Rise in priest suicides prompts call for helpline in Ireland

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Priests celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for two new Canadian Saints in St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 12, 2014. Credit: Lauren Cater/CNA.

Besides a shortage of vocations, Irish priests are facing an even more harrowing kind of crisis.

At least eight priests in Ireland have committed suicide in the past 10 years, according to recent reports given at meetings of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), and many priests are sounding the alarm about a severe dip in morale and a mental health crisis among the country’s clergy. 

The drop in priestly morale has clergy calling for a confidential helpline to be set up for priests needing support.

At a recent ACP meeting, an attendee reiterated the request: “Our morale is affected because we are on a sinking ship. When will the ‘counter-reformation’ take place? We’re like an All-Ireland team without a goalie. We need a national confidential priests’ helpline. We’re slow to look for help.”

The concerns of a severe dip in the morale and well-being of priests in the country have been raised by the 1,000-member clerical group in at least three different meetings in the past few months.

Fr. Roy Donovan, a spokesman for the ACP, told IrishCentral in May that besides the priests who are speaking up, he believes many more elderly churchmen are suffering in silence, and don’t know where to go for help.

The factors for the crisis in morale and mental health are several-fold, priests have said.

Like much of the world, Ireland, once a thriving Catholic country, is facing a serious vocations crisis. In 2004, Ireland had more than 3,100 priests. By 2014, the last year data is available, the number had declined by more than 500, with 2,627 priests in the country, though the number of active priests is likely closer to just 1,900.

This shortage leads to a phenomenon called clustering, where several parishes are combined into one for lack of leadership, increasing priests’ workload and subsequent stress, and forcing many priests to work well beyond retirement years because of the lack of new vocations.  

“These men lived through a time when there were plenty of vocations and their churches were full at Mass, so there's a loss of esteem. Also, in the past they would have had live-in housekeepers. Now most don't and are on their own and so feeling a lot more isolated and lonely, as well as feeling nervous and more vulnerable,” Fr. Brendan Hoban, one of the founders of ACP, said during a meeting in November 2016.

Also, starting in the 1990s, the Catholic Church in Ireland was rocked by a sex abuse scandal that resulted in a massive decline in both vocations and in the faith of the laypeople.

Priests reported being disheartened by the declining faith in the people they serve, “who have so little contact with the church from First Communions to funerals,” according to minutes from the meetings.

Priests’ confidence “has been eroded when we see so many people going through the motions of faith,” they said.

Recently, the Church in Ireland has also been rocked by negative press regarding the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, and the Sisters there “did a disservice by not clarifying exactly what happened. They need to do so immediately. It makes our job impossible, especially as we face a storm on abortion next year,” the priests noted at a meeting.

Their requests included the hiring of a media person who could speak clearly for clergy and bishops in times of crisis. The country is also facing an ongoing, heated debate about whether or not to legalize abortion.

The priests also acknowledged that they need to be better about asking for help when they need it.

“We need to unmask and say ‘I need help!’ There is a great sense of ‘being alone,’ making our own way in the diocese. There is a lack of dialogue among priests in the diocese. Yet, people are fantastic and generous in parishes, if given half-a-chance.”


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