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Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle meets with members of pontifical commission on sex abuse

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One of the most severe critics of the church's handling of the sex abuse scandal spent several days last month briefing members of the Vatican commission appointed to advise Pope Francis on the issue.

In a phone interview Monday, Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle confirmed that he met with four members of the commission in London after he was approached to consult with the group by commission member Marie Collins of Ireland, who was raped by a priest as a youngster.

Doyle said he personally knew Collins and has "the highest regard and respect for her. I was really encouraged when she was appointed a member of the commission." He said they met following a conference in the United States in April and Collins asked him then if he would be interested in serving as a consultant to the commission.

"Of course I said yes," said Doyle, who said was skeptical at the time because of his past activity advocating for victims and serving as expert consultant or testifying on behalf of plaintiffs in thousands of cases in which church authorities were defendants. He said he told Collins, "I doubt very much that anyone in the Vatican is going to want to have anything to do with me or listen to anything I have to say." Attempts to reach Collins were unsuccessful.

Doyle said he spent eight to 10 hours over three days at the beginning of June explaining the situation in the United States from the perspective of his 30 years of advocacy for victims. His involvement in the crisis began in 1984 while he was working in the offices of the Vatican embassy (now a nunciature) in Washington, D.C., and received notice that a family in Lafayette, La., planned to sue the diocese over a case of abuse.

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His early involvement with that case and his understanding even then that a potentially huge scandal was unfolding led him to take up the cause of sex abuse victims.

While many abuse victims view any initiative by the Vatican with great suspicion, Pope Francis has taken steps, particularly in holding bishops accountable, that victims and their advocates have been requesting for years. Francis has removed a number of bishops, including an archbishop, a bishop and an auxiliary bishop in the United States, for failures in handling the abuse crisis.

In December 2013, he established a commission to advise him on the issue. That Doyle would be invited to consult a papal commission might be seen as another initiative that would previously have been regarded as highly unlikely.

Peter Saunders, another victim who was appointed to the commission in December, said in a phone interview Thursday that he first raised the possibility of inviting Doyle during a meeting of a small working group of the commission in London. He said he and Collins knew Doyle from previous work on the sex abuse issue, and other members of the small group had no objection to the idea. He said he raised the possibility again in early February during a three-day plenary session at the Vatican attended by all members of the commission, including Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

"There was general agreement," he said, "that if we thought he was a good person to engage with, then we should."

In addition to Collins and Saunders, the June gathering included Catherine Bonnet, a well-known French child psychiatrist, and Baroness Sheila Hollins of London, an expert in mental health.

In his presentations to the commission, Doyle emphasized what he said are two essential points:

  • The "absolute need for real accountability" on the part of bishops for what they have done and not done in regard to the issue. "There's no question -- it has been eminently documented that they have enabled sexual abusers for ages." Through the long history of abuse, the hierarchy's relationship to victims "has been very adversarial and still is."
  • The need for the church to be far more committed than it is to the welfare of victims, a topic that gets avoided amid the efforts now made to protect children.

He said the church has done a great deal to put in place programs and protocols to protect children.

"Protection of children is certainly a natural approach to take for this issue," he said. "We have to protect children. It is also much easier and less painful and controversial than saying, 'Our No. 1 mandate should be the care of victims because they are our own victims. They were not victimized by any other institution.' "

The past, he said, is important "because of the legions of people out there whose lives are irreparably ruined because of what clerics and hierarchy have done to them. These people have to be given the highest priority." Focusing exclusively on the future and programs being put in place to protect children was an approach he described as "a software solution to a hardware problem."

In an outline prepared for the presentation, Doyle spoke of the "two most vivid memories" in his work on the issue. The first was a meeting with a 10-year-old boy, "then hearing his psychologist describe what had happened to him and how it affected him. Coupled with this was my reaction to reading the detailed report.

"The second memory was the night I realized not only cognitively but emotionally that some of the bishops in high positions were actively and even aggressively covering up the cases of sexual abuse and in the process were laying [out] their public responses and responses to parents with lies. I was stunned and emotionally devastated on that occasion."

He told the panel that priests and bishops who have publicly supported victims "have been punished in some way by church authorities. Those who continue to minister to this issue in various ways remain under suspicion" and are "criticized, slandered and devalued" by other clerics and church leaders.

Sexual abuse, he said, "is a complex, multi-faceted reality" and one "deeply embedded in the clerical culture" as well as the wider culture of the Catholic church. Among the causes contributing to abuse are the nature of priesthood; the social structure of the institutional church as a monarchy; and a sacramental structure that often places laypeople "in a passive-dependent relationship with the clergy."

In addition to giving "highest priority to reaching out to and healing victims of sexual abuse" by more than speeches and decrees, he said bishops should "publicly acknowledge that sexual predators have been protected and enabled by bishops, archbishops and cardinals and that this criminal behavior is as bad as or worse than the individual acts of sexual abuse." Church officials also should seek "to understand and appreciate the complex nature of the spiritual devastation caused by sexual violation by clergy."

Saunders said the others present at the meeting viewed Doyle as a powerful voice who "has seen the dysfunction from within the system." He said Doyle "was warmly welcomed and greatly appreciated."

Saunders said he believes the papal commission may represent a new and positive step in dealing with clergy sexual abuse.

"I live with perpetual hope," he said, adding that in a personal meeting with Pope Francis last year, "he personally struck me as being genuine at wanting to engage."

The full commission will meet again in October in Rome.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is troberts@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NCRTROB.]

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