On the Wounds to the Survivors of Priestly Sexual Abuse:
Interview with Reverend Thomas Doyle

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly
June 27, 2003 Episode 643

Read more of Kim Lawton's interview with Rev. Thomas Doyle, priest, canon lawyer, advocate and friend of the survivors of priestly sexual abuse, who in 1985 warned the Catholic hierarchy of the potential scope of the sex abuse scandal:

[They are] profound. This is not just physical abuse that happens to these people. The worst dimension of it, the most painful dimension, is the spiritual abuse. There we often hear the term, connected with the victims, of "soul rape" and "soul murder." The institutional Church oftentimes will respond to questions with euphemisms: "Well, Father inappropriately touched this young man or young girl, and there were boundary violations." Those are euphemisms. That's part of the denial. In reality, for the most part it is rape and brutalization of the person's body, but it's [also] their soul, and the pain and the agony and the anguish and all that goes with that are still there. There's a long, long way to go before the institutional Church ever comes even close to beginning the healing process.

On survivor protests and demonstrations:

One of the goals with this is to break down the still strong wall of denial that exists on the part of many of the clergy and a lot of the laypeople who find it so painful, if not impossible, to accept the reality of this incredible saga of sexual abuse. They don't want to see or hear that the institutional Church that gives them so much security, that has controlled so much of their spiritual life for so long, has feet or foundations of clay.

On a new feeling of empowerment among lay Catholics:

I think it's unfortunate that it took this deadly "disease" to help people realize that the laypeople are not an appendage of the Church. They're not a necessary evil, [and] the only sound you hear out of them is the opening of the wallet or the scratching of the pen in a checkbook. They are, in a sense, the vast, vast majority of the Catholic Church. And the Catholic Church is not just a structure or an institution; it's a way of life. The clergy, by their own definition, and the hierarchy are there to serve. But you'd hardly believe it, if you look at the way things are handled for the most part. Big empowerment -- it's happening. People are waking up, finally, [to the fact] that they are adults, and when they go to church they don't have to act like three-year-olds. They can be adults -- mature, professional adults; they can ask for accountability, they can demand that when the priest speaks from the pulpit he not mumbo-jumbo them to death -- that he talk straight and say something relevant.

I think it's definitely trickling up. You can tell by the way the hierarchy is responding. They can no longer simply ignore and stand aloof from all this. How anyone could stand aloof from thousands and thousands of sexual abuse victims is beyond me. But that's exactly what has happened. There still would be almost no recognition were it not for the secular media who put the shotgun on one side of the head, and the attorneys with their lawsuits who put the other shotgun on the other side that said, "Fellas, wake up and smell the coffee. We're here."

On the bishops' sex abuse policy:

It's going to address, I think, what they think is going to be a major solution to the problem, but most of us, including, I'd say unofficially, probably all the survivors, are very skeptical, and they look at this as a Band-aid over cancer. It's one small aspect. It's [the bishops'] way of addressing the issue and hoping it will now go away, basically, by saying, "We're going to use our own processes; we're going to take care of all these priests who are accused." That's not the point. The civil law will take care of them. [The bishops] are going to worry about whether a man should continue in ministry or not; if he's in jail, that's not an issue. The major issue, I think, is not finding quick and efficient ways to dispatch the accused clerics. The issue is that the bishops have to take a long, hard, honest look at their own responsibility, why this has been happening over the years, why it hasn't been taken care of, and number one, why the institutional Church, through its bishops and clerics, has not responded in an honest, compassionate, caring way to the victims -- why it has stiff-armed them, lied to them, stonewalled them, made them wait months if not years for responses to phone calls, treated them like the enemy, refused to believe them and, in general, consistently revictimized them. That was going on all the way through from the time I became involved in 1985, and it's still going on.

On accountability:

Legally, from a Church law standpoint, the only official that the bishops are accountable to is the pope. He's their reporting official, to use military terms. He writes their ticket. And if the pope chooses to fire a bishop, as has happened in this country, he's fired. However, there has to be accountability to the laypeople, and one way the laypeople are beginning to exercise their demand for accountability is by closing their checkbooks and putting their wallets away and cutting back on the money -- that gets the system's attention.

Years ago in Canada, there was a committee appointed at St. John's Newfoundland to investigate the cover-up involving Mount Cashel Orphanage. This committee came forward and found that the archbishop had indeed been negligent, had covered up, and was liable. If the review board that the bishops themselves have committed to [is] free and independent enough (which I don't think they are) to say that Bishop X or Y or Z has covered this up, has been irresponsible and so forth, that would make a profound statement -- I mean, their own board saying that. But they won't say that. Now they're dodging around and saying, "We're going to take a look at the root causes of this." It says to me that they're doing anything to avoid hitting the nail on the head, and I think the reason they're doing that is because they're still controlled by the bishops conference.

