Tom Doyle addresses priest sex abuse survivors

Tom Doyle

Tom Doyle

by Thomas C. Fox

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Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, who has worked with survivors of priest sex abuse for more than three decades, said Friday, July 31, he continues to grapple with its full dimensions.

“It just seems too big to get my head around,” he said.

Doyle spoke July 31 at the 2015 gathering of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), which drew several hundred abuse survivors and supporters to the Westin Alexandria hotel here.

He mused, considering the many years of work survivor supporters have been engaged in, adding that when they got into the work “there was no plan.” Those who got into efforts to bring priest sex abuse to the full attention of the church and force bishops to be accountable, he said, “still did not understand the widespread nature of sex abuse within the church.”

“We only knew the shocking reality that a few Catholic priests had sexually molested by rape and other forms of sexual violation, a number of Catholic children. … Before long however, some began to get glimpses of a far more treacherous and complex reality that was hidden behind the thin cover of the few known cases of sexual abuse.” 

Doyle, who has testified in numerous civil suits on behalf of sex abuse survivors, confirmed he met recently with four members of the Vatican commission appointed by Pope Francis to advise him on sex abuse.  Recently, a book on Doyle's life and work with survivors was published on Amazon.

The following is the text of his July 31 remarks.

1. In the beginning there was no plan

"When the reality of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy gradually emerged into the light back in 1984 and 85, there was no plan. Those of us who were involved back then and who are still around, Jason Berry, Jeff Anderson, Ray Mouton, Tom Fox and myself, among others, only knew the shocking reality that a few Catholic priests had sexually molested by rape and other forms of sexual violation, a number of Catholic children. The predatory priest who brought it all to the surface, Gilbert Gauthe, was a true pedophile with scores of pre-pubescent little boys left in his wake. Hence the inaccurate label, 'The Pedophile Priest Problem.

No one had any idea of the magnitude of the issue. In fact, I don’t think any of us even knew what the real issue was other than the fact that a few families had openly denounced Gauthe and in time a few other priests, to church authorities.

Before long however, some began to get glimpses of a far more treacherous and complex reality that was hidden behind the thin cover of the few known cases of sexual abuse. Ray Mouton, Mike Peterson and I began to see some of the indicators as events rapidly unfolded in 1985, but we could not possibly have comprehended the monster that was slowly showing itself. 

Perhaps a lighter analogy will give some idea of what it was like. In the classic Spielberg movie, 'Close Encounters of a Third Kind,' the scene when the humans meet the other beings is striking. As they anxiously wait for something to happen, small, multi-colored space ships are seen zipping around the site. Then there is a period of calm followed by huge billowing dark clouds and from them emerges the mammoth mother ship.

What I am getting at is this: This issue was never limited to the sexual violation of a few young boys by priests. That was both the unintended smokescreen but also the primary symptom of a much deeper and pervasive problem. The real problem of course is the manner with which the government of the institutional Catholic church and the heavily clericalized Catholic culture has responded to the reality of boys and girls, men and women from every corner of the church who come forward with chilling tales of sexual violation by clerics. 

Jason Berry first exposed the duplicity in the Times of Acadiana in the spring of 1985. The truth he told was not what most people expected and surely not what most Catholics wanted to hear, but it was the truth and this truth demanded action that would in time change the course of Catholic history.

In the beginning there was no plan! The victims and their families did what they had been taught to do: rely on the “church” to do the right thing. Some lay Catholics responded with disbelief and others with hostility directed at the victims. Some bishops who had never been faced with such an accusation against a priest were baffled but a significant number continued responding in the manner that was the root cause of the so-called scandal: denial, intimidation and cover-up. Cover up had been embedded in the culture of the institutional church as the first response to any internal problem that threatened to tarnish the image or weaken the power of the hierarchy. 

