Thomas P. Doyle
Responses by Thomas Doyle
September 30, 2007

1. You are known internationally as an advocate on behalf of the victims of sexual abuse, especially those who have been victims of clerical abuse. How did you first get involved in this area?

I became involved while I was working as a canonist at the Vatican embassy.  I was asked to manage the file for a case that had been reported to us from the diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana. One of the families whose son had been raped by the priest backed out of a settlement and sued the diocese.  That’s when the matter became public because the media picked it up right away.  My involvement was gradual.  I first asked the late Fr. Mike Peterson, a priest and a psychiatrist if he’d be willing to help the diocese in their dealings with the accused priest.  Before too long I found myself in contact with the civil attorney engaged by the diocese to defend the priest on the criminal charges.  The attorney, whose name is Ray Mouton, revealed that the diocese was actually hiding several other priests who had been reported as sexual abusers.  He was concerned about the impact this would have on his case but more important, he was, and still is, a very good and moral man and his main concern was the cover-up and the danger to children.

Things quickly evolved and because of the publicity, there soon were public reports of sexual abuse by clergy coming from a number of other dioceses.  What was happening is that the publicity caused people, especially parents, to believe that clergy sex abuse was a reality.  Before they may not have believed their children but now they took reports more seriously.  Also, there were some bishops who were jolted by the publicity and the lawsuit and reported cases to the nuncio and asked for help.

By February of 1985 we decided that we wanted to help the bishops by putting together a manual that would contain a variety of information about how to respond to individual cases.  We hoped to present it to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops so that they could take some sort of additional action.  None of us considered ourselves revolutionaries, rebels or anti-Church.  We wanted to help with what we believed was quickly becoming a major problem.  I think it’s also safe to say that all three of us, especially myself, firmly believed that once the bishops realized how serious this problem was they would do the right thing.  Tragically, we were wrong on that. 

The more involved I became the more shocked I was at the extent of sexual abuse and the incredible damage it does to people.  When I met a victim for the first time my life was changed.  Seeing all of this on paper is one thing but actually listening to a victim is a life-changing event.  In fact that’s one of the major reasons the bishops have not responded with the compassion and understanding that should have been so obvious but was not and still is not.  They don’t really know the victims or what they have gone through.  Some may have had meetings and a few have actually sat down and listened but historically the bishops have not really listened to victims nor shown any real interest in learning what they have gone through, how they feel or how the abuse has impacted their lives.

It wasn’t too long after I became involved that I began to suspect that some of the bishops were not willing to deal with this problem.  I believe that the stone-walling started with the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Bishops conference in 1985 and has continued.  I have documents from officers of the USCCB including a past president that claimed they knew everything they needed to know about clergy abuse way back in 1983 and that they had it under control.  I recall one archbishop actually telling me to cool down back then in 1985 because, as he said, “No one is ever going to sue the Catholic Church.” 

 Whatever they have done since, such as the Dallas Charter, the National Review Board and the John jay Study...they have been forced to do by the secular media and by the civil courts.  And in general, their efforts haven't made much of a difference in healing the victims, re-building trust or preventing future problems.

Did you have any idea the problem was as big as it has turned out to be?

I had no idea how extensive the problem was and I am still amazed and even shocked at the fact that significant numbers of men and women are still coming forward.  These are people who have been severely abused who have taken decades to find the strength to overcome their fear and shame and speak out.  Some church officials have said that the problem is under control and the worst is over but nothing could be further from the truth.  It may not be front pages news in the secular papers but the nightmare is still being played out.  We’ve seen a lot of clergy abuse exposed in the English speaking countries. 

We are now only starting to see the extent of it in African, South American and European countries.  Looking back on my experience I believe that we will continue to see clergy abuse victims come forward because the sickness is far deeper and wider than anyone could imagine.  Two things are necessary for a victim of clergy abuse to come forward: he or she needs to understand the impact the abuse has had on his or her life, and then the person needs to find the strength to step forward.  Both take a long time and a great deal of effort and pain.

What sort of response did you get from church authorities when you first began to campaign on this issue?

At first my former superior, now retired Cardinal Laghi, was supportive as were several other cardinals and bishops from whom I sought advice and support.  The main opposition back in 1985 came from the central office holders of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. I won't use the term “leaders” because they weren't!   After I left the nunciature in 1986 I was asked by a number of bishops around the country to give workshops and seminars on sexual abuse.  I did a number of these along with Fr. Peterson and Mr. Mouton.  By then we had teamed up and were still convinced that the hierarchy would do the right thing. 

