What they didn't ask

What they didn't ask October 18, 2011

Men applying to study for Holy Orders are familiar with the psychological exams you have to take.

Here are the impressions of one man, after taking the test for the diaconate:

One interesting feature of the exam is that the examiner (a clinical psychologist) had to review the self-narrative with me, and for a fixed list of questions required me to answer them again orally. This was not for all the questions, and he explained afterwards that this list had been designated by the archdiocese for special treatment.

I was not surprised by some of the questions that were asked twice in this fashion:

1) Have you ever abused children?

2) Do you have problems with drugs?

3) Have you ever had problems with mental illness?

One question did surprise me (though perhaps it should not have) since all the men in my class have been married for at least 15-20 years:

4) Are you a homosexual?

One question was worded oddly and might have used more amplification:

5) Do you have any sexual addictions?

As I pondered the questions on the drive home, however, what struck me was the questions there were not asked. First, there was nothing directly related to domestic violence. I imagine that a careful reading of the standardized personality tests, combined with the projective psychology tests, could discern the personality traits associated with an abuser. But I think that this would be a much more important question to bring to the fore than “are you gay,” especially given the prevalence of domestic violence in America. The question on abusing children was worded a bit more broadly, but in answering it the intent did seem to be pedophilia and not domestic violence.

This is closely connected with the second question that was missing: none of the highlighted questions touched on my motivations to become a deacon. Men are probably motivated by a number of different things: while we are all called to the same ministry, the Holy Spirit will prompt each of us differently. But there may also be baser motivations: a desire to hold a place prominence and power, the desire to be a cleric (and enjoy the benefits of clericalism), a need to be in control. Some of these are related to the traits of abusive men, particularly (if my understanding is correct) the need for control. Again, it may be that the standard personality tests can be used to screen for these problematic motivations, but I thought that this is an issue that should be more prominent in the testing. There was one written question about obedience and authority, but the intent was to determine if I had problems submitting to the authority of the bishop…

…The third question that was not asked may not be appropriate for a psychological exam, but given the very detailed sexual history that the self-narrative required, I did find it surprising that none of the questions asked about birth control use. There was one written question that asked generally “have you engaged in any sexual practices that the Church does not approve of” but this was not one of the questions that was foregrounded by oral questioning, and the examiner passed over this question as he was reviewing my answers. (Besides the required questions, he did stop frequently and engage me on other questions, mostly to clarify my answer or to elicit further information.)

Read the rest.

UPDATE: My pal Deacon Bill Ditewig has some analysis of all this, and offers the Headline of the Week: You Have to be a Little Crazy to be a Deacon

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22 responses to “What they didn't ask”

  1. Looking at these questions, it seems to me that you could answer them without telling the truth. Are there others that are worded different or are there other exams that could get around possible fraud?

  2. I have had some experience with the diaconate program in my diocese.

    What surprises ME is that those questions were asked by the clinical psychologist.

  3. My thoughts exactly, Don. What is to keep a man from lying his way through the test? Is he really going to say he abuses children? Of course not! Is he going to admit a drug problem or is combating a mental illness or has in the past? If a man has all or some of the problems above, why would he even try to be a priest or deacon? He would know that answering those particular questions honestly would disqualify him. As to his sexual orientation? It implies that all gay men are going to molest a child. So not true. Many heterosexuals do so too.

  4. the desire to be a cleric (and enjoy the benefits of clericalism). Don’t know what diocese you are from, but i can’t think of any benefit a deacon might enjoy.

  5. As I pointed out in the full post, I asked the examiner the same question. He said that he often got truthful answers obliquely: the written question would have some ambiguous answer, and the truth would then be revealed in pieces during the subsequent oral review.

  6. Don,

    I was referring to the perceived benefit of being a “leader in the community,” of the “respect a deacon receives” etc. This may not match the reality, but these could nevertheless be motivations for someone to want to be a deacon.

  7. Apart from the sexual abuse question which I agree that no one who is an abuser will answer honestly, this is such a sensitive area that confidenitality must be the main concern when being asked questions of conscience. Since the full revelation of conscience is reserved for the confessional, and the Church guards and protects this truth, it seems that a man could exercise a mental reservation when asked these in a context in which his sacred privacy is protected.

