A Pastoral Approach to Bullying


In a little over a two-month period, two men in our city killed themselves because of what can only be called “bullying.” Shortly after the New Year, a student, attending a high school I had attended and taught at decades before, ended his life at the age of sixteen. He had been a victim of cruel accusations leveled at him through social media sites. Among the printable comments from his accusers were: “——‘s an ape” and “Put ‘em 6 feet under.” Worn down by his accusers, he ended his life in the backyard of his home. A relative summarized his persecutors: “They crushed his spirit and took away his motivation to do anything.”

Two months later, an octogenarian priest I had known for nearly fifty years, shot himself in his home. In the previous year, he had been named in a “John Doe” lawsuit as a person who ignored John Doe’s complaint against a seminarian alleged to have committed molestation over three decades earlier. A long-term friend and administrative assistant told our local newspaper that the accusation “could never be (true),” and said the priest had “died of a broken heart.” Having known the priest myself, I also found this accusation, as it was written, very difficult to believe.

Bullying has risen to public attention in recent months, mostly because of the novel ways in which bullies are attacking others with “social media,” by using this approach as an anti-social “weapon.” When I was in grade school, the physically weak or undersized or overweight child was the target of physical and verbal abuse, and vilification on restroom stalls. With the advent of texting, Internet electronic “walls” for public graffiti, and chat rooms, the available venues for bullies have multiplied exponentially. Worse, now the assailants have access to targets whose size, or prominence, would have made them unassailable in previous generations. Both of the victims profiled above were valued and successful, one an Eagle scout, and the other a nationally-known lecturer and author. In these days of 24-7 electronic communication, the bully has direct access to attacking the most vulnerable part of a human being’s psyche: his mental/emotional self-image.

In a somewhat different context, “Anonymous” analyzed the bully in HPR in October, 2013:

When a child has a meager or non-existent attachment to his or her parents, he or she will turn to peers for love and approval. This is where everything breaks down. In the peer group, the child immediately learns that appearing emotionally needy or vulnerable is an invitation to ridicule and rejection. The child must develop tougher, less vulnerable means of interacting, hence the crude and aggressive language, the cult of “coolness,” and the frequent contempt expressed for adult values. Aggression gradually becomes a permanent trait that the child, and later the adult, is unaware of, although he or she remains painfully conscious of its existence in others. This is the psychological birthplace of bullying. (Anonymous, HPR, Oct, 2013 hprweb.com/2013/10/lust-its-not-always-about-sex/)

The potential victim of the bully has the same human weakness as the bully does. All of us need acceptance by our peer group. Everyone needs emotional support for our psychological and spiritual well-being. That is an important argument for spiritual direction. But every one of us is a sinner (Rom 3:23) and prone to sin. We are all potential targets for psychic assassination. All the bully needs is a partial truth about our weakness and sin to get a hook into our minds and hearts. If he or she tugs on that hook enough, and particularly if other bullies gang up on the victim, long-term damage and death can be the result. With the availability of social media, where one bully can assume multiple identities, the victim can believe himself to be the target of a corps of attackers, when only one bully is doing all the damage.

There is a growing awareness of the problem of bullying in the public square. High profile suicides, such as the ones reported above, unfortunately seize public attention on a fairly regular basis. It would be a heavy indictment against our collective conscience if they did not. State and national political leaders and legislators discuss how to get bullying under control, or how to craft laws that deter such activities, in a society that values and protects the freedom of expression.

But as with so many human failures, sins, and societal breakdowns, the application of external force is entirely inadequate to eliminate the problem of bullying. To stop or reduce what is essentially an individual’s moral evil, that individual must recognize that he has “missed the mark” and done or wished damage to another, repent of that bad behavior or intention, and seek forgiveness and healing. Beyond that, the damage done requires some kind of restitution. If one has driven another to attempt or complete self-destruction, restitution is not possible. Even in situations with less damage, total restitution is very difficult. But this is where the ministry of the Church becomes so important.

