Longhi ,Uffizi



Rev. Michael N. Kane




Reprinted with permission, Touchstone, Vol. 21, No. 3, National Federation of Priests’ Councils.



THE revelations of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy in 2002 changed many aspects of ministry. Individually and collectively, clergy faced scrutiny from the media, governmental authorities, the laity, and the public. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops responded with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. While it contains many obligations for dioceses and eparchies, this document requires each diocese/eparchy to promulgate a code of pastoral conduct that is binding on clergy. While the bishops did not bind themselves to the standards of pastoral care required of their priests, the bishops articulated new responsibilities for priestly ministry.

Most dioceses/eparchies adopted or adapted the Virtus Model Code of Pastoral Conduct [pdf] from the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc. (NCRRG, 2002). This model code is strikingly similar to codes of conduct used by mental health professionals (e.g., social workers, counselors, psychologists). Codes of conduct protect clients by ensuring that professionals provide competent service. Codes define standards of care regarding the limitations of confidentiality, informed consent, conflicts of interest, and responsibilities to clients in life-endangering crises. Most diocesan/eparchial codes of pastoral conduct share similar content.

Previously, priests relied on diocesan guidelines, canon law, theology, scripture, and pastoral wisdom to guide their ministries. When the USCCB mandated the adoption of codes of pastoral conduct, they confirmed that parochial ministry in the 21st century had changed; suggesting the professionalizing of the priesthood. Fundamentally, codes change the nature of the priest-parishioner relationship. From a risk management perspective, it is important that priests understand that failing to meet a standard of pastoral care may result in ecclesial discipline and/ or litigation. While new challenges will arise for priests, those of most immediate concern are dual relationships, the limitations of confidentiality, documentation, and professional impairment.








Professionals provide effective services that arc in the best interests of the client. A boundary violation occurs when a professional seeks to satisfy his own needs rather than the client’s needs. To prevent boundary violations, codes of conduct limit the interactions between the professional and the client to the helping relationship. Engaging in any activity with a client outside the helping relationship is engaging in a dual relationship. Mental health professionals avoid developing friendships with clients, socializing with clients, engaging in business transactions with clients, or becoming sexually involved with current or former clients. Any of these activities may be exploitative of the client through the (mis)use of the professional’s influence or power. While it is not always possible to avoid dual relationships, professionals hear full responsibility for any real or perceived abuse of power.

While priests are strongly discouraged from engaging in dual relationships, they will he difficult to avoid in parochial settings. With fewer priests, individuals will bring to their parish priest their spiritual problems, relational issues, and moral concerns. Parishioners will interact with this same priest in parish fund-raising, community projects, confession, the baptism of children, and parochial events.

For priests who enjoy friendships with parishioners, they should he aware that these friendships are particularly ripe for misinterpretation; as dual relationships increase the risk for actual or perceived abuse of power. For example,

[1] if Father Jones provides a pastoral ear to a parishioner can he then have dinner with this parishioner?

[2] Young Father Smith has known recently-widowed Mrs. Peterson since his childhood. When he is assigned to her parish, he encourages her to relieve her loneliness by involvement in parish activities. Knowing her to be a woman of means and connections, he encourages her to give generously of herself and her resources. is Father Smith using a personal relationship to serve his professional needs rather than the parishioner’s best interest?

[3] Over the years, Mr. McGregor has been serving on the parish council and has been involved in community projects with his pastor. If he seeks spiritual counseling from this priest, is the priest engaging in a dual relationship with potentially harmful consequences?

While dual relationships are to he avoided, some dual relationships wilt be unavoidable. While most will be harmless, others are potentially hazardous. The Virtus code of conduct offers no guidance to navigate these difficult waters; except that priests bear full responsibility for establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries (Pastoral Standard III.16).

From a risk management perspective, priests should abide strictly by their code of pastoral conduct. They should clearly differentiate the people whom they serve from the people with whom they socialize. Priests may wish to reconsider the notion of parishioner-friends. 








Priests have best understood confidentiality in relation to the canonical demands of the sacrament of penance. Courts and legislatures have upheld the clergy-communicant privilege; i.e., individuals may disclose to their priest information in total confidence [CF: Trammel q). United States, 445 U.S. 40, 51 (1980)1. While the seal of confession may never be breached, there are now situations in which priests are mandated to breach confidentiality. This may be confusing to parishioners as parishioners expect that their priest will keep all information confidentially. This belief has allowed people to divulge secrets to priests they would divulge to no other professional. Adding more confusion, there are individuals and groups that would like legislatures to mandate priests to breach confidentiality, even sacramental confession, when accusations of child mistreatment are revealed.

