The Problem With the Bishop Scandals

The US Conference of Bishops FINALLY admitted what the deepest problem is- “Our Church (read- Bishops) is suffering from a crisis of sexual morality.” Why do I say they are referring to themselves? Because this is the official statement released after McCarrick’s scandal broke. This isn’t the parish council’s crisis, or the church janitor’s crisis, no, this is the Bishop’s crisis. 

That’s actually not the point of this post though. We’re finally all on board with what the deepest problem is. It’s a spiritual crisis of sexual morality, and the fingers are being rightfully pointed at the top. However, there’s also an equally devious psychological crisis occurring that no one is talking about. Some people are dancing around the issue by talking about the “structure,” “organization,” and “clericalism” in the hierarchy. That’s not it though. It’s also not just a homosexuality problem (though that is an equally important issue here). At the root of those problems, I believe, is a psychological disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

NPD is a personality disorder, which means it is not a temporary psychological experience that a person can take some medication for or receive some therapy to get out of. Personality disorders are defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving.” These are pervasive patterns, meaning they don’t go away (at least not without significant effort to directly work on them with full self-awareness of the problem.) Most people with personality disorders, however, do not admit to having a problem. It’s a defining feature of personality disorders that the person suffering from one doesn’t accept responsibility and blames everyone and everything else around them for things going wrong. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one of the stickiest and most difficult to deal with. Many famous criminals were diagnosed with NPD. These people are expert manipulators. Most of the time they are extremely likable by most people. 

The definition of NPD states that it is comprised of a persistent manner of grandiosity, a continuous desire for admiration, along with a lack of empathy. It starts by early adulthood and occurs in a range of situations, as signified by the existence of any 5 of the next 9 standards (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love
  • A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
  • A desire for unwarranted admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally oppressive behavior
  • No form of empathy
  • Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
  • A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes

 

At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:

  • Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment
  • Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
  • React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
  • Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
  • Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
  • Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
  • Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation

 

People suffering from NPD were typically neglected or abused as children. They develop this personality pattern as a defense mechanism and become expert manipulators to control other peoples’ reactions to them so they don’t have to feel the pain of their childhood rejection. They know how to put on a good show when required, manipulate the weak links when required, or even feign remorse if necessary. Many adults live with NPD undetected by others because they can seamlessly fit in with society on many levels. However, marriage and family life usually pushes these traits to their untenable end. Children of Narcissistic parents are some of the most difficult patients to treat because they feel so disoriented for feeling how they do about their parent. Spouses often blame themselves for the problems. Being in close relationship with someone who suffers from NPD can be hell. Often parents like this are alcoholics or drug abusers. They parent dysfunctional families and their children end up needing a lot of therapy down the road. There is a group called the Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families (ACA). They have something called the “laundry list,” which states, “We became afraid of authority figures and isolated. We became approval seekers and lost our identity. We became workaholics. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.”

What do you think happens when someone with NPD enters the priesthood? Their drive for recognition and status pushes them ahead. They know how to play the game and rise in the ranks. They know who to butter up, and who to take advantage of. They don’t care about the lives of others around them. The priests under their eventual authority end up like those children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families. I have heard so many priests (and religious) tell me, “We are afraid of authority figures (superiors) and isolated. We became approval seekers and lost our identity. We became workaholics. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.”

This is the scandal. This is the untold story of normal life for many priests and religious. This is what I want to blow the whistle on. 

Many Bishops in our country, and around the world, could easily be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This disorder also has a high frequency of comorbidity (co-diagnosis) with other personality disorder traits of Antisocial Personality Disorder as well as Sadism. When a husband experiences these symptoms, his wife and children eventually break. They either leave or live in the hell but in some way the situation becomes clear and the man’s psychopathology is revealed. In the church, this never happens (unless, of course, the money to pay for silence from the victims runs out). When these narcissists also happen to be homosexual, which means their sexuality is disordered, their monosexual environments become stomping grounds for their psychopathology. 

The hierarchy of the Church is an ideal environment for breeding this type of disease. Like agar on a petri dish, obedience, humility, internal forum, and close observation and evaluation all contribute to this outbreak of narcissism. Most priests and religious have at one time or another suffered at the hands of a narcissist. 