On his reaction to the Catholic hierarchy's response to the sex abuse crisis:

Disappointment, anger, frustration, and, at the same point, resignation. I am not surprised; I've seen the way they've dealt with other situations over the years. The Vatican is in massive denial, but I believe they're afraid, and one of the ways one can tell this is that so many of the talking heads over there, the officials in the Vatican, have made these condemnatory statements: It's the press that's causing this; it's an assault by the lawyers. They're revictimizing the victims, and they're blaming anything else but the system itself. They're shifting the blame. This says that they're probably afraid. They realize that it's not an American problem, it's a universal problem. It's not simply dysfunctional priests and clerics who are sexually abusing children; it's a dysfunctional Church structure that's spiritually abusing people who are abused by the clerics. The Vatican is not responding responsibly at all; they have not responded to victims, they have responded only because they've been pushed to the wall. And their response has been fairly traditional and expected. The cardinals didn't need to go to Rome last April to have the pope tell them that this is a crime and an evil. We could've told them that here [and] saved them all the airfare.

On whether Pope John Paul II's legacy has been tarnished:

I believe it has. And this is not just a personal belief on my part; I've heard a lot of people. There are still those who idolize him; he's still an icon. For the victims, for the survivors, he's not. Because what they see of all these events, when he goes to all these different countries -- they look at those, as do many, many others, as theatrics. When the pope was in Toronto for the World Youth Day, he refused to see a significant chunk of the important youth of the world -- those who had been sexually abused by his own clerics. They had refused to acknowledge them. The handlers said it wasn't on the schedule, they couldn't see them, so on and so forth. It's all nonsense. That's denial. They didn't want to confront them because they're afraid of them. These people speak the truth. They don't mince words. You sit down with a bunch of victims, [and] they're going to call a spade a spade. They've had it, and rightly so.

On implementing the U.S. bishops' plan:

I think the main challenge is its believability. They keep saying how wonderful this is, and this is the answer to all of this, but there's no credibility among the survivor groups, and that's the most important [constituency]. That's thousands of people -- not just those who were sexually abused, [but] their families, their friends, their supporters, and it's a rapidly growing army of supporters. [They] look at the bishops' plan and say, "This doesn't cut it." All it is, basically, is what's already in our legal system -- finding ways to deal with priests who've been accused. That was already there, except that they never followed it correctly. Now they're being forced to follow it, or so they say.

A big part of the problem is that the Vatican's involved. If there's an accusation on a local level, it has to be reported to the Vatican, and they will decide whether the case will be processed here, on the local level, or taken to the Vatican. If it goes over there, it's again shrouded in secrecy. The accused cleric doesn't even have any right to know who his accuser is unless the accuser admits it. So it's a disservice both to priests and to the victims themselves.

I think there's a whole other dimension to this, and that's the way priests who have been accused have been treated. They too have been treated shabbily. There have been accusations that were never properly investigated, where men have been shanghaied, you know, just cut off and thrown to the wolves, with no concern at all as to their welfare.

On whether a tribunal system is feasible:

I don't think so. First off, you're talking about an entirely different process -- it's called a criminal process. The process on paper looks good. But it's complicated; it will take a lot of different factors to ensure justice. The problem is that the bishop appoints the judges; the bishop runs the whole show. It's not like in the United States where we have a system of powers, checks and balances, and the judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislative [branches]. In the Catholic Church system, it is not. There is no accountability, and you have the possibility of built-in dishonesty. None of the canon lawyers in this country -- there may be a few who have some experience, and I think they're going to have some training sessions on this. But the judicial process to defrock these men -- that's only a small part of the problem. What they should have concentrated their efforts on is reaching out to and healing the victims. That's what's far, far more important; that's what the victims want. They're not satisfied with this, and I'm not satisfied, and most of the supporters are not satisfied.

I would say [it will take] four to five years at least to see what effect [tribunals will have]. The priests' morale already is at rock bottom because they feel powerless. Now the only entities in the Church that I think are dealing with equity and fairness to both victims and priests are some of the religious orders, because you have a whole other culture. And religious orders don't have bishops. There's much more of a family atmosphere, a community atmosphere in the religious orders. The diocesan priests, however -- they use a lot of terms to describe the priest-bishop relationship, but in fact it is not father-son. There's very little trust, for the most part. The men feel powerless; they're filled with fear. A few guys in the center, in administration, are close with the bishop, but many of the priests out there are left drifting.

On comparing past recommendations made to the bishops and current policy:

In 1985, we basically said from the canon law standpoint that they should follow what's in the code. What they're saying in this policy is essentially what was recommended then. However, the policy is limited because basically all it does is deal with that one small part. Our 1985 recommendations were fairly specific in that we called for the creation of a crisis intervention team, which would have been mostly lay experts, who would go to this or that diocese in response to a call from a bishop and deal with the problem in, I guess, a complete, holistic manner.

