As the sordid revelations about Fr. Marcial Marciel–the founder of the Legionaries of Christ–keep emerging the faithful ask, “Why were so many taken in by him?”

What very few people stop to consider is the complex psychology of religious belief. Religious faith is the greatest adventure and brings forth the very best of human beings, but we have to be honest and admit that it brings forth the very worst as well.

Why do people fall for priests who turn out to be such stinkers? It’s pretty complicated, but it goes like this: first of all, the bad priest himself is usually a complex character. He has deep flaws and serious sins deep down in his life. To compensate he tries very hard to be good, and what better way to be good than to become a priest? Becoming a priest helps him to cover up his flaws. He puts on a uniform everyday which proclaims that he is a holy man. The uniform allows him to play a part. He is comfortable being a good pastor, a caring person, a wonderful preacher, a man of prayer. It makes him feel better about himself and if he is not careful, he soon starts believing his own priestly image.

If he is charismatic, charming, debonair and dynamic he is even more attractive. If he is wise and wonderful and eloquent and compassionate and caring and almost Jesus himself, then he becomes even more popular and the real deep down problem is only made worse by the imposture, not better. Have you ever noticed how often it is the priests and pastors who seem the very best and most wonderful who are the ones who fall? Every asked yourself if the reason they were so wonderful is linked with their crash?

Furthermore, the whole church establishment from pope to people encourages him to merge his identity into his priesthood. He is not a man doing a job. He is to become what he was ordained to be–a self sacrificing priest. Now this is a great ideal and it is one which, when it works, makes for a wonderful transformation. However, the dark side is that all we get is a man in a priest outfit playing a part. The real monster still lurks below. If the inner problems are not resolved, the man soon starts living a double life. On the surface he is Father Fantastic. Everyone loves him. He’s good at everything. Indeed he is “the best priest we’ve ever had…”

Furthermore, the whole dynamic of parish life contributes to build up the false image. Everyone loves Father Fantastic. Everyone looks up to him. In fact they invest an awful lot of spiritual capital in him. They put him on a pedestal. In fact, the people, rather than learning to love God (which is hard work) love the priest instead. They idolize him and he can do no wrong because they actually want an idol of a priest who can do no wrong. He epitomizes for the their whole religion. All this false religion does is to make the bad priest’s conflict between his inner demons and the outer false image even worse.

Then the whole facade crumbles and Father Fantastic runs off with somebody or turns out to be an alcoholic or a pedophile or an embezzler or some other kind of skunk. Then everyone says, “How could it be! How could we have been taken in!” The sick psychology continues and Father Fantastic (who was only ever Father Flawed anyhow) is scapegoated by the community. He has gone from paragon to pariah. He’s an outcast. He’s guilty even when proven innocent.

Why were so many taken in by Father Maciel? Because so many people wanted to be taken in. It was easier and more exciting to believe the whole fabricated fiction than to take the effort to find out the truth and follow it.

I hope people will not misunderstand me and draw the conclusion that I am a cynic or that I don’t believe holy priests are possible. They are, but the best priests I’ve known have been the dull ones. Give me a plodder priest any day. Give me the Samwise Gamgees of the priestly fraternity. When it comes to priests, remember all that glitters is not gold.

I’m not encouraging cynicism and doubt. I’m just saying that if you come across a priest or a monk or a bishop who is too good to be true…He probably is.