The real opposition to my advocacy for the victims became apparent in the early nineties.  By that time I was beginning to testify in court cases.  I’d like to add that although the amounts of the settlements in the U.S. may be shocking to some, the historical fact is that the victims only resorted to the civil courts when they grew frustrated by the non-response of Church office-holders such as bishops, chancellors, vicars general.  These were devout Catholic people who would never think of criticizing their church.  But when their children were harmed things changed.  The bishops obviously never grasped how deep the feelings or parenthood go. I have spoken to hundreds of people who said they would never have gone to court if the bishop had only approached them, acknowledged what happened and offered a sincere apology.  I have never met a victim, and I’ve met thousands, who wanted money. Their first concern was always that the perpetrator be stopped and prevented from hurting others.  The fact however, is that people got tired of being manipulated, lied to, intimidated, ignored and even threatened so they went to the courts and the courts gave them justice.  In fact I have said all along that in many, many cases the civil lawyers did what the clergy should have done but did not: they offered support, belief, understanding, encouragement and hope and most of these lawyers went far beyond what their profession expected them to do.  I find it both sickening and ironic when I see the victims' attorneys criticized and vilified by Churchmen because the lawyers have done what the bishops should have done but either could not or could not.  One of the most sensitive and insightful people I have met as regards the spiritual damage done to victims is a very decent, caring Jewish lawyer from Boston.

4. Why has the Catholic Church been so slow to face up to and acknowledge the sex abuse crisis?

The institutional Church has had to deal with various kinds of violations of clerical celibacy from the earliest centuries.  It was not always buried in deep secrecy like it has been in our era.  I think the hierarchy has resisted taking an honest and open approach because the bishops not only been unable to respond to the pastoral problems caused by clergy sexual abuse, but have been unwilling.  Many have been afraid to meet with victims and afraid to take decisive action regarding abusing clerics.  One cardinal told me he would not meet with victims because they would get angry with him.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing!  Another cardinal told a grand jury that he had never spoken with a victim of clergy sexual abuse because, and I quote, “That would not be an efficient use of my time.” 

Another major problem is that the bishops as individuals and as a group need to admit that they were wrong.  I don't mean by way of the passive apologies such as “If mistakes were made we regret them.”  Cardinal Law said that and it was both ridiculous and insulting.  They need to admit that they were wrong and why they were wrong.  I'm not referring to the blame-shifting that has been the central part of all official apologies from the Vatican on down.  I mean an honest admission that image, power, money and the clerical culture were more important than the welfare of kids.  I think if one single bishop would get up and talk straight and admit that they had lied it would make a major difference, but that's not going to happen.

I believe that most are so identified with the clerical world and the institutional church that they can’t distinguish between their vision of a clericalized church and the community of lay people.  The reality of widespread sexual abuse by priests and even some bishops was a shock that has been too devastating for many to bear.  I also believe that far too many bishops are obsessed with their own power, with the bishops’ collective image and with control.  They quickly realized that they could not control or manage what was rapidly becoming a major crisis.  The response was anger, denial, minimization, blame shifting...anything but a forthright admission.  By far the most serious deficiency has been the almost total lack of a compassionate pastoral response.  I don’t think the bishops and most priests know how to adequately respond to victims and their families. 

They have been relying on secular public relations experts to tell them what to say, how to say it and when to say it and the purpose is not to help the victims but to maintain the church's image.  I often wonder if many of the bishops have pastoral instincts that they refuse to act one because of fear or obsession with the image of the hierarchy.  In the U.S. only one bishop has stood up and publicly aligned himself with the victims and he was quickly punished by the Vatican.  That pretty much sums up the duplicity of the official church's attitude.

Why do you think sexual abuse seems to be such a problem for the Catholic Church?

I think it’s a problem because the governing structure, the papacy and the hierarchy, have never faced it head on and done something effective to find out why clergy sexual abuse of children, minors and adults has been so much a part of clerical culture.  True, it’s been hidden from many and denied by others but it’s there and has been there as a significant part of the clerical culture for centuries. 

