Tom EschI used to be a Catholic priest. It was a good life in many ways. The work was meaningful and rewarding. The people I worked among were dedicated, kind and generous. And I received free tickets to world class college football games! I was living my dream. But the lifestyle—it turned out—was a poor match for me. After just four years of working in a parish I made the painful decision to leave the ministry.

In my lifetime I have met a lot of wonderful priests—over 300 of them. As a group I have experienced them as faithful and hard-working men. I also personally know about a dozen who have had problems with sexual misconduct, and many more who have crossed a variety of lines.  In a  study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and completed in 2004 found that 4 percent of priests committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002.  This number is considered low by many activists speaking out against the abuse.  One act of abuse is too much, way too much.

The Roman Catholic Church, along with other religious organizations is having a lot of pain these days related to the issue of sexual abuse.  It is heart wrenching to witness and even more painful if you are directly involved. In addition to the emotional and spiritual agony, it is incredibly expensive. According to the August 18th 2012 issue of The Economist the Catholic Church has spent $3.3 billion dollars on clergy sexual abuse settlements. It has been expensive financially, emotionally and spiritually. And no one can calculate the personal cost to the survivor-victims. We can expect that the costs will continue to rise.

Most psychologists tell us that clergy sexual abuse is not mostly about sex, but rather about power—unconscious use of positional power. I believe this is true. Here is my opinion of one facet of how it happens.

When someone has tremendous positional power they frequently receive less critical feedback and are treated as more valuable or more special than others. This can cause strange things to happen. When I was in the seminary, preparing to become a priest we used to watch our friends as they got ordained. We watched all of them change in positive ways. But we also saw that strange and not-so-great-changes happened as our classmates moved from the lay state to the ordained state. In the process of ordination they changed (ontologically as our theology taught us) from regular men to holy priests. And then they were treated differently by almost everyone, largely because of their title. This process worried some of us.

I prayed it wouldn’t happen to me. And then it did. I got ordained and I felt extra holy. I liked being called “Father” and enjoyed the privileges it brought me. People respected me and gave me attention. It felt good. And it fed both my ego and my sense of entitlement. I did not stay in the ministry long enough to find out how being treated as special would have shaped me as a leader. I did stay long enough to see clearly how deferential treatment can contribute to unconscious and even abusive behavior, because I witnessed it in some of my mentors and teachers.

I do believe that this special treatment is a part of what shapes the environment for misconduct to happen. No one should be so special that they are considered holier than someone else. No one is beyond occasional constructive feedback, whether that person is a priest or a bishop or a business executive.

Dr. Arny Mindell, the founder of Process Work and one of my teachers, says that the more rank (privileges) a person has the less aware they tend to be of their impact on others. The higher we climb on the ladder of rank, the less aware we can become of how our power impacts those below us. We see them, but they get farther and farther beneath us. We can even, despite our self-identification as leaders who care, become numb to the feelings and experiences of those “below” us. And unless we have others bringing us down to earth periodically—or until life hands us an unhappy and significant experience of powerlessness or marginalization—we can get into trouble. We may do things unconsciously, or just because we could. That is what Bill Clinton ultimately said about his sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky, he said ” I did it because I could.”

Is it true that power necessarily corrupts or leads to abuse? No, I do not believe so. Lord Acton is the one who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is the “absolute” part that is most dangerous. Many business, school, sports and church leaders are discovering things that minimize the experience of absolute power: feedback, open communication, personal awareness, direct report surveys and life coaching.

All of us are capable of using our positional power well and we are equally capable of misusing that same power. We all need to be held accountable periodically. Please contact me if you want some help assessing how well you or your colleagues are using their power. Power, used with awareness, positively impacts the bottom line and is excellent abuse prevention.

About Tom Esch

Tom Esch works with health care companies, counties, cities, construction companies, business analysts, attorneys, executives, owners, managers and non-profit executives to grow interpersonal awareness and foster effective communication.