National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 15, 1995

Blowing whistle on sex abuse means new career for priest

NCR Staff

Ten years ago, Fr. Tom Doyle, 50, made a decision he says erased any hope he might have had for upward mobility on the ladder of church employment. But this decision, according to Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP, has allowed him “more than any other priest in the United States” to bring hope and healing to hundreds of victims of clerical sex abuse.

A decade ago, Doyle, at the time a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, became aware of the problems of sex abuse among Catholic clergy. He had been monitoring correspondence for what was perhaps the first highly publicized case of clerical abuse in the United States -- a lawsuit in the Lafayette, La., diocese.

Joining ranks with attorney Ray Mouton, the lawyer defending the Lafayette priest, and the late psychiatrist and Catholic cleric Michael Peterson, who was acting as a referral person for the Lafayette diocese, Doyle helped produce an extensive report about the clergy sex abuse problem. That document may have been the beginning of the end of Doyle’s standing in the official Catholic circles.

The idea for the report jelled after Mouton “found out the diocese was covering up for other pedophiles and began blowing the whistle,” Doyle said. Alarmed that the Lafayette scenario was occurring “a lot” elsewhere, Doyle said the three professionals were compelled to do something about it.

Their report on the issue was a “freewill offering” to the bishops, Doyle said. “I had talked to a number of bishops and asked how we could help. They suggested this particular format,” Doyle said. “At that time, a lot of the bishops were just baffled by this whole thing because, very quickly, a lot of cases were popping up.”

The inch-thick dossier provided a comprehensive analysis of sexual problems among Roman Catholic clerics, legal advice, suggestions for clinical evaluations and treatment and aftercare planning for priests. Most important, it outlined a “confidential crisis proposal” that included a national-level strategy to help the church as an institution respond to victims and their families when reports of abuse surfaced.

Doyle said that in the mid-1980s, he and his colleagues wanted to see a national-level committee within the bishops’ conference that would “hire the best lawyers, psychologists and pastoral care people to get a state-of-the-art analysis on the problem and ... how to handle it.”

The authors’ primary goal, Doyle said, was “making sure the response to the victims and their families was total compassion.”

Doyle said the bishops initially favored the proposal, but “something happened” in the conference.

“All of a sudden, (the initiative) just flopped and fell through,” Doyle said. “I never found out exactly why. The steps we had taken to get them interested in a special ad hoc committee all of a sudden were shut down. They didn’t want to deal with it on that level.”

Doyle said no committee or entity of the bishops’ conference studied the issue seriously. One bishop, Doyle said, dismissed the crisis proposal as calling for a “SWAT” team. Doyle said another bishop referred to him as an “agent of Satan.”

The bishops’ response to the report over the years “was consistently very condemnatory of what we had done,” Doyle said. He said “the bishops’ conference did not use the power and information it had to take a leadership position on the issue. They took a defensive position. They tried to cover up and control.”

Early on in the clergy sex abuse scandal, bishops were reluctant to speak publicly of incidents for fear of scandal. Later, on the advice of lawyers, bishops failed to speak out or make approaches to victims for fear of costly legal battles and settlements. Some also said they were reluctant to publicly address increasing incidents because of concern for due process and the rights of accused priests.

Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco, secretary of communications for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said the independent report was “parallel to education work the bishops were already doing for themselves” and that to point to the report as a “crucial step” in the response to pedophilia “is to overemphasize it.”

Maniscalco said that to “just write off church behavior as a cover-up is to ignore the context of the rest of society where these kinds of things are happening.”

He said that a decade ago when the independent report was released, given the sensitive nature of the issue, the bishops “considered it more fitting and to the point to discuss it in executive session” rather than in public forums. He said it might have been “better all along if the public had known what the bishops were doing -- one could debate that.”

SNAP’s Blaine, however, says victims of clerical sex abuse have suffered most from the bishops’ reluctance to embrace the report and crisis plan. “I think that if the bishops had taken to heart the recommendations from that 1985 report, the healing processes that have finally started could have begun in the church 10 years ago. And the church wouldn’t have had to face all the public scandal that erupted,” Blaine said.

Blaine points to Doyle’s public stance as a key element of the victims’ healing process.

“The biggest thing he has done is that he has been willing to listen and acknowledge the victims’ pain. He has publicly and privately apologized to victims for what other priests have done. It has meant a lot to survivors that he would say, ‘I am sorry that a brother priest would do this to you,’ ” Blaine said.

Doyle said his frank approach to the clergy sex abuse issue was probably what prompted higher-ups at the Vatican Embassy to edge him out of his canon law post. He said he also believes his outspokenness may have discouraged Catholic University from hiring him as a teacher in 1987.

Now, 25 years after his ordination, Doyle works as a military chaplain. He will soon be posted at Lodges Field Air Force Base in the Azores -- smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“After I get out of the military, I won’t be able to get a job in the Catholic church even as a librarian at a convent for retired nuns,” he quipped.

But Blaine said the course Doyle chose has made a significant impact on the lives of scores of survivors who, after suffering abuse from priests, have frequently been alienated and “re-abused” by church officials who deny and attempt to cover up the accusations.

“Doyle’s response is nothing revolutionary,” Blaine said. “It’s just a simple acknowledgment and understanding of the pain. It is stating clearly that when cover-ups happen, that is wrong. He is the only priest I know who has publicly stated that cover-ups are wrong. He has also challenged church officials to deal with perpetrators so more kids are not abused.”

Doyle said the institution’s response to clergy sex abuse has proved almost as painful for survivors as the crimes themselves.

“It wasn’t just priests sexually abusing little kids. It was the way the system responded. It wasn’t responding right and that’s why people ended up going to court,” Doyle said.

Doyle criticized the bishops for spending three days at their spring meeting “bickering over translations of the prayers in the Mass” while there are “lawsuits all over the place, thousands of alienated victims of sexual abuse by the clergy, priests going to jail, press stories coming out left and right and center.”

Doyle said he has doubts about the effectiveness of the bishops’ ad hoc committee on sex abuse, a committee formed in 1993 and chaired by Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn. Kinney was unavailable for comment.

Doyle said, “I don’t think stopgap measures or putting Band-Aids on cancer is helping. (The committee) has published a little manual, but I think it is far too late for that.”

The bishops, Doyle said, need to change their entire approach. “Having more meetings and conferences is not the issue. It’s an attitudinal change we need,” he said.

When bishops confirm reports of sexual abuse by priests, they should go to the victim “immediately,” Doyle said, stressing “this that happened to you is wrong,” and expressing deep concern from the church.

“I don’t see that happening,” he added.

Blaine agreed. “You hear survivors say, ‘The Catholic church is reaching out to victims of hurricanes, war, famine,’ ” she said. “They wonder why the same kind of effort cannot be made toward victims of our own priests.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 1995

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