Currently, the Virtus code of conduct requires that priests breach non-sacramental confidentiality to report child mistreatment as well as an individual’s threat to harm self or others. These are the same demands made of mental health practitioners. However, a problem may arise when the parishioner is unclear about whether the disclosure occurred in sacramental confession or in another situation. Parishioners may seek counsel, advice, and confession concurrently and Label their entire encounter as “confession.” While the priest understands “when” and “how” the sacrament of penance occurs, the parishioner may not understand the civil and canonical nuances. Clearly, priests will need to develop strategies in their pastoral practice to differentiate confession from other pastoral ministry.

Priests must breach confidentiality (outside confession) when a parishioner threatens to harm another (C.F. NCRRG, III-2.1.1). Like mental health professionals in some geographic locations, priests are required to warn a potential victim of a credible threat of harm. Mental health professionals additionally contact law enforcement. As a result of a clearly designated standard of pastoral care, failure to do so may result in litigation [cf: Tarasoff e. Board of Regents of the University of California, 551,P.2d 334 (1976)].

   Finally, priests must protect suicidal clients from self-harm. Telling a suicidal parishioner to trust God, pray more and to see their therapist may nor be upholding sufficiently a standard of care. Priests must develop assessment techniques as well as relationships with mental health professionals who are willing to assist in the protection of these parishioners.








The Virtus model code of pastoral conduct requires that records be kept of pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. Specifically, the time and place of contact must be documented (1I1.1.1.9) and “minimal records of the content of sessions (NCRR(G, 2002, 111-2.2.3). These records are confidential. [n.b. but may be subpoened]

While the code makes no mention of required content, it appears prudent to include information that demonstrates how the priest upheld the standards of pastoral care in response to the request for spiritual services. Mental health professionals understand record-keeping to provide evidence of contact, to answer the questions of “why,” “how,” “when” and “where,” and to describe the nature of any critical incidents (e.g., abuse, threat to harm self/others). These considerations may re-shape spiritual direction. Priests may wish to consider the documentation requirements for their particular assignments after consultation with experts.








     The Virtus model code of pastoral conduct requires that clergy be aware of their spiritual, physical, and emotional health (I1I-10.1). Clergy must report their own professional misconduct to the appropriate authorities (III.8) as well as peers who have violated the code of conduct or engaged in illegal activity or professional misconduct (III.8.3). Thus, priests who are aware that the pastor of another church is substance dependent or is sexually involved appear to be required to report this information to appropriate authorities. Previously, priests may have hesitated to report this infor- oration. While this will present challenges and questions of presbyteral loyalty, to neglect this obligation may have serious consequences.








Priests will need to consider how they can fulfill their ministerial obligations while protecting themselves and their future. This is best accomplished by abiding by the code of conduct and developing a sense of risk management.

First, priests need training. Each priest is obliged to know the demands of his specific code of pastoral conduct. Ignorance of a standard of pastoral care will not save a priest from litigation and/or ecclesial penalties. Request that your diocese or presbyteral council sponsor risk-management training. Since codes of pastoral care are similar to codes of mental health professionals, a priest may find mental health educational resources helpful. Advice from experienced mental health practitioners will prove invaluable.

Secondly, while priests have been encouraged to view the bishop as a spiritual father to whom they can turn for guidance, priests need to understand that bishops are required to respond to violations in pastoral conduct in ways that may lack the aura of spiritual concern. Bishops will employ their own risk management strategies that are predicated on business models and liability insurance. These models protect the organization; often from its employees. From a risk-management perspective, the bishop cannot be a priest’s spiritual father.

Finally, other professionals purchase individual malpractice/liability insurance policies. Priests may consider obtaining policies that are distinct from the coverage of the diocese/eparchy. In the event that an allegation is made against a priest, the diocese’s insurer will protect its primary client; the diocese. The insurance company may opt to settle the suit quickly and without the accused priest’s consent. These decisions may have immense implications for the priest’s future ministry. Inevitably, the accused priest will need his own civil and canon lawyers.




Virtus Model Code of Pastoral Conduct, National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc., 2004. ( )

Tarasoff v. Board of Regents of the University of California, 551,P.2d 334 (1976).

Trammel v. United Stares, 445 U.S. 40, 51 (1980).

“Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Office of Child and Youth Protection, 2005, Washington, DC.

Kane, M. N., “Risk Management for Catholic Priests in the United Stares: A New Demand from the Code of Pastoral Conduct.” Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2006, pp. 47-67. ( )

Kane, M.N., “Codes of Conduct for Catholic Clergy in the United States: The Professionalization of the Priesthood.” Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, Vol. 9 No.4, 2006, pp. 355-377.

Rev. Michael N. Kane, Ph.D., LCSW is a priest of the Eparchy of Passaic and a Florida licensed psychotherapist. He is Associate Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL and Pastor of Our Lady of the Sign Byzantine Catholic Church, Coconut Creek, Fl.. Contact:


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