Here’s a story about what happens when a parish gives a manipulator or sociopath a ministry leadership position.
Ever encounter a sociopath leading a ministry group? I have. Do you know any ministry leader that is a manipulator? I do. I know many.
Do you think God protects the Catholic Church from enabling a sociopath or a manipulator as ministry leaders? Think again. Often we create the perfect nest for these types to blossom into spiritual calamities.
Here’s a brief reflection—
Understanding the Manipulator: “Sociopath” Defined
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a sociopath is a term used to describe a person with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). People with ASPD suffer from several issues, a critical problem being an inability to empathize. They cannot understand the feelings of other people. Also, they tend to break the rules and disrespect social boundaries.
Someone suffering from ASPD can be a master manipulator. Such a person can manipulate people by playing mind games. But they can also hide this behavior behind a mask of charisma, charm, and intelligence. In a religious setting, the façade of a manipulator and its damaging effects increase geometrically. Ultimately, theological justification and super-piety insidiously hide what’s really going on.
In the Church, we need servant-leaders, and pathologically narcissistic people are all too ready to take the reins. Equipped by a vomit of verbal orthodoxy, Care Bear “Luv,” and speaking fluent Christianese, the evil manipulators can pull off becomes extraordinary. But add in the sincere stupidity of a horde of enablers, it’s not difficult to see how a sociopath can fit right in on parish ministries and councils. Indeed, a sociopath can wear all too well the chasuble and miter.
Manipulator Enabled By Church
On this blog, we have many times seen how the Galilean peasant Jesus, a folk healer, liberated poor people from demons. How ironic that the Body of Christ often excels at bondage. By “bondage,” I specifically mean creating environments for unhealthy addictions to rot and ruin people’s lives. Sociopath ministry-heads play a significant role in this, but a great deal of blame falls on us all, their enablers.
Permit me to relate one story about a pastoral disaster allowed to run amok in a parish. Now I don’t claim to be a mental health professional, so I can’t say whether the ministry leader in my story suffered ASPD or was just a typical a-hole, one of many flourishing in the Archdiocese of Miami. But certainly, he and many like him are master manipulators swimming in pools of ignorance.
Homeless at Church
Bullsh-t is easy to cut through when you are homeless. In Fall 1999, my weeks were simple. Living in my car, I took three showers at my friend’s house each week—on Tuesdays, Thursdays (when I washed my clothes), and Saturdays. I would shower on Tuesdays for open mic poetry that evening. I also showered Saturdays because of vigil Mass. But Thursday’s shower was for the young adult (YA) group.
When I first started attending the YA group, it was one of the shining lights of my week. I didn’t tell anyone that I was living in my car, and I was so grateful just to be with human contact. You cannot imagine the isolation and the pain. But I could tell that some participants suspected my being homeless, and presented me with eye-rolls or frowns. Not everyone, but some.
But to be fair, I was, more or less, welcomed by the group. And yet, despite knowing that some in the group suspected my crime of homelessness, I never brought up my condition. Except once, to the person who would later become the group leader.
Meeting Marty the Manipulator
In late November 1999, my car broke down, and I couldn’t attend the YA group. But by Christmas, that problem had been overcome, my vehicle was repaired, and I was on my feet again. An honor student, I secured work at Miami-Dade College as a disabled student note-taker, plus side gigs here and there. My car was fixed. And I began renting an efficiency.
So the first chance I got, early January 2000, I returned to the YA group. Hey, I missed them! But things had changed. YA group had a new leader—Marty Kahn (not his real name). As soon as I walked in, he greeted me with, “WHO is this?” His melodramatically loud voice emphasized “WHO,” making every head in the room turn to see me. “And WHERE have you been?”
The greeting wasn’t warm. There was no welcome to it. It wasn’t honest, either, pretending concern but uttered by a deaf man.
Generosity of a Manipulator
Let’s rewind back to November 1999, just two months earlier. The starter on my car was broken. I would grab a trusty pipe and bang for sometimes as much as twelve minutes to get my house on wheels moving in those days. This was a predicament, believe me. When the car breaks down for a homeless person living in his car, that means safety by driving away from dangers is eliminated. It was a big worry.
The day the starter went kaput was a Thursday. I managed to drive the YA group, leaving my car in the parish parking lot. The person who would greet me so coldly and accusingly the following January, the manipulator who would take over the group, was kind enough to drive me to a nearby hospital. Marty was a completely different person.
Why a hospital? It gave me A.C. and a roof. In those days, you could sneak into some hospitals and pretend to be someone waiting for a friend to be released. So I spent the night walking exhaustedly through the halls, looking for a waiting room to pass out in torturous chairs. I wanted to go to that hospital because it was within walking distance where I needed to be the following day.
Marty’s Short-lived Kindness
I was grateful for Marty and his generosity in giving me the lift after YA group. I actually thought Marty was interested in getting to know me. He seemed to be empathic. Of course, he was not yet the leader of the YA group. In those days, Marty made it a point to impress his kindness on every member, like a politician kissing babies. My night of trouble was his night of opportunity.
He acted kind to me, so I opened up to him about my situation. I said he acted kind—acted is the key. His whole life-presentation was a performance. Again, this was before he was secure in becoming the new leader of the YA group.
Anyway, within months, I got things up and running. It cost me north of $750 to do the car repairs. The towing was provided by the shop. Thank God I could secure the money from what people had owed me—a very long story. Also, in those days, I would get some quick cash writing papers for college students. I was talented at helping them cheat. Brought many “A” students their A’s for gas money. My office was a public library.