There has been sex abuse by clerics in the church since the very beginning. The evidence is found primarily in official church documents and in other nonofficial but authentic sources such as the Book of Gomorrah of St. Peter Damien, written in the 11th century. There were periods in history, especially in the late middle ages and early renaissance, when clergy sex abuse was publicly acknowledged by church authorities, especially popes. Church leaders began wrapping it in thick blankets of secrecy from the 18th century onward and by the mid-twentieth century, when many of our own memories of the church began, it was generally not only unheard of but unimaginable by most clerics and certainly the vast majority of lay people. 

The lid of secrecy was pried open in 1983 and gradually, over the next few years, we began to see a horrifically different vision of the institutional Church. This was not the discovery of a new problem for the church. It was the steady unraveling of a paradigm that depended on power, image, deference and above all, clericalism, to survive. The chapter of Church history that began in 1984 was radically different from the past encounters with clergy sexual misbehavior because this time the victims did not cower in a darkened corner, overwhelmed and controlled by the hierarchy. This time, much to the shock of the bishops, the clergy and a significant segment of the lay population, the victims stood up and refused to be intimidated into silence. They didn’t have a plan. A plan had them. 

In the early days those who dutifully sought help from the official church soon found they were running up a blind alley. These were devoted, loyal, obedient, practicing Roman Catholics. For some of the parents, their love of their children and the indescribable shock and pain of knowing that they had been sexually violated, minimized their obedience and devotion and led them to find a way that would bring acknowledgement and support for their children. I recall one woman who told her bishop after he had threatened her, 'I am a mother before I’m a Catholic.'

And so the unraveling of the paradigm began. The parents, and later on the victims themselves, went to the civil courts of our country to seek what their church should have provided but did not. They did not want money or revenge. All they asked was recognition that what had happened was real and most of all, a guarantee that the abusing cleric would be appropriately dealt with so that no other child would be harmed. This is what they asked of the church and in return they received intimidation to silence and false assurances that 'Father would be taken care of.' 

The first court case on the North American continent was initiated in 1983 by Jeff Anderson when he represented a victim of Tom Adamson, and rather than take a hefty settlement, his client chose to pursue justice. The case that really rocked the church however was that of the infamous Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, Louisiana. One brave couple and their ten-year-old son pulled out of a secret deal with the diocese and obtained the help of a brilliant, tough Cajun lawyer named Minos Simon. This was the case that brought the reality of sex abuse to the Vatican and this was the case that started the chain reaction that is still going on. This was the case that drew me into this maelstrom.  Without any plan but acting on what we believed was right, two others and I were drawn together. The outcome was not only the famous 'Manual' but a radical change in our lives. The plan now had us and the plan was simple yet, as we learned, close to impossible to accomplish. The bottom line is this: no ecclesiastical office nor the ecclesiastical power structure itself was so important that it justified the sexual, physical or spiritual violation of a single person whether that person was male or female, child or adult. That may sound solid and reasonable to us but to many in the clerical culture and among the lay population, it is heresy of the worst kind.

The Manual was not only rejected by the U.S. bishops’ conference as superfluous but it was also maligned as a threat to the prerogatives of individual bishops. Mike, Ray and I were publicly accused of using it as a means of making a profit from the sex abuse cases by selling our services to the bishops. This accusation, leveled by the bishops through their General Counsel, was not only ludicrous but slanderous. Nevertheless the Manual had an impact that is felt even in the present. The Canadian bishops used it in putting together their own policy, From Pain to Hope, but more important, it has served as an on-going reproach to the institutional church by reminding them what they could have done but failed to do.

Clergy sexual abuse entered the civil law arena in the U.S. in 1983. The first actual trial was in Louisiana in 1986. Since that time there have been several thousand cases filed in the U.S. and several hundred trials. The majority of civil cases have been settled without trial and most of the criminal trials have ended in conviction. There would have been no just or fair settlements for victims had they not sought the help of the civil courts."

