A look at the demographics of priests in the United States finds more priests coming from foreign lands. In addition, a survey of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown University-based research center, shows between 20 and 30 percent of ordinands to the diocesan priesthood for each of the last 10 years were born outside the United States. Most have come from Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, Poland and Vietnam.
The growing diversity is a natural outcome given the influx of immigrants from all over the world and efforts to find priests for appropriate pastoral care to the immigrant communities.
These foreign-born priests are a blessing for the Church as they become inculturated into U.S. church and society. Part of that inculturation for ministry includes training in programs for child and youth protection, which have become a vital part of parishes throughout the country.
The National Review Board (NRB), which oversees the U.S. bishops’ Office for Child and Youth Protection, recently spearheaded a look at how international priests are trained and their backgrounds checked to make sure they comply with diocesan standards for child protection.
Initial results show that 152 of the 195 U.S. dioceses and eparchies rely on various forms of communication from the bishop or superior of a religious order who endorsed the priest for work in the U.S. It also found that 51 dioceses went beyond that and conducted a search of criminal history records in the country of origin. Given that the reliability of criminal history records in many foreign countries is not high, personal contact with the bishop of the diocese of origin is important to fulfill the bishop’s obligation to thoroughly evaluate “the background of all incardinated and non-incardinated priests and deacons engaged in ecclesiastical ministry.” (Charter or the Protection of Children and Young People, Article 13)
Teresa Kettlekamp, executive director of the Office for Youth and Child Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), says that “a frank and candid discussion on the past behavior of the priest is essential.”
“Some foreign countries do not have the same sense as exists in the United States as to the seriousness of sexual abuse and boundary violations,” she said. International priests need to have “a clear understanding of these issues.”
Through an audit process, the Review Board found that all priests and deacons, wherever they’ve been born, are required to undergo safe environment training, but few diocesan child and youth protection staff are aware of a formal acculturation or mentoring programs for foreign priests that included stress on expectations relayed to safe environments.
As a next step in assuring child safety the Review Board recommends that safe environment training and diocesan Codes of Conduct be explicitly reviewed with all international priests and, if language competency is an issue, that discussion be in the priest’s native language to be sure he understands. Other recommendations include pairing the new priest with a mentor and a spiritual advisor and developing a checklist for the acculturation process. Such efforts can ease the entry of new clergy into life in today’s Church in the United States, which otherwise can overwhelm a man.