Fr. Stephan Kappler, president and chief psychologist at Southdown. Michael Swan

Southdown to launch program for clergy on discerning boundaries

  • August 11, 2023

Following a 50-country conference on safeguarding against clerical sexual abuse, Southdown Institute’s Fr. Stephen Kappler is launching a pilot project this month to train clergy on boundaries, abuse of spiritual power and healthy integrated sexuality.

Kappler says the 2023 International Safeguarding Conference held in mid-June at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University showed the incredible work the Church in North America has done to protect vulnerable young people against the menace of sexual abuse by implementing codes of conduct, identifying risk factors and heightening sensitivity around reporting abuse.

But he notes there remains work to be done by the worldwide Church in clarifying what is meant by such notions as “vulnerable adult” or “adult in a vulnerable situation.” There is, he said, a global consensus around what constitutes sexual misconduct with a minor. But cultural differences within the Church can muddle understanding of proper boundaries regarding pastoral relationships and power imbalances when it comes to adults, especially as the concept of vulnerability itself is expanding, he added.

“We’ve moved beyond understanding vulnerability in terms of ‘disability,’ ” said Southdown’s president and chief psychologist.

To help ground that understanding Southdown, which was established in 1965 to provide priests, deacons and religious with psychological care, is hosting this month’s Continuing Human Formation pilot project. Clergy will work in small, intensive teams as they learn to more effectively discern limits and imbalances.

For Kappler, the project reflects his emphasis on the need for human formation to extend beyond the seminary and become part of an ongoing process in the same way that it is necessary for him as a psychologist to regularly update his training in order to maintain his license.

He stresses the need to guard against a risk within the Church of “been there-done that” complacency around the whole issue of clerical sexual abuse. It would be hard, he says, to find a North American diocese, eparchy or parish where there isn’t a level of awareness about sexual abuse. Yet there are cultural contexts in which taboos still exist around having conversations related to anything regarding the topic of sexuality, thus impeding the implementation of safeguarding policies and practices in those contexts. There is also still some deference extended towards priests, but Kappler stressed the need to push beyond that culturally and consider priests irrespective of their age, cultural identity or position.

The International Safeguarding Conference took aim at those impediments by its focus on accountability in the area of child protection in the Church. About 200 experts, including bishops, victim-survivors., victim assistance coordinators and other specialists, took part in the June 19-21event. Kappler presented a paper as a representative of the Canadian delegation because of his role on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Standing Committee for Responsible Ministry and Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons. He said he was particularly proud of Archbishop Paul-André Durocher’s leadership at the conference because of the way the Gatineau, Que., archbishop spoke so humbly about his own process of learning.

Based on his attendance at the conference and on his ministerial experience, Kappler stressed priests should not be afraid to reach out to survivors. There are only two pastoral skills necessary to do so, he says: “The ability to listen and not be defensive.”

Creating welcoming safe spaces for victim-survivors must allow for the expression of a lot of pain and anger, emotions that are challenging to deal with, but it is important to listen and “be there” for them. He urged priests encountering traumatized victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse to adopt a humble, grateful aspect toward a victim-survivor who wishes to participate in the sacramental life of the Church or who is willing to engage in any kind of Catholic ministry. It’s simply a matter of accompanying them wherever they are at, he says.

Sacraments, Kappler says, are celebrations of sacred moments in people’s lives, and are a tangible way for those in the Church to celebrate God’s grace present to them. Sacraments might be adapted for victim-survivors, as they are for people with learning disabilities for example, so that they will not be hurtful, retraumatizing or painful experiences.

Although for some victim-survivors, the association of Southdown with the treatment of clergy offenders may be discouraging, they are welcome to contact the institute ( should they wish to receive spiritual direction or psychological care through Outpatient Wellness Services. Southdown practices spiritually integrated psychotherapy, which means that topics of spirituality and faith are brought into sessions only as much as the client wishes and at the client’s initiation. This would be important to some victim-survivors who may experience trauma triggers when presented with certain religious language or symbols that may have been present during their experiences of abuse.

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