Survey Finds Detroit-area Priests Happy with Work, Upset with Hierarchy

By David Crumm and Patricia Montemurri
Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]
March 18, 2003

An unprecedented survey of Detroit-area Catholic priests inspired by the year-long crisis over the sexual abuse of children reveals a painful division between the shrinking number of clergy and their leader Cardinal Adam Maida.

Nearly two-thirds of the priests who responded to the survey said news reports about the scandal are a daily source of stress, and 43 percent said the crisis has hindered their ministry, according to a booklet summarizing the survey that was obtained by the Free Press.

Eighteen parish priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit were removed from ministry in the past year because of allegations they abused minors.

In the midst of the crisis, priests said they didn't getmuch support from the church hierarchy. Just 24 percent of priests described Maida and his central staff at the archdiocese as strongly supportive of their ministry.

"Cardinal doesn't care about us," one priest wrote on his survey, which was conducted by mail in October.

Another priest wrote, "We need a priest union to protect ourselves before we're asked to leave to save Maida and his cohorts."

Recently, the 55-page summary booklets were distributed to priests in preparation for a meeting with Maida next month at which priests can use the data to make new recommendations.

On Monday, Maida acknowledged his priests' dissatisfaction "when it comes to dialogue with the central office and with me.

"If only I could devote all my time -- 24 hours a day -- to the Archdiocese of Detroit, which is my very, very first responsibility, that would be the greatest joy in the world," he said.

As a cardinal, Vatican business draws Maida overseas up to a dozen times a year. Because of his Polish roots, he has become a favorite of the Polish-born pontiff, who has asked Maida to accompany him on foreign trips in the past. He's also one of the church's top legal experts.

"As a cardinal, and as a bishop, I have to give of myself and my talents or gifts," Maida said. "So I'm very much involved in the church nationally and the church universally. It takes me away."

Last spring, in a meeting with hundreds of priests during the height of the abuse scandal, several priests bluntly told Maida that he needed to be more accessible and supportive of them.

Maida said he believes one of the casualties of the clergy sex abuse scandal is that priests have less trust in some of their leaders.

"There's a trust level, over the year, that's eroded," said Maida. "I believe there is even an anger in some."

On the other hand, 9 out of 10 priests answered yes, when asked: "Taking all things into consideration, would you say you are a happy priest?"

"I love being a priest!" one man wrote on his survey form.

The survey indicates that most priests find this sense of satisfaction in their own ministry, mainly in celebrating the eucharist, as well as spending time with an inner circle of lay people and family members.

Also among the good news in the survey is the fact that Maida allowed it to take place, despite the criticism it contains, said the Rev. David Buersmeyer, the head of the survey team and pastor of SS. John and Paul Catholic Church in Washington Township.

The survey results focused on priests working in parishes and archdiocesan offices. Nearly 90 percent of the 380 priests working for the archdiocese returned completed survey forms.

"How many of our leading bishops would be willing to have a survey like this done -- and get something like this as a result?" Buersmeyer said Monday. "I think it's positive that we can talk about this and be honest about it."

Maida agreed, saying, "This was one way of reaching out to our priests and letting them offer their opinions."

Many priests apparently welcomed the openness as they filled out the survey. "We need an environment in which we can discuss things about church structure without being considered disloyal," a priest wrote.

The study originated after the stormy meeting between Maida and his priests in May and a frank follow-up meeting in June at which the cardinal welcomed ideas that might help the church weather the upheaval.

"This report is just a first step," said Buersmeyer. "Out of this, we want to see some recommendations that can strengthen the priests' sense of support."

One idea already proposed by Buersmeyer is that Maida's staff build better relationships with priests by meeting annually with an assembly of priests and by offering more professional workshops for priests.

One of the study's major findings was that a long-term shortage of priests has left clergy with "too much work and a feeling of being overwhelmed by a lack of time for quality ministry."

The report concludes that the shortage is worsening with no relief in sight.

In 2001, 322 diocesan priests were working for Maida in metro Detroit, mostly in parish assignments and supported by about 60 additional priests from religious orders. Even before Maida's removal of the 18 priests, his staff estimated that the number of diocesan priests would dwindle precipitously to 239 by 2016. The study offered no estimate of how many religious-order priests will be left by then.

Since the crisis erupted, "the loss of active priests due to the recent clergy abuse situation speeds up the projected loss of priests," the report concludes.

Maida has been trying to encourage more men to enter the priesthood since he arrived in Detroit in 1990. His first act was to call on his 1.5 million members to pray daily for more priests.

On Monday, Maida said that after 13 years, he's still praying for an upswing in priestly vocations.

"I'm the eternal optimist," he said.

Contact DAVID CRUMM at 313-223-4526 or or PATRICIA MONTEMURRI at 313-223-4538 or

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