14 Feb 2017

Thomas Plante Investigates the Ethical Life

Thomas Plante Investigates the Ethical Life
Over his career, APA Fellow Thomas Plante has studied various social issues through the prism of ethics.

Thomas G. Plante, PhD, a San Francisco Bay–area psychologist and Fellow of the American Psychological Association, writes often about the practicalities of living an ethical life.

“Treat everybody with respect and compassion, even if you don’t like them or agree with them,” says Plante. “That’s certainly how I organize my life.”       

Plante is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J. University Professor in psychology at Santa Clara University (SCU) in Santa Clara, Calif., a researcher, clinician and author of 21 books and more than 200 scholarly professional articles and chapters.

Plante says our society has moved away from endorsing positive practices such as “goodness,” which he defines as behavior that is not only respectful and compassionate, but also “civil and gracious, working for the benefit of the whole, acknowledging that we all have a part to play.” He thinks we need to bring goodness back into style.

Plante’s latest book, Graduating with Honor: Best Practices to Promote Ethics Development in College Students, written with his wife, Lori G. Plante, PhD, also a psychologist, centers on interviews the two did with students at SCU, a Jesuit school where ethics is a required course for every student, and Dartmouth College, a secular Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H., where their son is an undergraduate.

What the Plantes found was that “students at both places can see that ethics could be helpful to them,” but the Dartmouth students, who are not required to take ethics courses, were “like a dry sponge” on the topic, “excited” to hear about how they might operate decently and meaningfully in the world, Plante says. He found that heartening, and would love to see all students at all educational levels receive ethics training. He doesn’t envision ethics training as telling them what to do, but rather as giving them the tools to make “thoughtful” decisions.

“Ethics are just the tools, a way to be intentional about who you become. In our heart of hearts, we all want to strive toward goodness,” he says.

Ethics is only one of Plante’s specializations. His dissertation was on the psychological effects of aerobic exercise, and he is still professionally interested in health. Religion has become a major focus, though. Psychology and religion have had “a tumultuous relationship,” but religion has a role to play in an ethical life, Plante says. “How does that impulse get nurtured? Where do you go when you struggle? How are you inspired? It’s harder to do when you’re all by yourself,” he says.

Plante is a leading expert on one of the most demoralizing scandals of our time—the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. In 1989, when Plante was a fledgling ethics instructor at Stanford University, he fell into the assignment that would impact his career for decades to come.

“A Catholic priest friend who knew I was a psychologist called and said, ‘We have some guys who are being accused of being sexually inappropriate. Can you see if there’s anything to this?’” he recalls.

Plante quickly got to work and found that sexual abuse by priests was real, and that it was not rare. He also realized there wasn’t a body of research on the topic. He rounded up several other psychologists around the country who were also looking into the issue, and by the late 1990s, they had enough collective knowledge to put together a book, Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned, which Plante contributed to and edited. By that time, Plante and his colleagues could estimate with some confidence that between 2 and 6 percent of Catholic clergy members had had a sexual experience with a minor. “The actual figure wound up at 4 percent,” he says.

The research team thought their book would create a sensation when it came out in 1999, but only two low-level reporters even attended the press conference they hosted. Only when “the stars aligned” in a “confluence of factors” that included the fact that Boston, Mass., was a “Catholic-dense area” did clerical abuse finally get the attention it deserved, after the Boston Globe’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning Spotlight investigation. “It should have hit the press in a big way before then,” Plante says.

Once clergy sexual abuse came to the attention of the public, though, for a while “I did nothing but talk to the media [about the topic], teach classes and see my patients,” he says.

Plante has written two more books on the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, one in 2004 and one in 2011. Even now, it’s a “hot, hot topic,” he says. Plante points out that many people still feel tremendous anger toward the church, not only for the fact of the abuse, but also for the avoidant way bishops and other church officials handled it. “Hard data” shows that sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy, while “horrific,” is roughly what occurs among the clergy of other faiths, and is significantly lower than for the adult male population at large, Plante notes; he treats many clerics for issues like alcohol and pornography addiction, depression and anxiety. “We forget that those [clerics] are very human people, with the problems and issues anybody has.”

Plante himself is an “engaged” Catholic, “more of a Vatican II, peace, social justice, Dorothy Day Catholic.” His family belongs to both a Catholic parish and a Jewish congregation (his wife is Jewish). He grew up in Providence, R.I., in a latticework of light and dark, as he remembers it, created in large part by the “interesting juxtaposition” of the Catholic Church and organized crime in the city’s life.

“Everybody went to church,” but quite a few of them were criminals, too, he says. Like most people he knew, Plante’s family was Catholic, of Irish and French Canadian stock. His father was a builder, “but he only built in certain towns outside the circle of Providence, the ones that weren’t influenced by the mob,” he recalls.

The influence of this “quirky place” may be one reason Plante is not surprised when he finds the bad and the good jumbled together in the same institution, or the same person. People want to be good but sometimes “lose their way,” he says.

“It keeps coming back to this question: How do you want to be in the world?” he says. In a time when “everything has turned tabloid, ethics could be a terrific tool to get ourselves back on course.”

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