Of course, the “zeroeth” level of our response as leaders in the Church is to examine our own habits involving communication, especially about others. I myself avoid the use of social media as much as possible, but I must use e-mails in my pastoral and educational roles, and I keep a website. All of us, especially those with huge “electronic footprints” could make use of a fellow clergyman as an auditor of our web presence and e-mails. That would be an appropriate subject of our regular spiritual direction. In our homilies and pastoral counseling, it is wise for us to regularly admit to being sinners, and needing repentance and healing of our own tendencies toward evil. That helps immunize us from some gossip, because those tempted to be a tale-bearer about their clergy realize that we understand our own weaknesses and faults, and need for divine assistance. And, beyond everything else, we should be praying for divine protection and saintly intercession to enable us to grow in our effective pastoral communication. Saint Gabriel, Archangel, pray for us!

There are many ways we can help others to avoid and fend off bullying: First, through our parish bulletins, our catechesis, our websites, and especially, our preaching—the community’s clergy, and other leaders, have a responsibility to make parishioners and students aware of the problem of bullying. We have a unique opportunity to help the reader and listener understand that the issue is a spiritual one—that our common enemy uses bullying as a way to destroy the human spirit and even the human body. It is helpful here to give homilies, and write commentaries, identifying the sins of slander and calumny, and helping our parishioners, and especially, our leaders, to recognize and refuse the habit of gossip. It would be wise in these times to specifically ask others to examine their consciences about the use of social media and texting. One of my relatives audited text use in her family, and found that one child had sent seven thousand text messages in a single month!

Second, we can spend time and energy building up our communities as support teams for those who are resisting the impulse to bully, and those who find themselves occasional or chronic victims of the crime. I believe every homily should have at least one “action item” that every listener could make use of to have a positive impact on others. The most helpful thing we can do for our parishioners in many areas is to help them to become “encouragers.” If one becomes aware of a bullying incident–and we need to pray for sensitivity to the non-verbals that can signal such a problem—time should be taken to listen to the victim or perpetrator, and encourage him to do good, and avoid evil. Children, whose frontal lobes—the decision-making apparatus in our brains—are underdeveloped, can develop both bullying and victim habits early in life. They are also the easiest to diagnose and help, because they have not learned to hide their actions and feelings as adults have. For both children and adults who are tempted to bully or sulk, the clergyman or leader can recommend frequent confession and communion as remedies for both the temptation to bully, and the injury of being bullied.

Third, we need to develop a sensitivity toward all those avenues that permit, or perhaps encourage, bullying in our parish communities. Don’t ignore gossip. The habitual gossiper can do immense damage to a religious community. Kindly ask the purveyor of tales what positive impact he or she is having on others by that action. Such a conversation can save many souls from damage. Remove chronic gossips from parish leadership, and then be prepared to become the target yourself!

But in everything, clergymen should be full-time encouragers. There is enough evil talk in the world. Jesus and the apostles identified wrongdoing and condemned it, but the Scriptures clearly show them spending most of their days healing and encouraging good behavior. That should be the pattern of every servant of the Truth, every minister of the Church.

Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

Deacon Pat Cunningham was ordained in 2002 and recently celebrated twenty years of diaconal service. He is retired from Catholic school teaching and administration but still serves part-time at St. Pius X parish in San Antonio, TX. He has been married to Carolyn since 1971; they have three daughters and ten grandchildren.


  1. Readers may find of interest this article on bullying trauma from our child website (http://www.childhealing.com/articles/bullying.php) that describes the causes of this hostile treatment of youth, the short and long term psychological consequences, an effective treatment approach for the victims, parental responsibility, the need for forgiveness education in schools and in the home and role of faith.

  2. Avatar Frederick Costello says:

    We need to teach the virtues (especially charity) and vices and the penalties for violating the Ten Commandments, especially the fifth. The Deacon’s proposals are secular. Remember the 1970’s adage: you can’t legislate morality.

  3. Avatar Greg Sampson says:

    I speak from experience. It has been said that bullies, for the most part, are not that tough. It has also been said that if a bully is confronted when not flanked by his toadies, he will turn into jelly. While these are not absolute truths, they are practically always true, and they form the foundation of a workable personal policy which can eliminate the threat of a bully. I was told this, many years ago. And I tried to implement the policy. It worked. A bully was left in the men’s room of a junior high school with two black eyes and a messed-up nose. As far as I know, he never bullied again. I think I did him a favor.