I also believe that the clerical culture and the traditional formation process have a lot to do with stifling authentic emotional and sexual growth.  I believe another reason it’s such a problem is because the hierarchy and the clergy have tried unsuccessfully to deny it.  They either can’t or won’t accept just how incredibly devastating sexual abuse is for the victims and their families.  By trying to deny it or control it or keep the lid on, the problem has gotten far worse.  In my experience, which spans almost 24 years, what makes people really angry is not so much the actual sexual abuse, which is bad enough as it is, but the lying, cover-up and shabby treatment of victims by the bishops and other church office-holders or functionaries.  If there is a bottom line as to why it’s such a problem, I think the answer is something I have heard from many people and it’s this:  The institutional Church, that is, the bishops and many of the clergy and religious, forgot that they are first and foremost a community in Christ and focused only on the Church as an organization.


6. Is it a bigger problem for the Catholic Church than for other churches or institutions?

I’d say it is a greater problem for several reasons.  In the first place the Catholic Church is larger than any other Christian denomination.  The actual percentage of sexual abusers among the clergy population is higher than in other segments of the population.  The claims by some churchmen that it's a minuscule number, 1% or thereabouts, are simply not true and based on wishful thinking and not fact.  Some experts have estimated that the percentage is about 4.5% yet in some dioceses at certain period the actual percentage of known sexual abusers was between 15 and 25% of the clergy.  Right now a couple of U.S researchers are finding that the average percentage, in a diocese by diocese study, is about 9%.  That's devastating.  Can you imagine the response if the same kind of information came out about medical schools, teachers, lawyers or even carpenters.

However the major issue is not so much the percentage of sexual abusers among the clergy of any denomination but how the leadership and the community respond.  I have seen stone-walling, denial and retribution against victims or their advocates in other denominations so the problematic response isn’t something unique to the Catholic Church but it’s still disgraceful that any church, Christian or not, would respond to such a terrible problem in the way the Catholic hierarchy and the so-called leadership of other churches have responded.

 Another factor is the identity of victims.  The evidence makes it clear that sexual abuse of children and younger adolescents is more numerous in the Catholic Church than in other denominations.  Much of the abuse among Protestants for example consists in sexual abuse of vulnerable adult women. 

Another dimension of this question is the attention given abuse in the Catholic Church.  First, we have mandatory celibacy.  Second, we have a stringent and restrictive approach to sexual morality.  Third, we have an official policy that condemns same-sex relations.  The Catholic sexual morality has traditionally been created by and controlled by male, celibate clerics who aren’t supposed to have anything to do with sex.  When the sexual abuse of minors was revealed it was bad enough but when people found out that known abusers were simply transferred from one place to another it looked way too much like a hypocritical double standard.

This is a bigger problem for the Catholic Church but not only in terms of the number of clergy credibly accused but mainly because of the inadequate and even destructive response by the hierarchy. ADVANCE \d 5

Finally, the church’s monarchical structure compounds the problem. In other denominations, there is more shared leadership and more ‘checks and balances.’ In the Catholic Church, there are no checks and balances.  Theoretically, thousands of bishops across the globe all report to the Pope.   As one cynical old monsignor said to me when I worked in the nunciature, “They're all playing for an audience of one!”  But that’s not an effective management structure and in reality, each bishop is basically the lord of his own kingdom and acts that way, being held accountable by no one.  The most important person in the kingdom is the king and not the serfs.


7. Do you see any link between sexual abuse and, for example, mandatory celibacy?

I see a link between the two but not in the way most would think.  Being celibate does not cause a man to become a pedophile.  There are many, many priests who are celibates who are not sexually dysfunctional.  I think the connection is more subtle and indirect.  It has to do with the attitudes developed in the formation process.  Many sexual abusers are grossly immature both emotionally and sexually.  I remember reading one psych report on a priest who had several sexual encounters with 13 and 14 year old boys.  The report said that the priest was emotionally the same age as the young boys.  That says a lot.  I also believe that in trying to justify celibacy the church went way overboard in trying to project a very negative attitude toward sexuality, relationships, women, marriage and family life. 

The whole concept of sexuality was jammed into a small box that had “mortal sin” written all over it.  Many clerics never achieved a wholesome and healthy attitude toward sexuality and most, or maybe even all, never really understood what parenthood means. 

After having spent countless hours with hundreds of parents whose children had been raped and sodomized by priests or brothers, I can tell you that if the bishops had any inkling of what parenthood is really all about they never would have allowed so much sexual abuse and cover-up to go on.  The most painful and disturbing experiences I have had in this nightmare have been when I have listened to mothers and fathers try to express the pain, horror and anger they have felt at learning that their children had been sexually abused by the most trusted person in their lives, the priest.  I know that I can’t even begin to comprehend the depth of this pain.  If I can’t, and I’m with victims and their families all the time, then I’m sure the bishops, cardinals and popes don’t have the slightest clue.