I have bad news. There is almost nothing we can do about this. The laity can’t fix this. Priests can’t even fix this. Married priests won’t fix this. Like children of narcissistic parents, the best we can do is resolve to not absorb the guilt ourselves for the sins of our fathers, educate ourselves to be clearer and clearer about appropriate boundaries and behavior, and pray for the courage to throw ourselves into the fire when we speak out against their disordered behavior. 

Some children of narcissistic parents learn how to get away and spend more time at an aunt and uncle’s house. Sometimes Uncle Bob will even show up and lay into dad for being an a–hole. That’s the best we can hope for though. That’s why this situation is a major clarion call to the rest of the Bishops out there to stop turning your back and closing a blind eye to your brother Bishops. Bishops are absolutely swamped by administrative duties. Most have lost a sense of priority because there are bills to pay and benchmarks to uphold. We are at mission critical though. Even if something is going on two dioceses away, even if you will face the wrath of the NPD Bishop who is acting out (or his whole club), it is time to stand up to these disordered men. 

Priests, read that list of symptoms again. You know who I’m talking about. And if it’s you, you also already know it. One fascinating fact about NPD is that most of those experiencing it aren’t ashamed of it- They’ll admit it! They feel they are in power because they deserve it. They feel entitled to it. This is not only sinful, it is grossly, psychologically disordered. If you see someone acting like this, you can’t remain silent any longer. No one is asking me, but if someone were to ask me, I’d tell them that there is no hope for recovery for these men. Take their faculties away. Lock them up far far away from children, or anyone else they can manipulate. Think Hannibal Lecter here. Providentially Pope Francis is also promulgating a new language for the death penalty. That’s great. In the same vein, let’s recognize the inherent dignity of the human person of the Narcissist, and give them the best chance they will ever have for recovery and conversion.

I also have good news. Obviously, the only news that matters. Christ is victorious. We’ve already seen how this plays out and the gates of hell will never prevail. It is going to get a lot uglier though before it has a chance to get better. No one is actually talking yet about the things that need to change.

The beautiful hope though, the silver lining through all this, is that on the other side of this battle there is actually the possibility for a renewal in the church. When the Bishops are removed who stand in the way of John Paul 2’s Theology of the Body being proclaimed from the rooftops, when Bishops are in place who have benchmarks and standards for eucharistic holy hours out of their priests instead of collections, and actually expect priests to keep their promises to live a supernatural spiritual life that goes beyond the natural expectations of normal human flourishing, that will be a Church that people want to run into. 

 

22 Comments
  • Deb Treister
    Posted at 00:19h, 03 August Reply

    Excellent piece. Maybe seminarians ought to undergo psychoanalysis/therapy before final vows, develope tools for their health, well being and that of the faithful?

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 07:20h, 03 August Reply

      Thank you. Yes, they certainly should. Most go through psychological assessments by psychologists not trained in a proper anthropology, or who work directly for the dioceses and therefore suffer many conflicts of interest.

    • SJC GARCIA
      Posted at 21:10h, 05 August Reply

      Many do and have to have a spiritual director.
      It’s the Bishops who should have to take a test before being named a bishop!

      • Dr. Greg
        Posted at 21:41h, 05 August Reply

        Exactly! Especially when the assessors all answer to the Bishop (or indirectly through the rector).

  • Phil Coco
    Posted at 09:18h, 03 August Reply

    Dr. Greg,

    Thank you for some an insightful commentary. This is the 2nd time in the last week or so that NPD has come up for me. Perhaps, us faithful have blinders at times with such thoughts as the following,: “my bishop and parish priest prays and has Holy hours…, how could he be wounded in such a way.? “

    I will also add that clergy need adequate self care like all people. However, that might lead to clergy needing professional psychological services, which, unfortunately seems to be often frowned upon by the Church, right?

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 09:32h, 03 August Reply

      Yes, self care is HUGE. I have the privilege to work with some amazing Bishops who send their priests to me, as well as some amazing priests who seek help on their own. There are many fighting the good fight. The problem is that there is an overall atmosphere of disorder that needs to be purged.

