I can only imagine — though I prefer not to — how dispiriting it must be to many of the faithful to read about the scandalous behavior of some priest whom they have known and loved. I am not only thinking of reports about priests who are accused of abusing minors or vulnerable adults. Throughout our lives all of us will hear or witness incidents of a priest, often a beloved one, who succumbed to the lures of sex, money and power, perhaps lost in the vicious cycles of various addictions, even engaging in criminal behavior.

The recent account of a young pastor in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, caught in a shocking web of vice, desecrating the altar in his own church, bears the marks of a descent into the tangled world of pornography, human trafficking and, most probably, substance abuse which have the stench of Satan all over. It seems naive and simplistic to dismiss this and other aberrations of the priestly office as merely psychological or even moral lapses.Even if this incident does not appear to have involved abuse of minors, the report that this young man was ordained only seven years ago and had been recently appointed a chaplain to succeed another priest in a high school who had been dismissed for serious boundary violations with students, raises questions about priestly formation and fraternity. Did anyone know what was really going on in this man’s life?

I am not looking to point fingers or excoriate seminaries and houses of formation. Young people entering them have been brought up in a world where internet pornography is available to anyone online. Many people have become addicted. In which case, their brains have likely been altered as research shows. The self-loathing, if unaddressed by some form of therapeutic intervention and unaccompanied by prayer and healthy fraternity, is a combustible cocktail, as one of my concerned priests texted me.

Those engaged in ministry with victims and the prosecutions of perpetrators of human trafficking are well aware of the connections with the pornography industry and often talk about these evils in demonic terms. Awareness of how priests, even a young priest, and not just the stereotypical “dirty old man,” can be drawn into such vicious cycles, not only impels us to redouble our efforts in formation and support of clergy in ministry, but raises alarm and, hopefully, awareness of the clear and present dangers our young people are exposed to every day in a highly sexualized culture, secluded in their dens with some electronic screen as their sole companion.

To place the failings and vulnerabilities of priests in the larger context of our cultural deficiencies does not excuse them or those who form and guide them from responsibility. Nor must awareness of the sufferings of priests detract from the enormity of the wounds and pain, likely eradicable, inflicted on innocent survivors. But neither can we ignore the real suffering experienced as, day after day it seems, they read of their brothers accused of the most horrendous behaviors.

It is no small irony, however, that the demoralization of priests — whether or not they have ever personally contributed to this vicious cycle of corruption, either directly or by ignorance, culpable or inculpable — has succeeded in alienating priests from one another and their people. The suspicion, the lack of trust, and what many feel is often a lack of due process, have separated not only survivors from priests and, therefore, the sacramental life of the Church in many cases. Others, disgusted and dispirited, have abandoned the Church altogether. In many cases, can one blame them?

It is horrifying enough to think of the cruelty and callousness against young people robbed of their innocence without adding to the injury another troubling thought that, in addition to innocent victims preyed upon by some priests, the Evil One might also be targeting the entire priesthood by attempting to discourage and dispirit them. I have little doubt that, as painful as it is for Catholics and, I suspect, other people of faith, to read of new examples of fallen priests, none are more deeply wounded in soul and spirit, than priests themselves who love their people and their priesthood and live and work and pray each day as good and faithful servants of the Gospel.

Yet another cause of concern for us all is that, as priests themselves are dispirited in their ministry, feeling alienated often from their people and one another, assuming they are — or will be — vilified and mistrusted, all become more distant from the sacramental life of the Church, from Jesus himself, the mercy of God. It is troubling to think that priests who have abused innocents and have acted out in really demonic ways have become agents of Satan himself, not only to destroy themselves and their victims, but the connection between God and his people: the sacramental life of the Church. 

What I hope and pray for is that we can all find a way of loving and supporting our priests who remain faithful, dedicated and prayerful in their ministry every day. Make it a point to tell him he is a wonderful priest and a joy to God and not to let the shadow of mistrust or the sins or crimes of others affect him.

Priests are human beings like all of us. Few of them were ordained with an intent to abandon their promises or ideals. Some, most unfortunately, do and, in some cases, they may be able to repent, reform and heal. Some sin egregiously. And where innocents are involved, it is inexcusable and cannot be tolerated. They must be held accountable. As a Church, however, we will need to do much more to form and accompany all of them in their journey from the first sprouting of the seed of their vocation, throughout the formation process and in their ministry.

I myself take personal responsibility for this. But I cannot do it alone. So, I am asking each and every one of us — priests, deacons, religious and laypersons — to continue to pray for our priests and seminarians. I know many of you do every day and I am profoundly grateful. Offer Masses for them. Call them. Talk to them. Encourage them. And I also ask all my brother priests to redouble their commitment to love and support one another and all of God’s people that we have been chosen to serve and to be sacrificial instruments of God’s healing grace, God’s peace upon a broken and suffering world.