Finally, celibacy promotes even more of the toxic secrecy that infects the clerical state.  Priests are generally not going to tell on each other if they are aware of each other's sexual issues.

How far has the church gone in addressing the scandal of clerical sexual abuse?

I can start off by saying not very far at all and certainly not far enough!

The institutional Church has been forced by the media, public outrage and the civil courts to reluctantly acknowledge the reality of widespread sexual abuse by clerics and religious.  The institutional leadership would never have acknowledged it nor done anything about it had there been no public reaction.  Pope John Paul II referred to it in eleven statements yet he not only refused to ever receive individual victims or groups of victims in audience, but never even acknowledged the requests. 

Some Church apologists claim that no other institution has done as much as the Catholic Church to confront sexual abuse and to take precautions to protect children.  Such a claim is a farce.  Not one step in any area would have been taken were it not for the intense pressure put on the bishops.  All that being said I believe that there is still a long, long way to go.  The bishops are focusing almost totally on getting rid of any cleric or religious accused of sexual abuse in any degree or kind. Many have issued public apologies and a few have reached out to victims and their families. 

The truly pastoral and compassionate responses by bishops are very few and very far between.  The bishops, from the Vatican on down, have avoided any serious, open and thorough examination of exactly why they have responded to the nightmare as they have.  The excuses that they didn’t understand it, didn’t appreciate how serious and harmful it was etc. are useless.  The problem has been obsession with image and power and a scandalous absence of a truly Christian, pastoral concern for the most vulnerable and most devastated in our midst.

I think a decent start would be for the pope to reach out to victims both at the Vatican and on his travels.  When he visits countries he should skip the fancy dinners and all the hoopla with the cardinals and big shots and so what Jesus would do.....sit down with the people whose lives churchmen have wrecked and try to help them start to heal.  Both Benedict XVI and his predecessor have been obsessed with orthodoxy but what is more essential to Christianity, orthodoxy or compassionate charity?

What additional steps, if any, does the church need to take to ensure that this scandal will not happen again?

I believe the sexual abuse phenomenon has been a catalyst that has exposed a stark realization that the institutional Church has not been able to respond to this horrendous challenge because of some very deep-seated problems and deficiencies.  I’ve seen a lot of bureaucratic responses such as lay review boards, response policies, and procedures etc.  I’ve seen special liturgies created and celebrated and public apologies issued by various bishops.  The popes have spoken about it and many leading bishops, archbishops and cardinals have issued statements.  The problem is that it’s all very superficial when you look at the enormity of the problem and all that it entails. 

For example, Pope John Paul II expressed regret in some of his statements and claimed he had concern for the victims.  Yet after Cardinal Law resigned he was given what appeared to be a mammoth consolation prize in the office of archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica in Rome.  This was a terribly scandalous act that deeply insulted and hurt countless victims.  Yet the defenders in the Vatican curia seemed to be incapable of seeing how insensitive that act was.  The institutional Church and the clerical culture needs to go a long way to get beyond the kind of dark thinking that justified something as damaging as that appointment.  The actions don't match the words!

An attitudinal change is essential.  I believe that the whole Catholic philosophy of human sexuality needs to be honestly re-examined.  The role of the bishop and the way the episcopal office is discharged needs some major re-examination and perhaps a total overhaul.   Think about it.  The bishops claim they are the descendants of the apostles and the official teachers of the Catholic faith.  Many still believe they are ontologically different and superior to lay people.  Yet they responded in an abominably dismal and unintelligent manner to the widespread scourge of sexual abuse by the very men who are supposed to bring the word of Christ to the believers.

The concept of clericalism needs to be seriously looked into.  It is a disease that impedes the spirit of Christ from permeating every aspect of the Church.  The clergy are no different than lay people and should not be entitled to any deference or privilege simply because of membership in a sub-class.  Yet clericalism is closely related to so much of the sexual abuse problem.  It’s related to everything from the seduction and grooming process employed to snare victims to the arrogant and even cruel responses of some prominent Churchmen.  Clericalism is responsible for the fact that far too many law enforcement officials, judges and civil servants looked the other way when “Father was caught with a boy.”  Clericalism is at the root of the still-present attitude of haughty denial and it’s responsible for the mindless responses of some leading clerics that we have seen in the media.  The response of the official church has basically been “Its all about the bishops” but its not about them.  It’s about the ones they have harmed.