Obviously, my mobility was upended without a car, and I couldn’t come to the group for eight or nine weeks.
Marty the Two-Faced Manipulator
The first opportunity came, and I was back, now with secure work and a new home. And how does this new leader greet me? With a shaming, accusatory tone. This new leader to the YA group proceeded to go into a five-minute tirade in front of everyone on why commitment to Christ matters. His illustration? Marty used the example of someone “lukewarm,” someone who can’t be depended on, “the wishy-washy Catholic.”
“You see this guy in so many groups,” Marty told us. “They don’t stay connected. They don’t come to the group. It’s all wishy-washy, one week here, the next week gone without explanation. That reflects their commitment to Christ and our Lady.”
Secure in his religious fiefdom, Marty spoke with a fake, sanctimonious voice. Everyone in that room bought it as sincerity. Not me. And I told him as much. And for that, I would be ostracized by this echo chamber. By this time, I later found out, Marty had shared with everyone about how I was a “crazy homeless person” and that they should be “really careful” around me.
Manipulator & His Catholic Clique
Confrontation for me isn’t something difficult. We had many problems since that night, Marty and I. Ultimately, I stopped going to the group. A Lent would roll by, and parish friends would admonish me to reconcile with Marty. I’d try. But there he’d be—condescending, manipulative, cloaking his ego-driven agendas with hyper-Marian piety and Blessed Sacrament Adoration. Marty always had this self-righteous smirk. I gave up with this toxic fellow and his group after about two years.
But friends kept me informed. The group languished and dwindled in members. Many of the people who left YA group never came back to Church much less the parish. Week after week, Marty would denounce all those on his radar he didn’t like, people who weren’t up to his high standards of kitschy, sentimentalized Catholicism.
Through weaponized guilt, Marty demanded strict rules for his YAs. He disapproved of “sinful distractions” like wasted free time and unapproved boyfriends or girlfriends. Marty was an expert at mind-control through his “shepherding” techniques. “The Holy Spirit is the leader of this group,” claimed Marty, and the head-nodders agreed. How do you argue with anyone who is convinced that their cult-leader knows what is God’s will for their life?
One of Marty’s favorite retorts to anyone whom he perceived was challenging him was, “the Holy Spirit is the leader of this group.” That was his fast-service dismissal of any threat to him, of any reason put forth that he imagined challenged his position.
Agreement with Marty meant agreement with God. Is it surprising that disagreement with Marty meant alienation and condemnation by his group?
Marty had changed so much since that Fall I met him. Following his absolute control over the YA group, Marty’s tone was always condescending, and his presentations always had ridicule handy to hurl at people he needed to control.
And the parish? They let Marty run amok for a decade. They gave him carte blanche for parish holy week activities and retreats. Year after year, Marty was the face of young adult ministry. And his group of followers grew ever smaller and much older than 35 by the whimper at the end. How many Catholics did Marty and his clique poison?
The Damage Done By A Catholic Ministry Manipulator
Around the mid-2000s, I was hired to be campus minister to a nearby university. I can’t tell you how many collegians I met who were turned off to campus ministry because they imagined it was like Marty’s way of running things. Marty was the face of our ministries, remember. One of my best servant leaders came close to not joining campus ministry because of a presumed connection between us and Marty’s dangerous young adult farce.
In late 2002, at a local chain called Flanigan’s, I saw a young woman who had been once very close with Marty and the young adult’s back in Fall 1999. Back then, she attended weekly like me. Apparently, something later happened, she had left, and nobody knew why.
She glared hatred at me.
Understand: I hadn’t seen this woman since 1999. I’ll never forget the look she gave me across the tables—it was filled with hurt, betrayal, bitterness, and anger all rolled together. She remained silent. But I could tell that she still associated me with that group, with Marty, someone I couldn’t stand. I can’t believe she would not give that same devastating look to anyone she associated with the YA group or the parish.
Marty had done something to her that occasioned a hatred for anyone associated with that parish. From 2002 through 2011, I ran into this woman three times, always in different restaurants. No matter how much time had passed, her eyes blazed with hatred.
I never in my life exchanged words with her, even before. But her glare communicated so much. And seeing her years later, words were not uttered even though so much was communicated. By the second and third encounters, I was campus minister to the nearby university and had nothing to do with Marty the Manipulator and his sideshow routine. But because she was very much emotionally embedded into the YA group when I did briefly attend, she forever associated me with it.
Over the years, I met many women and men who had suffered terribly from something unspeakable at the YA group. What was it? Better not to speak of those things, huh? God forbid I cause a scandal to Holy Mother Church. By the way, the always verbally-orthodox Marty the Manipulator is nothing compared to the Archdiocesan monsters I would see manipulate people with impunity over the years.
Oh, I did bring concerns about Marty to the pastor—a disgusting feudal landlord—many times. I was scolded for this, ordered to forget about the parish and work on what I was hired to do, the university next door. “That place of marijuana smoke!” he mockingly remarked.
It was the same for anyone who tried to complain about Marty and his deep psychological problems. They were constantly given the cold shoulder by parish leaders and the church office. How dare they criticize or “damage the reputation” of such a holy man as Marty the Manipulator! Who could ever find any blame in him?
The woman who glared at me three tables away in the restaurant could. Many others no longer connected to the Catholic Church could. Countless students from the University were turned off by his abusive techniques.
Watch out when a Catholic group leader tells you that “the Holy Spirit is the leader of this group!”