  • Maureen O'Connell
    Posted at 09:44h, 03 August Reply

    Thank you Dr. Greg for your courage and wisdom. Praying for our beloved Church and priests, for all those suffering, and for healing.

  • Ann Stolfa
    Posted at 12:38h, 03 August Reply

    Thank you for this article = I worked for a priest that had almost every trait you listed here, and until I was able to distance myself from the situation, I didn’t realize how much he had manipulated me and the people around him to get what he wanted. If he was crossed, he made it his mission to destroy the reputation of that person through lies and vicious gossip. My heart breaks for those seminarians, priests, and religious that have suffered abuse like this by those who have authority over them. I pray that this crisis brings about not only a revealing of the system of the covering up this type of abuse, but also a healing for our Church.

  • Jeff Rohling
    Posted at 13:33h, 03 August Reply

    Thank you Dr. Greg, This is a very good article and timely. With your permission I would like to share this article with bishops, priests and religious here on the West coast in the dioceses of San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, LA and SF. We have a partnership with these diocese to bring mental health ministry and clinical resources to parishioners and other christian faithful. We haven’t met but I would like the pleasure to do so.

    Let’s continue to pray that God blesses our respective work in abundance.

    In the meantime, Grace and Peace,

    Jeff Rohling
    CEO
    eTherapyFinder

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 13:44h, 03 August Reply

      Please do share it, and I’d be happy to speak with you further. Email me at drgreg*at*catholicpsych.com.

  • Elizabeth Frappier
    Posted at 14:28h, 03 August Reply

    Thank you Dr. Greg, This is a very good powerful article I have sent it to many priest friends. It is also very healing for me with things I have exsperianced with members of the clergy having no empathy or compassion. God is so good and such a loving Father and he gave us a perfect Mother and spiritual family of Saints when our families or parents are broken. We pray for all these priest’s and bishops for honesty and healing and hope and especially all those who have suffered at the hands of what you discuss and Narcissism. Thank you Dr. Greg for the wonderful work of the Catholic Psych institute.

  • David Wright
    Posted at 20:41h, 03 August Reply

    Interesting diagnosis and good analysis. I believe NPD is still secondary to the disorder of homosexuality. If the last 50+ years had seen a strict vetting of men entering our nation’s seminaries (and of those running the seminaries) these scandals would be far less. NPD alone brings about mental hardship, stress, and repression to those who are subjected to it – damaging and corrosive, yes. But the gravest part of the problem, homosexual acts, is what many people are still afraid to give emphasis, or even acknowledge.

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 08:55h, 04 August Reply

      I agree that it is much larger problem. I tried to touch on it here even though that’s not the point of my article. But I do agree that it’s important enough to mention wherever possible. It’s another symptom of the deepest spiritual crisis.

  • Lance Maki MD
    Posted at 00:39h, 04 August Reply

    Very insightful and helpful
    Thanks Greg

  • Ifeanyi Obiorah
    Posted at 03:49h, 04 August Reply

    NPD is a symptom of the problem, but is not the problem! The church is dealing with a crisis that is similar to the crisis of the world it is living in. We have experienced this before in history. The one common denominator is this: the church has lost fellowship with the Holy Spirit!

    Too many people – from the bishops to the laity – have only a “head” knowledge of Christ, but with no experience of him. God is like a theory we have proven, not a person we love and have a relationship with. Little wonder we are having trouble communicating that “theory” to the world around us. There used to be a time when people actually experienced God because they encountered someone filled with the Holy Spirit. People were catching the fire and the church was “alive”!

    What then is the solution? I’d be lying to you if I said I knew exactly how to fix the church! No one knows, except the Holy Spirit!! But what I do know, is that the solution will have one unmistakable fruit, the awakening of the Holy Spirit, for only in that situation can the true glory of the bride of Christ reflect in a dark world!

    Until then, treat the symptom and a new symptom will appear.