I also believe that the institutional church...the pastoral ministers and the hierarchy...needs to seriously study how to respond pastorally to the many victims of sexual abuse.  I refer here not only to the actual persons abused but to their families, their friends, the community and the millions of lay people who still can’t comprehend why this all happened.  Along with the pastoral response there is a dire need for the church's ministers and in fact all Catholics, to understand just how deep and painful the spiritual harm is that comes from clergy sexual abuse.  This dimension has been hardly touched.  For some the only way to respond to a spiritual need is with a liturgy or ritual.  That doesn’t cut it by a long shot.  I don’t think most clerics or religious even know how to ask the questions to get on the path to determine spiritual harm much less the way to begin to foster healing.  I have found that those with the most insight into the spiritual damage and conversely, the path to spiritual healing, are recovering addicts...alcoholics and drug addicts who discovered that their addiction is a spiritual disease. 

On a more immediate level the Church governing structure from the pope on down need to reach out to victims and their families. The secrecy which still infects the church about this and other painful issues needs to end.  Victims and those who support them are too often treated like the enemy by the institutional Church and this has to stop.  Some bishops are still hiding sexual predators or reassigning them even against the advice of their own advisors. (For example, Cardinal George in Chicago)  This must stop.  A number of victims are still involved in civil court processes against dioceses or religious orders.  The church’s attorneys often hammer them mercilessly.  These lawyers need to be fired and the bishops need to know that there is no excuse for such vicious revictimization.

10. What are the lessons for the church of the sex abuse crisis?

The first lesson is the simplest yet most threatening: unchecked power inevitably leads to abuse. The obsession with power has been at the root of this terrible scourge.  The Church is supposed to be the Body of Christ and not the Monarchy of the Pope.  The only language the churchmen have understood in all of this is the language of power: the secular media, the criminal and civil justice systems and the enraged lay people have constituted a power that is bigger than the institutional church and that is what made things happen.

Another painful lesson is that the clerical world has not known how to be pastoral to the men and women it has harmed.  Clerics have not been honest with victims, themselves, the laity or the general public.  The few priests and religious men and women who have reached out and brought compassionate help to the victims have either been marginalized by the bishops, discouraged, or even punished.  This is all backwards.'' It’s true that the Church has responded but it’s mostly been the lay dimension of the church with some few clerics and religious.  It has not been the hierarchy.

I certainly hope one the lessons learned is that there is something radically wrong with mandatory celibacy and with the whole thought process that surrounds it, supports it, tries to justify it and defends it.

I believe another lesson is that the institutional church cannot put its power, its structures, and its clerical aristocracy above the lay people, especially those harmed by the Church.  We have done just that and look at the results.  Popes and bishops have to stop acting like royalty and start acting like true followers of Christ. 

Another lesson is about spirituality.  Through the intense pain of the sexually abused the Church should learn that spirituality is not an attitude, a bearing, a life of asceticism.  Nor is it a pious attendance at rituals, liturgies etc.  It’s far deeper than the religious externals.  The Church needs to learn that the spiritual connection between the individual and the Supreme Being cannot be filtered through a human organization such as an institutional Church.  We have created this dependency relationship between clergy, rituals and people and convinced them that their spiritual welfare depended on docility and even blind obedience to clerics.  This is a very toxic and even deadly betrayal of the spirit of Christ.  We have seen that when the clergy betray the trust placed in them the dependency on them is shattered and the abused are left with nothing because what was there was too shallow and fragile to support a strong spiritual bond. 

There are other lessons that the secular society needs to learn from the Church's experience.  One essential lesson is that the first step toward genuinely healing the wounded and protecting the vulnerable is reforming archaic, arbitrary, predator-friendly laws (like the statute of limitations), so that victims who want to protect others have better options than just telling some chancery official they were hurt and hoping for the best.

Our legal system is quite flawed. But it’s open, impartial, time-tested, and geared toward uncovering the truth, however imperfectly. Bishops, on the other hand, are often biased amateurs dedicated to hiding the truth.

If we open the court house doors, and let juries (not church staff or volunteers) hear abuse allegations, everyone benefits.

I think the final lesson, and I believe the most important one, is something I have said in one way or another throughout this interview: we...the clergy, lay people and hierarchy....need to totally focus on being the community of Christ.  We need to acknowledge the most painful and tragic lesson learned from this debacle and it’s this: when the churchmen and the lay men and women who support them identify the power, money, positions and panoply of the monarchical governing structure with the Body of Christ, the result will not only be dismal failure but a failure that mortally wounds the souls of the believers.