    Now someone may respond that one has an obligation to answer honestly and fully. I would agree but ONLY if the confidentiality is assured and not simply assumed. I know a diocese where the secretary of the director reads every essay and questionaire for potential vocations (including their sexual history). If I knew a secretary had access to reading my file I would thank the Jesuits in university who taught me all about the morality of mental reservations. I do not think a secretary who is simply making the clerical work easier on the director or psychologist has any business reading such things.

    When I took the test and met with the psychologist for the 2 hour “chat”, I was determined to be honest so that no doubts might linger about the vocation. It was tough at time because of my past but I counted on the Church actually believing in the true power of grace and the reality of conversion. But I suppose the best way to assure honesty and assure the men of their protected privacy is to have all who will come in contact his information bound by a professed oath of confidentiality.

    I think that in order to assure the sacred chambers of conscience we have to be willing to accept that fact that undesirable candidates would be potentially accepted. If we compromise conscience then we can no longer teach that we hold it to be the most sacred redezvous place between a man and his God.

  8. My experience was very strange when I did the psych exam. I was asked to a lot more things than most others in my class, lots of additional tests that were not required of others. My wife and I met with the psychologist and she went through her “findings” and she sent us home with no concerns, no need for follow-up. A few months go by and I was asked by my mentor deacon if I had not done some things that the psychologist recommended. I said no, he had me call the formation director. It turns out she wrote in her report some things that she never mentioned to us. She “discovered” and anger management problem and recommended anger management therapy and was concerned because I wouldn’t bring my kids to meet her, which didn’t happen because she canceled the appointment and the kids had events the only other day she could meet before her report was due. It was a nightmare. I did some therapy to address her issues because they were in the report, and they stopped using her. One of the recent ordination classes had a deacon arrested for child abuse just 6 months after ordination and she may have been the phychologist that passed him through. What a mess it was, but God’s call to ordination was stronger than the obsticles thrown in my path.

  9. Our psych tests were extensive, with both written tests/evals and live interviews. I was amused to see on one of the standardized written tests, maybe the MPRE, “Do you sometimes think that you talk with God?”

    Hmmm. Yes, several times already today, in fact. Would you like to see my rosary? My breviary? Hey, who are those guys with the butterfly nets…?

  10. By the time I get to interact with them, the applicants for the diaconate in my diocese have been accepted as candidates already so the current psychological screening process is way beyond my personal expertise. I do know, however, that criminal background checks — including arrest records — are part of our application process. I would presume that is where you would find any issues of domestic violence. In fact, refusal to authorize a personal criminal background check has been grounds for immediate dismissal from the formation program.

    I also have heard that at least one long-time deacon has been suspended from ministry in anticipation of being formally dismissed from the clerical state by the Vatican because of an long-standing refusal to authorize that criminal background check back when they became required after the Dallas Declaration.

  11. Just a quick comment about one item on the post. I have worked in the mental health field for nearly 28 years now as a clinical social worker. The part of the post regarding abusive men mentions that such men need to be in control. My experience has been that such men have an inordinate need to have power over others, but generally have little control of their behavior. Their problem is power without compensatory control. The interesting thing to think about (which I reallly haven’t done yet) is the desire (as the writer said) to be a cleric and what if any relationship that may have to responsible use of power as a deacon, priest or bishop.

  12. Correction to #2:

    I read this post too fast and misread. Now I see that I was wrong.

    I think that the questions were quite legitimate for a clinical psychologist to ask in further face-to-face discussion.

    But I do not think that a question on birth control would at all be appropriate for the clinical psychologist to ask. What would be the purpose from a psychological point of view? It’s a Church issue.

  13. I guess forget about privacy once you sign into the program. My doubt about psychological tests is that they have been in place since the sixties or even earlier and that did not prevent the Sexual Abuse Scandal.