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 08:58h, 04 August Reply

      Agreed! But the problems that can be fixed need to be illuminated. How do we heal ourselves? We work on little behavioral things, small routines of prayer, repetitive ways of thinking. We work on the little stuff that can be worked on. The Holy Spirit meets us where we come to on our own, and takes us the rest of the way. We need to do the same with the Church. Fire people who need to be fired. Remove faculties. Stop promoting people for the wrong reasons. Start setting benchmarks based on spiritual expectations instead of monetary ones. Replace seminary psychologists with faithful Catholic ones. Etc., etc.. There’s plenty we can do. Then we pray and hope in God. The Holy Spirit will meet us where we’re at and take us the rest of the way.

  • Dr Byron Pirola
    Posted at 06:54h, 04 August Reply

    Greg, I understand and appreciate the intention of this article, but am not sure such sweeping generalisations are always helpful. I would suggest that what is said here would be equally true of all orgainsations; religious, commerical, government, etc. I am also caution about untrained people (like me) trying to make diagnostic assessments of clinical disorders. I was curious you know if you were aware of any quantatitive studies of NPD’s incidence at different levels across the Church; I am faimilar with such studies in corporations and it would be interesting to compare results.

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 09:06h, 04 August Reply

      Byron, can you send me data from the corporate research you are aware of? I think it is absolutely related. The sweeping generalizations are an effort to start the conversation. There are no studies on personality disorders in the hierarchy of the Church- that’s the problem! Almost no one is talking about the personality deficits of the hierarchy in general. It’s not enough to want to hang the criminals, and it’s not enough to point to things like “clericalism” and call it a day. Nothing substantial can be done in either case. We can root out the actual systemic deficiencies to make significant changes, as can be done in the corporate world, I’m sure you’ve seen it a thousand times that the crisis brings the experts in, but the assessment produces a solution that no one was expecting. I’d love to hear other ideas of what the solution would look like, but this is my take on it to start the conversation.

  • flankus
    Posted at 11:43h, 04 August Reply

    Theology of the Body is part of the problem. Saint John Paul’s II admitted rejection of the primary and secondary ends of marriage is part of the problem.

  • Joanne ONeill
    Posted at 15:40h, 04 August Reply

    Wonderful analysis…… backed up by the repeated transgressions of clergy already caught and disciplined! We have a little bit of fault in this: over centuries, we have turned priests into man-gods, ultra humans, instead ofalways reminding them of their vocations of servant- shepherds. Too late?

  • Ron Vasek
    Posted at 12:30h, 06 August Reply

    I am a victim of a bishop like this. I was abused when I was 16 by a “friend of the family priest” who had groomed himself into our family. As I was preparing to enter the diaconate program, 2010, I told my bishop Michael Heppner about the abuse. I was not aware of the proper procedures at that time for reporting, telling a bishop should have done it? Instead I was silenced, told to never say anything to anyone, not even my wife. “This is a cross you will have to carry” I was told by my bishop. My son was ordained by him July of 2010. I knew what a bishop could do to a priest. In 2015 I was called to his residence to sign a retraction of my earlier accusation against Msgr. Roger Grundhaus. When I told the bishop I couldn’t sign the retraction and asked what would happen if I didn’t. His reply,” If news of this scandal with Msgr. Grundhaus get out, how could I ordain you, who would want you, where would I put you? And besides it would be very difficult for your son.” I knew what that meant. I told him I would sign the paper knowing it was a lie to protect my son.
    This was all covered up until I finally sued him and the Crookston diocese for coursion and abuse. Only then was Grundhaus relieved of his faculties.
    Now the bishop is treating my son exactly like I knew he would, abusing and flaunting his authority over him and any priest who is standing up for the truth. We have a mess in this diocese from the top down. NPD is the rule here.
    For more info “truthronvasekstory.com”

  • Zach Dorsch
    Posted at 10:12h, 08 August Reply

    Excellent article. I hope articles like this will begin to sink in with the ordained. This article reminded me of a conversation with another therapist who had been part of a diocesan board for seminarians. I was disappointed to the learn that the mental health experts evaluations were often ignored and many of the men were “advanced” to ordination despite recommendations against ordination.

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