2. From passive confusion to action

"Although there was a massive scandal in Canada in 1989 centered around the Mount Cashel Orphanage, pulling the lid off the cover-up in Canada took many years while in the U.S. the victims came to the conclusion very quickly that they would get no recognition, no justice and no support from the bishops and religious orders. They took the first steps by taking charge of their own recovery. These steps, which seemed small and isolated, with a bleak future proved to be a profound force that would forever change the way the Catholic hierarchy and the leadership of other churches and organizations  would respond to sexual violations by clerics.

Not long after the sexual abuse phenomenon entered the civil courts my role, which I had never really defined, changed significantly. The first attorney to call me was a man from San Francisco. It was in 1990 and he wanted help understanding the nature and functioning of an archdiocese, which understandably seemed complex, byzantine and incomprehensible to him. It was all of that and more but I had been trained to navigate what I later came to see as a very bizarre alternate reality. Thus I became a court consultant and court expert without even knowing that such roles existed.

The civil law arena has been the only path whereby victims and survivors could pursue justice with hope for success because the courts and the American legal world represent a power that cannot be controlled or compromised by the institutional church. From the very beginning this stunned not only the American hierarchy but the Vatican as well.  They simply could not comprehend a power greater than they, but that power was there and it was harnessed not by huge, prestigious and heavily influential law firms such as those often retained by the institutional church, but by sole practitioners here and there who were committed to helping their clients, the victims, and not afraid to forge into the unknown to achieve justice.

There is no question in my mind that the American attorneys not only led the way but inspired their counterparts in other countries to stand up to the social and cultural pressure that protected the church, in the name of those whom the church conveniently forgot.

Winning in the courts in the U.S. or anywhere else demanded research, expertise from a variety of disciplines, persistence, a thick skin and the ability and willingness to bounce back. The discovery process whereby the victims’ attorneys demanded and obtained the heretofore hidden, and according to some defense attorneys non-existent church files, revealed a massive amount of information about the institutional church and sex abuse. The thin excuses offered by bishops individually and as a group fell flat in the face of documented historical reality.

From the beginning the men and women who represented victims and survivors were faced with seemingly endless barriers put up by the bishops and their attorneys.  Many of these were claims about the church and its structures that sounded reasonable at first but in fact were as real as fairy tales.  The survivors’ attorneys turned to a very small group of men and women whose education, training and experience qualified them to separate the few facts from the mountains of fiction.  A few examples of the church’s assertions should illustrate the point:

  • The Catholic church does not keep files on priests.
  • Priests are not connected to a diocese.  They are independent contractors.
  • A bishop has no authority over what a priest does on his own time.
  • Celibate priests are naïve about sex and easily seduced by street wise young kids.
  • The relationship of a bishop to his priests is like a father to a son and is covered by legal privilege.
  • Bishops have no authority over religious orders working in their dioceses.
  • We never knew anything about sex abuse until the mid eighties.
  • If a priest perpetrator goes to confession he emerges a new man.  His sin is gone.  To pursue the matter is a violation of church-state separation.
  • The victims need to put this behind them and move on.
  • Little boys heal

The court processes have not simply been about processing cases. They have been about discovering the very dark side of the Catholic church. The most thorough history of clergy sexual abuse in the US and in other countries as well has emerged from the discovery of information in court processes but also from the investigations of the grand juries in the U.S. and of the inquiry commissions in Ireland and Australia and soon in the U.K.

The challenges faced by the survivors’ attorneys were often the catalyst for serious research into many of the aspects of sexual abuse especially abuse perpetrated within the context of the institutional church. Some of the claims by the church necessitated serious research into the history and meaning of the priesthood and into the detailed workings of church government and its legal system. The need to overcome the statutes of limitations in various states provoked research and study into the short and long-term effects of sexual abuse of minors and adults which has revealed, among other things, that sexual violation by Catholic clerics has a unique and often more devastating impact than other forms of abuse. The book that Dick Sipe, Pat Wall and I published in 2006, Sex, Priests and Secret Codes began as a research paper I was asked to do by Jeff Anderson to discover the extent of prior knowledge by bishops in general. One of the results of the research was that sexual abuse of minors has been a known problem since the 1st century.