  14. Rudy #14:

    “My doubt about psychological tests is that they have been in place since the sixties or even earlier and that did not prevent the Sexual Abuse Scandal”

    I’m challenging that statement on several fronts:

    –It is possible that in your diocese that psychological tests were in place for admission to priesthood as early as the 1960’s. I would be very cautious, however, about definitively stating how widespread that practice was beyond your own local experience. I have every reason to believe that serious psychological screening was not at all widespread until after he start of the pontificate of John Paul II in 1978.

    –Restoration of the Permanent Diaconate happened by a Moto Proprio of Pope Paul VI in 1968. The initial dioceses that stepped off their programs did not admit the first applicants until the summer of 1971 or even later. I started my application process in April 1975 and was in formation by that September. I do remember going through some discernment exercises, including three very informal interviews, but no psychological testing anything like what happens today.

    –Most of the research available which tries to put a time-frame on the sexual abuse crisis by Catholic priests indicates that significant number of the priests who were so charged under the Dallas Declaration were ordained from about 1962-1972. That puts them in seminary formation maybe as early as 1954 and — obviously — working the way through their application process way before that. Even if your suggestion about the 1960’s is accurate, it was well after the window of admission for many of the abusers.

  15. Good points, Fiergenholt, particularly involving the timeline of the sex abuse crisis.

    And as Deacon Ditewig points out: the psych tests are just one tool of several that are used to held in the discernment process. They have their place.

    And I think a sharp-eyed psychologist will look at the questions and their answers differently than the rest of us.

    Dcn. G.

  16. Point well taken. I would add though, that many of the offenders were sent to a New Mexico psychological center were they received treatment. Most of the most insidious and horrible offenders were in that place, received psychological counseling and treatment and yet we can see what happened.

  17. My husband and I underwent the psych eval during application. I affectionately refer to it as the “high colonic for our marriage.” It was tremendously personal and invasive. I found myself consistently thinking, “Christ laid down his life for the love of this Church; are you really going to get hung up about your right to privacy about your married sex life?” It was a fast and furious lesson in the docility that the diaconate, true discipleship really, requires. We walked the fine line between honesty and modesty and offered our discomfort back to God…it didn’t even come close to crucifixion…most things don’t.

  18. Rudy #17,

    One additional point to bear in mind, though, is that we hear about the ones who were sent to treatment (there was also a place in Maryland) and reoffended. What we don’t hear about is the ones who did not offend again after treatment. I don’t have numbers, but I get the impression that the treatment did work sometimes at least.

  19. Rudy: more for comment #17 rather than #14;

    I have to wonder whether you are privy to a lot more personal information about the Dallas offenders than those among us who are mere mortals.

    –I am not aware of any psychological center in New Mexico where any offenders charged with violation of the Dallas Charter were ever sent. Those men I know who were publicly identified as violators were stripped of their clerical status and simply told to disappear. Their own diocese essentially threw them out on the street. “Out-of-site-out-of-mind.”

    –Now, as I said in my earlier post (#11), psychological evaluation is not my professional expertise but every expert on the subject of either homosexual obsession or pedophilia obsession or even child-pornography obsession that I have heard about indicates that these conditions are essentially incurable. In other words, even if any perpetrators had spent time in that New Mexico facility, there really was no serious hope for proper recovery anyway.

  20. According to the second John Jay study, over half of the accused priests had only one accusation against them. You can argue that those perps abused over and over and it just wasn’t reported because it’s incurable — but you would be engaging in a very tight circular argument.

    The professionals discussed in the John Jay report are quoted as claiming that child molesters are somewhat treatable. They claim that acting out on the abuse is a combination of factors: First of all, a lack of empathy causes the perp to believe that his behavior is not as harmful to the victim as it is. Secondly, it is a crime of opportunity, where the perps exploit their access to victims. So educational programs like VIRTUS which train people to be alert for anyone who wants to be alone with children do have the practical effect of reducing perps’ access to children. And anything which makes a perp realize how devastating abuse is can cause a perp to stop.

    So, yes, there are lots of people who believe that perps are not in control of themselves and can never stop. But that is not the expert opinion.

  21. I am skeptical about psychological evaluation. As far as mere mortals go, well, geesh, I didn;t know I was not, so thank you for the info.


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