Addicted priests, religious find help at Guest House

Priests and religious are not immune to addictions.

“How big is the problem? We don’t have any recent statistics,” said Denise Bertin-Epp, CEO and president of Guest House, an addiction treatment center for Catholic clergy and religious. “You can imagine that this is not a popular question. But our suspicion is that it’s the same as in the outside world.”

Guest House offers treatment for addiction to alcohol, drugs, food, hoarding, gambling, spending and other addictive behaviors or substances. A facility in Rochester, Minn., has capacity for 37 men, while Guest House in Lake Orion, Mich., can treat up to 20 women. Both have waiting lists.

Opiate addiction in vocations usually begins with pain medication that goes awry. “Unfortunately, if you have a collar on, physicians do things for you that they would not do for someone who could become a street-level junkie,” said Jeff Henrich, executive director of the men’s program. “They assume that you are honest, that you have a great deal of credibility, and they are trying to do something helpful for Father. But because priests have good insurance, they can ‘doctor shop’ to get multiple physicians to write prescriptions, and they have the resources to have those prescriptions filled.”

Many addicted sisters are elderly.

“They start legitimately with prescriptions for chronic pain disorders, they become very dependent and it stops being effective and you have to keep increasing the dose,” said Sister Mary Ellen Merrick, IHM, director of the women’s program. “Part of what happens is that the doctor is thinking, ‘If we can keep Sister comfortable, what’s the harm?’ But there’s great harm. We also have a lot of sisters who are heavy into supplements and so-called natural remedies, but they have the misconception that natural means good, and the body becomes like a chemistry experiment.”

Addiction can cause organ damage, mental fog and general malfunction.

“Then there’s the shame,” she said. “When you put ordination or vows on top of addiction, (society) just doesn’t expect this. They even ask themselves, ‘How could I have let this happen?’”

New awakening

Life can change for clergy and religious when they detox through programs such as Mayo Clinic’s Pain Management. Priests return to churches and get standing ovations. Sisters can be active in their communities again.

“They don’t imagine that life is possible without pain killers, but it’s a new awakening for them,” Henrich said.

Terry Sullivan is on a Guest House outreach team that visits dioceses to educate Church leaders about chemical dependency.

“These men are typically taught to be very good priests to the people, but they are not taught how to be priests to themselves and to each other,” he said. “Maybe they have anxiety and get prescribed something that should have been on a short-term basis for a temporary problem, and all of a sudden it becomes part of a lifestyle. But when these men go into recovery, they are the greatest men in the world and they touch more lives. A parish priest in recovery can give a homily to 1,000 people, and 200 are in addiction and another 40 percent are touched by it. You have a ready audience.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. Visit guesthouse.org.

Spirituality in Healing