Number one concern: the victims, dealing with the victims. And we said all along, "Don't send some imperious cleric in, because that's what caused the problem." We wanted to send in some laypeople, some laywomen; they'd be believable, [and] we'd be able to get across the idea of true care and compassion.

The 1985 report emphasized the medical, psychological dimensions of this: what to do, the effects of sexual abuse on the victims, the dynamics of sexual abuse and sexual dysfunction on the part of the perpetrators themselves. We wanted to get it out of the purely moral realm, whereby you say, "Well, this is obviously a sin so you have to do penance, convert your will, change your will and will yourself not to do that." The behavioral scientists and the clinical psychologists are saying this is craziness. There's much more than that. What they do is immoral, it's evil, but why they do it is something else.

On the 1985 report to the bishops on priestly sexual abuse:

Regularly people have said, "If they'd only listened." I feel a deep sense of anger -- not for me; I expected that anything as radical as what we were recommending would be shuffled off and looked at with fear and trepidation. But what makes me angry is that it has taken 17 years -- well, actually, it has gone way beyond 17 years -- [for] the rape and brutalization and pillage and soul murder of thousands and thousands of people to get their attention. Why, when the first batch of victims became known to the bishops, didn't they rear up in horror over what was going on? Instead they tried to squelch it. Sandbag it. Bury it. Had there been some leadership at that time -- and there was none -- to step forward and deal with this in an effective way, rather than just, you know, the bishops felt that they had to control it all, and this was beyond their control at that time. There were a number of good men, bishops who wanted to do something, who were in favor -- none of us knew exactly where it was going. None of us did. The three of us who wrote the report are still flabbergasted -- the two of us who are still alive -- that the predictions came to pass. Where did we come up with them? We looked at what was happening, and we said this is going to get far worse before it gets better. I feel a lot of anger, a lot of sadness -- more sadness because I know the victims. I talk to them. If the bishops would ever take the time and muster up the courage to sit down, to really get to know some of these people, it would change the atmosphere really dramatically, [as it] would have over the years.

At first, some of the bishops I was speaking with in a private, unofficial way were very supportive. They were perplexed by the whole thing; they were horrified. And one of the strongest supporters at the time was Cardinal Law. Another very strong supporter at the time was the late Cardinal Kroll from Philadelphia. My own boss, who is now a retired cardinal in Rome, then Archbishop Laghi, who was apostolic nuncio, was also supportive. I don't think any of them could wrap their minds and their emotions around this whole thing. They all knew that there had been instances of priests who sexually abused kids. But it was hush-hush; it was kept very secret. But nobody could grasp this volcano that was gurgling and was about to explode. There were a lot of smaller explosions over the years, but the big one was last January. That was a tidal wave. The gates were opened, and they're not going to be closed.

On the Catholic leadership:

I think it requires a lot of courage and [it is] a tremendous risk to step out of the organizational mode the [bishops] are in because it's a human organization, even though it's a church. We have all these theological phrases that we use -- the bishops are the successors of the apostles, the foundation of the Church, and so on -- [but] there still is the cloak of organizational behavior. One of the things that often happens with any organization is that the leadership elite, those who are in leadership positions, begin to identify the organization with themselves: What we need, what we feel, is what they need and feel or should need and feel. I think there's a tremendous amount of fear that this [scandal] will impoverish or threaten the stability of the organization, of the institution, and it will; it already has. Severely. The damage has been done, and it will take several generations to undo that damage.

It's been difficult for the hierarchy to address this as it needs to be addressed, and from the viewpoint of a sociologist or political scientist, it's somewhat understandable. The Catholic Church is a human organization with a political structure. Any political structure, any organization will tend to circle the wagons the more potentially embarrassing or damaging the inner problems are. This is the most damaging, when you have your clergy, the foot soldiers, the main players, sexually abusing children -- one of the most horrendous things. When you have that going on within a church that has the most stringent moral code of any Christian organization -- we've got celibate males from the top down trying to become intimately involved in giving direction and control to the sex lives of married men and women, of single men and women, of heterosexuals, homosexuals, and they're promoting this moral code, while at the same time the promoters are not only guilty of the worst form of sexual abuse but are also being covered up and seemingly condoned by the leadership. That's pretty damaging. The fact is, the damage has been done. Because of the stonewalls, the cover-ups, and the way they've conducted themselves, the system has caused itself tremendous damage. It will be generations -- not just one or two -- but it will be generations before that trust is ever rebuilt, and I believe if it is rebuilt, it will be rebuilt on a much different model of Church leadership than what we have now.

