Spiritual direction, therapy, and counseling all can be dangerous even to well-intentioned people. Emotional intimacy itself can be problematic, and can lead to physical intimacy.
A friend of mine who was an Episcopal minister said that always remembered that both his and the women’s guardian angel were in the room when he talked to the parishioners (almost always women) whom he was counseling. (When he told this to seminarians, they laughed.) He also sat behind his desk and handed tissues to a crying woman. A man’s natural tendency is to put his arm around a crying women to comfort her, but…
One time he was sitting behind his desk talking to a women crying about her abusive husband when the large and intensely jealous husband barged into the office. Fortunately my friend was behind the desk, not sitting next to the women, innocently holding her hand trying to comfort her.
There are grave dangers in the therapist/counselor/priest becoming emotionally involved with the person with whom he is relating. Freud discovered the process of transference in his psychotherapy sessions and therapists have had chronic problems with sexual involvement with patients.
Confession and spiritual direction has long been a source of concern to church authorities, Stephen Haliczer has written a book on the subject, Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned. He looked into the archives of the Inquisition which have numerous cases of such abuse. The Church did try to act against them, but never succeeded in ending them.
The Church’s safeguards and penalties did not stop abuses, but what to do? People want to talk about their failures and worries, and if they don’t talk to a priest they go to a therapist, who has even fewer safeguards. Or worse still they go on TV and tell the world.
When I was a young teenager, I went to confession often, and I remember that one priest started a line of questioning that made me very uncomfortable. Decades later, I learned that one of the priests in that parish was a known abuser, but I do not remember if my questioner was that priest.
But what is a priest to do. Someone confesses a sexual sin, well, is it a fantasy or is it adultery or incest or bestiality? A priest really has to know what is going on to give a suitable penance and strong advice about avoiding the occasion of sin.
As to spiritual direction, I think that in general women should give spiritual direction to women, which I believe is the practice in some organizations. The danger of emotional involvement is far greater than in confession, because spiritual directional usually involves talking about the general troubles and concerns of life that affect the spiritual life, including sexual difficulties and problems with spouses.
And all this applies to well-intentioned people. Narcissists and abusers use confession and direction as ways to seduce people, both boys and women.
Here, on the subject, is the background of a lawsuit that was just filed by a woman:
She said she met Wenthe [a priest of the archdiocese of St. Paul] when she took a class for adults converting to Catholicism. Wenthe was a speaker for the course.
A spiritual adviser told the woman she should seek out a priest to be her “regular confessor” for spiritual comfort, guidance and consolation. The woman asked about Wenthe, and the adviser agreed he would be a good choice.
She subsequently went to confession with Wenthe at least four times, she told police. At times, he took her confession in a private sitting room adjacent to his bedroom in the church rectory.
The woman said, “I thought I was talking to God.”
The first sexual contact occurred in his bedroom when the defendant lay on top of her and asked her to perform oral sex, she said.
“I remember pleading with him that we should stop, that degree of sin mattered and we should stop. He became incredibly frustrated with me. He made me feel like I had done this to him and that I was obligated to finish the job,” she said, according to the complaint.
The two began to have sexual encounters about every two weeks. Meanwhile, she continued to attend Mass and receive communion from him, something she said “restored her faith in him as a priest.”
At times, the defendant invited her to the sacristy after the service — an area of the church containing vestments and furnishings that is not accessible to the general public — and they had sex.
The woman told police her eating disorder worsened. “I was subconsciously using my eating behaviors as a way to punish myself for what I believed was my sin,” she wrote in an October 2006 letter to a high-ranking church official, describing the relationship.
Police met with Wenthe and his attorney in August. He acknowledged the sexual contact and that it continued regularly for several months. He said he was sent for treatment by the archdiocese for a “generalized anxiety disorder.”
“He stated he believed the entire time he was acting as a friend to (the woman) and not a priest,” the complaint said.
State law forbids sexual contact between members of the clergy and those they are counseling.
It is not clear whether the violation of the state law is a criminal or civil matter. If it was a criminal matter, church officials do not seem to have reported matters to the police.
The archdiocese sent Wenthe for a psychological assessment and treatment and he was returned to active ministry in August 2006 “with certain conditions and restrictions,” McGrath said.
But once a priest had committed such an egregious violation of the sacraments, can he ever be trusted again?