e-mail us

Church in Crisis

‘Defensive ministry’ necessary, priest says


Fr. Robert Kus calls it “defensive ministry,” a strategy he devised years ago that helps minimize the chances of false accusations of improper behavior between minister and parishioner or misperceptions about ministers’ actions by clients.

“It’s a commonsense concept really,” he told NCR, “and it’s still useful today.”

Kus is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Raleigh, N.C. Before he was ordained in the Raleigh diocese in 1998, he taught sociology and mental-health/psychiatric nursing for 10 years at the University of Iowa. He holds advanced degrees in both fields. His outline of the strategy appeared in the July 1997 issue of The Priest magazine.

“The fear of false accusation is on clergymen’s minds today, of course, like never before,” Kus said. “Too many actual cases of sexual abuse with minors and adults by priests plus negative television documentaries have contributed. False accusations are not uncommon in ministry,” according to Kus, “and, even if an accused priest is found not guilty, he will spend the rest of his life living under a cloud of suspicion.”

As a result of listening to priests and seminarians discuss ways to minimize harm, Kus, as a seminarian at St. Meinrad’s School of Theology in Indiana, devised and wrote about the concept of “defensive ministry.”

Kus cautioned in the article, “We are not talking about strategies used to protect guilty men, but rather how the innocent man, the average Catholic priest, can take care of himself.”

The social climate demands such common sense, according to Kus. “A minister has to ask: Am I willing to let all the years I’ve spent in school go down the tubes? Do I have the spiritual, mental and physical stamina to withstand the pressures of false accusation and publicity?”

In his article, Kus identifies some risky behaviors in ministry that can lead to false accusations. A seminarian, following an after-school servers class, gives a ride home to his junior high helper because it is raining. A priest, who is recruiting a high school student for the seminary, goes to a movie alone with him. A pastor counsels a young woman alone in his rectory living room one evening. A priest helping out in a parish administers the sacrament of reconciliation on a Saturday afternoon in a post-Vatican II confessional; no one can see either him or the penitent.

Looking at these various scenarios, most prudent persons would probably say that each behavior is either morally neutral or even good. However, each can put the seminarian or priest at risk for false accusations, according to Kus.

His article presents 12 factors that increase the likelihood of misperceptions and false accusations. Some of these include:

  • Age. An 80-year-old priest can get away with hugging children easier than a young priest might.
  • The type of ministry. Taking Communion to the hospitalized sick, for instance, is much less risky than youth ministry; for this reason most newly ordained priests refuse to have anything to do with youth ministry.
  • Presence of mental illness. Delusional persons may hear voices telling them the priest is evil.

He also lists greed as a motivator, and adds that the sacrament of reconciliation is especially risky because of the absolute nature of the seal of confession.

Kus outlines steps that can be taken in such situations to minimize risk. The seminarian offering a ride home can call the boy’s parents to document time of departure and arrival. A priest who wants to take a teen to the movies can invite several to go instead. A pastor wanting to counsel a young woman can see her in his office, with at least one other staff person present in the building. A “crying room” can be used as a confessional, where people can see the confessor and penitent but not hear them.

Kus also advises those in ministry to adopt some practices that have long been used in the counseling, mental health and other “helping” professions, namely to document counseling sessions and to keep a log of ministry activities.

“Many in ministry say to me,” said Kus, “that Jesus didn’t practice defensive ministry, why should I? I answer that the social climate is quite different now than when Jesus lived. Also, Jesus was crucified.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002