On damage to the laity and the Church at large:

It's hard to assess that, but look at the fact that a recent poll said confidence in the clergy was at an all-time low; confidence in the hierarchy is even lower than confidence in the regular priests; donations are falling significantly around the United States and in other countries -- and this is not, by the way, just an American problem. This is blowing to the surface in a lot of other countries. The laypeople are responding by cutting back their donations, by not going to church, by just voicing their anger, their questions, their fear. There is a significant number still in denial -- you know, "Whatever Father says, he's got to be right." It's disgusting when you see some of these instances.

One of the interesting things happening is that people are learning; they're becoming adults and realizing they don't have to filter their communication with the Almighty, with a higher power, through a bunch of men. What it's done to a lot of people, what it did to me early on, is it forced me to mature, to grow up. A lot of Christians, a lot of Catholics can be very mature, responsible, stable people at home, at work, in their social lives, but when they walk back in a church they revert to being two- or three-year-olds: "Whatever Father says, we have to go by it, we have to believe." They're starting to understand, and this is happening at a broad base, that faith is not something you gain or lose; you're born with it, [and] it often refocuses where it goes. People are making the distinction between their belief and trust in a higher power and their trust in a church system. They're saying, "We don't believe in bishops or pope at all -- we don't need to. We communicate and believe in a higher power. We don't need them to believe in God." God does a lot of wonderful, good things through other people. It doesn't necessarily filter through this hierarchical system. That's the way a lot of people are looking at this.

I've noticed countless survivors and victims who have completely rejected institutionalized religion. And in many instances some of the benefits that come from that -- a place to help you grieve, a place to celebrate highlights in your life, baptisms, weddings, and so on -- that's been taken away from them, and many feel that this has been ripped away. But as they grow, as their own spirituality starts to mature, they realize that spiritual strength is something we have with each other. It's among us. I don't need to go into a church building, I don't need to have a priest or bishop tell me I'm okay, I don't need to ask one of them to pray for me. I'll take care of it myself. There's really a maturing; it's a return, I think, in many ways to what primitive early Christianity was all about. If you look at the life of Christ and the way he interacted with people, he didn't treat them like a bunch of dodos. He certainly didn't treat them like dumb sheep; I hate that analogy -- you know, the shepherd and the sheep. The laypeople out there are not dumb sheep waiting to be shorn or fleeced. But that's what happens.

On advice for the bishops:

I would advise them, as I've said all along, from the beginning 18 years ago: drop everything, realize that these boys and girls, men and women who were sexually abused as children, as adolescents, or as adults (and there are mostly women who are abused as adults) are not the enemy. They've been deeply, deeply, deeply hurt -- devastated. They are the most important people in the Church. Drop your meetings, your social events, your guest appearances. Go to them. One by one, sit in their homes, listen to them, let them cry, let them be angry, but help take some of that pain away. Do what Christ would do. Do what a real priest should do. That's all. That's very challenging. I've done it a lot with these people. I know how painful it can be and how frustrating it can be, but that's what has to be done.

Unfortunately, like any other system, the Catholic Church approaches problems with words and pieces of paper. We'll have a meeting; we'll issue a decree, a statement, a pastoral letter, some norms. But we'll stay distant from it all. It's sanitized. We don't have to get our hands dirty. Christ didn't spend his time in an office or in a church. He was out getting his hands dirty and his feet dirty with people. That's what should happen here. That's the answer, I think, ultimately. Had that been done consistently from the beginning, had the Church responded, had the priests and bishops and even the laypeople responded to their true spiritual calling, to reach out to these people and not be threatened, not treat them like the enemy, but envelop them with love and compassion and care, this nightmare would have been ended.

On the future:

I think the [bishops'] policy is underwhelming right now, and it will continue to be underwhelming. I don't see the policy as answering any of the real issues. Nor does anybody else who's deeply involved in this. Ironically, the review boards are getting expertise from a lot of people, but they're avoiding some significant people; they're avoiding most of the survivors and most of their strongest supporters who've been involved in this intimately. On the other hand, there are several sociologists who are taking long, hard looks at this.

I see a gradual, continuously widening gap of credibility between the laypeople and many of the clergy and the hierarchy -- certainly a continued alienation of survivors. That group will continue to grow; more and more of these people are coming out of the woodwork and coming forward. I don't believe there will be any major, revolutionary changes. There'll be a continued decrease in income, which will seriously threaten [the Church]. As the cases continue to go on and there is more and more disclosure demanded, as files come out -- there are a number of attorneys general and district attorneys that are vigorously looking into this -- you're going to find more prosecution on a criminal level, not just of perpetrators but those who covered them up. That will be a significant moment of truth.

I believe there will be more and more corruption uncovered. It's all good because it's forcing accountability, it is forcing honesty, and I believe it's forcing the institutional Church closer to what it's supposed to be -- not worried about buildings and structures and powers and committees and all the trappings, but what it really is: people.


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