This historical research has contributed to the demise of the nonsensical mantra “We’re on a steep learning curve” and has changed the meaning of  its companion mantra 'we just didn’t know' to 'we just didn’t know we’d get caught.'

The research that Dick Sipe, Pat Wall and I have been engaged in and continue to pursue is in two basic areas: the clerical culture and the lopsided teaching of human sexuality in that culture is one area. The other area concerns the aspect that causes the anger, confusion and which lights up the media, the courts, the grand juries and the government commissions namely, the culture of cover-up and lying and the hostile and destructive way victims, their families and their supporters have been consistently treated by the institutional church. Just knowing these facts about clergy sex abuse is not enough. We need to know why.

All of the research and continuous study of church files and court records has two basic goals: supporting and helping victims and survivors in their quest for justice in the courts on their path to healing is the first and most important. The second is to dig as deeply as possible into the “why" ... into the reasons for the official church’s response so that the nightmare that has been the darkest of the church’s dark side will not be a part of its future.

Looking back on thirty-one years of direct and often intense involvement in this walk on the dark side, I can say that there is little doubt that the achievements that have been made in recognizing the horror of sexual violation, the causal role of the institutional churches and other institutions in enabling it and the high priority now given to the protection of children and vulnerable adults would never have happened were it not for the courage, the persistence, the patience, the dedication and even the anger of the victims and the survivors. We have changed history!"

3. What the research and court process has revealed

"Some of the things we have learned from the constant research and from the thirty years of experience in the civil courts are obvious and others may be a new revelation to some. 

  • The institutional church and other institutions have focused on their own security and power and not on the victims of their own malfeasance. 
  • There has been and continues to be a deeply adversarial relationship between the hierarchy of the Catholic church and the victims of its abuse. 
  • The response of the institutional church and its office-holders has been shaped by fundamental elements or aspects of the church itself, elements which need to be changed. In other words the reasons why clerics had easy access to children and the reasons for the cover-up are not external or extrinsic to the church but part of its teaching and structure.
  • Doctrinal orthodoxy has nothing to do with sexual violation and its cover-up. The survivors are not “dissenters” but those who obsess with protecting the institution are: they have strayed from the orthodox core of Catholicism, which is the example of Christ, not the word of the pope.
  • There is either a misunderstanding of the fundamental meaning of 'church' or a conscious rejection of it by the bishops and others who have tried to act 'for the good of the church' at the expense of victims. According to the teaching of Jesus Christ, the victims are the church as much or even more than the hierarchy.
  • There is destructive duplicity and a hypocrisy about the hierarchy’s public expressions of concern for victims and assurances that their welfare is paramount when at the same time bishops demean, malign and attempt to destroy victims who seek justice in the only place where it can be found, the civil courts.
  • The real attitude of many in the church, bishops included, is evident in the disgraceful way some of the church’s attorneys have treated victims. One of our strongest supporters and most essential resources once said that he found the church’s lawyers in general to be the most morally challenged group he had ever encountered. We don’t have to look too far to see the verification of this opinion.
  • The horrific existence of the abuse of vulnerable persons in the Catholic church will not end until the culture and the structures that have enabled it are radically changed.

I’d like to conclude by offering a few words about something else. I’ve learned over the years, primarily from some of the attorneys I have closely associated with. We have all experienced anger, pessimism and negativity along this very treacherous path. By “all” I include the men in the clerical world as well.  I have learned that I was on a path of emotional and spiritual self-destruction as long as I let the anger control me and allowed it to overflow onto just about everything I said and did. What we have achieved is not the result of uncontrolled anger but patience and hope.

When I was asked to assist the Pontifical Commission I had to confront my own cynicism and the negativity directed towards everyone and everything that made up the hierarchical dimension of the church and in doing so I concluded that living with such attitudes was counter-productive. They were causing me to lose sight of what I should be about, which is certainly not engaging in a constant, hostile battle, but doing what I can to help survivors, their families and their loved ones someday find a culture of understanding, support and compassion."

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