Head of St. Luke Institute resigns

WASHINGTON - Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, who spent the last 12 years at the helm of St. Luke Institute, a treatment center in Maryland for priests and religious with addictions or psychological problems, announced July 8 that he will be stepping down as the institute's president and CEO in October.

The priest-psychologist who started working at the institute in 1993 and became its president in 1997 described the ministry as a "dream assignment for a priest" primarily because of its "multiplier effect," meaning that once a priest or religious leaves the facility to go back to ministry - as 80 percent of St. Luke's clients do - they in turn help hundreds of others.

Clients at the institute suffer substance addictions, eating disorders, sexual behavior problems, depression or other psychological problems. They either seek help themselves or are referred by their religious superiors or bishops.

Msgr. Rossetti will be succeeded by Father Edward Arsenault of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. Father Arsenault has spent the last 14 years in both pastoral work and diocesan administration, most recently as moderator of the curia and vicar for administration.

In an interview with Catholic News Service the day after announcing he will be leaving St. Luke, Msgr. Rossetti described the role of ministering to priests and religious as being "at heart of the church" because of the critical work these men and women do.

He noted that it is often difficult for priests and religious to admit they need help "because they are so used to helping others."

When he announced his plans to current residents at St. Luke, the group stood and applauded him. "It was one of the most touching things," the 58-year-old priest said.

It probably should not come as a surprise that clients feel as they do about the priest who makes it a point to meet and talk with each of the residents while also overseeing the institute's psychological and spiritual programs, researching or writing books and articles, and giving talks to priests and religious across the world on spirituality, sexuality and mental health.

"I've walked side by side with them," he said of the hundreds of clients who come through the institute each year.

Msgr. Rossetti believes so strongly in this work that he said he looked his successor "squarely in the eyes and said, 'If you love priests and religious and want to walk with them in their woundedness, you have to be here.'" Otherwise, he suggested, the ministry might not be for him.

Fortunately for St. Luke, Father Arsenault agreed with Msgr. Rossetti's challenge. Besides his other duties, the New Hampshire priest also has served in parish ministry and has been deeply involved in Catholic health care ministry.

Msgr. Rossetti, who spent six years in the Air Force as an intelligence officer before becoming a priest for the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., in 1984, is a licensed psychologist in Maryland and Massachusetts and holds master's degrees in psychology, political science and theology and a doctorate in psychology.

He was an associate pastor in two Syracuse-area parishes before he began to specialize in work related to the psychological treatment of priests, nuns and brothers.

He said he is stepping down from his work because nearly 17 years "is a long time to be at one place."

He plans to join the faculty of The Catholic University of America in Washington to teach in the school of theology and religious studies. Although he said he looks forward to being a mentor to seminarians, he also plans to discuss with his bishop if there is other work he should do.

Above all, he indicated that he hoped his new ministry might have a "low key" aspect to it.

That certainly would not describe his work seven years ago when the priest was often called upon either to explain or help the church respond to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Looking back, he describes that time as "the most difficult part" not only of his ministry but of U.S. church history.

But he also said the Church experienced grace during that time.

Msgr. Rossetti served as a consultant to the U.S. Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse that drafted the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

He said the charter - requiring every diocese to have an abuse-prevention program in place - reflects the church's aggressive response to abuse and has become a model for other groups across the country.

Msgr. Rossetti stressed that he did not want to seem "Pollyannaish" but he is convinced there are "signs of a new springtime" for the priesthood as vocations are slightly increasing. He said church growth after such hardship follows the spiritual principle "Out of death comes new life."

He is currently working on a study of priests' wellness. According to initial findings, he said, the average priest is well-adjusted and happy, which does not surprise him even though it goes against the impression often given by the media.

The book might be ready next year with his new schedule, but as he put it, "It depends on how fast I can write."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009