there are no bits which aren’t related to others, and dissent jars with this.Hope that starts you going. Start your cards with the term, ‘Invincible Ignorance’, and look here: here:, you’re not responsible for what you don’t know, but you also have to make a reasonable effort. Common sense, really. :)Don’t worry about the complicated terminology in Akin’s article, just write down what you do understand in a couple of sentences. Over time, you’ll get a clearer picture the more you read… Just don’t panic! The devil wants you to fail, and it’ll be uncomfortable.Just think of the rally car, or learning something you do with ease now, but didn’t when you were younger. It doesn’t come overnight, but it starts to come together gradually. Patience, IS a virtue, but so is prayer, which is at the heart.Every blessing, Catherine.

  • Catherine

    Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to share. I am from a Southern Baptist background, my father, grandfather, brother in-laws, every one in my family is an Evangelical Pastor. I was educated at Pensacola Christian College and Moody Bible Institute- my conversion did not come easy and was accompanied by an awful lot of research! I read through the entire catechism several times! It has now been six years, and one of the biggest things I have learned is, no matter how many books I read or how much knowledge I aquire, it is not a substitute for sound catechesis from a good pastor week after week, (for myself and my family) nor does it replace a good confessor. If my faith was all about ME figuring out everything MYSELF, well then I might as well have stayed protestant because that's what it was all about. But it's not, Praise God! I NEED the church. That's what is so unique about our Catholic Faith, it cannot exist without good priests. Martin Luther may have argued otherwise, but the fruit of the Reformation proves this is not so.What I'm saying is, if my local Mass is esentially a protestant service (or worse.. scantily clad dancers? Bowls of incense?) with the Eucharist tacked on the end, the priest speaks on whatever he wishes, often anti-Catholic teaching or some sort of fundraiser, and no Bishop is holding anyone accountable for the liturgical abuses, and the Pope isn't seemingly holding the Bishops accountable for what's going on, well… who's really in charge? A huge reason for my conversion was for the Authority of the Church I could trust, but it seems that no one is actually exercising that authority in a good way on the local level, and this is hard for me. I just don't understand?

  • Cenobite

    Father, there are definite guidelines in place in the Diocese of Charleston for what Parish Pastoral Councils are for and for what they are not. You can find them on the Diocesan Website under "Guidelines for Parish Pastoral Councils" and pointing out the rights or the wrongs of the Parish Priests is not one of their duties. Their task is to discern through prayer and study under the influence of the Holy Spirit the direction and growth of the Parish and where the Holy Spirit is leading the Parish. It is not a representative body of people from different neighborhoods sent to spy on the Pastor or any other Priest or Nun on the Staff. It is a body of mature Catholic adults who have the best interest of the Parish at their hearts. I suggest you download the document from the Diocesan Website and read and stud it yourself.