Fr. Thomas Doyle O.P.
Dominican Father Thomas Doyle was one of three authors of a 92-page report on clergy sex abuse distributed to the bishops in 1985, attempting to alert them to the problem of clerical sex abuse and urging them to take action.
The lengthy and detailed report on the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People contains much to commend itself. There seems little doubt that this is a good first step, but it is far from the end of the road. Those bishops and others who believe that the institutional church and the bishops have turned the corner are sadly mistaken. While the report reflects definite progress, the deficiencies loom and must be acknowledged and someday addressed if the so-called “corner” is ever to be reached and the end of the road – a church of openness, trust and compassion led by a majority of leaders with similar virtues – is to be seen.
The major problem with this report and the process it describes is that it seems primarily geared toward re-establishing the lost credibility of the bishops rather than getting at the root cause of the sex abuse nightmare and thereby effectively dealing with the many painful aspects of this nightmare. True, the report examines he norms of the charter in great detail and at times makes realistic and pointed observations followed by good recommendations. The problem is that the entire endeavor only scratched the service – and this by design. The purpose of the audit process was to determine compliance with the charter, which tells very little of the total clergy abuse story. The report is certain to anger and disappoint victims, survivors, their families and loved ones, their supporters and many other laity, clergy and religious who have been waiting for an adequate organizational response to this terrible dark night of Catholicism’s corporate soul.
SNAP and Linkup, the two oldest, largest and most effective and credible victim/survivor support organizations, have issued responses to the report. Both responses are right on target and should be taken to heart by every bishop in the country. At the risk of repeating what these organizations have already said so eloquently, it is vital to understand that a major deficiency in this report is the fact that the most important source of information – the victims and survivors – was the one source given minimal opportunity for input. SNAP reports that only three of its 4600 members were interviewed. This fact alone is a major drain on the report’s credibility.
The investigations spoke only with victims who had reported (abuse) since the charter was issued in 2002. The clergy sex abuse phenomenon is not limited to the past few years but extends back beyond the age of the oldest victim. The claim that many cases are from years ago gives the impression that the bishops are trying to diminish their importance and the extent of the damage done. The very fact that there are so many recently reported incidents from years or even decades ago lies at the heart of a fundamental issue: The religious duress and fear drummed into so many victims prevented them from coming forward until they sensed a socio-cultural milieu wherein they would be believed and a community that would support them if they chose to take on the last “sacred institution” of our culture, the church.
The two major deficiencies in the process are these: It did not adequately address and evaluate Article One of the charter that called for “healing, outreach and reconciliation.” If anything, those of us deeply involved with the victims and survivors know that this has consistently been the most grievous flaw in the church’s response to the scandal. The victims have been ignored, intimidated, marginalized, threatened, re-victimized. The report recognized only two bishops for their outreach to victims. It would have been far more important had the charter devoted most of its energy to this aspect than in finding new and efficient ways to dispatch accused priests, or create an institutional response with more boards, committees and protocols. The report measured a bureaucratic response to a bureaucratic solution to the problem, rather than the far more challenging and difficult human Christian response to the spiritual, emotional and psychological devastation inflicted on the thousands of victims, young and old.
The second and most glaring deficiency is the fact that it does not even begin to look at the most fundamental and troubling question for victims, survivors and most lay people, Catholic and otherwise. Why did the bishops cover up sexual abuse by Catholic clergy for so many years, and why did it take a tidal wave of devastating publicity, an endless squall line of high-profile lawsuits and a massive drainage of dollars to wake them up? They are still on the defensive and denial is still at towering heights. We can never forget that there have been two significant parts to this nightmare: the countless incidents of sexual abuse of children, minors and adults by Catholic deacons, priests and bishops and the concerted efforts at cover-up, deception, stonewalling and re-victimization by the church’s leadership. It is the cover-up and not the abuse that has caused the erosion of trust!
The root of the problem is not a few thousand dysfunctional clerics. It is far deeper than that. It is a problem of leadership, the misuse and misunderstanding of power and above all a gross misunderstanding of ”church.” “The good of the church” is not the security and power of the bishops’ conference, the reverence and prestige of individual bishops, the falsely exalted position of clerics or the erroneous sacralization of the clerical state. “The good of the church” is an honest, fearless and compassionate concern for those most harmed by this tragic phenomenon, starting with the victims and extending to every person whose trust, expectations and hope were shattered by a leadership that appeared to sacrifice fundamental Christian principles for the sake of ecclesiastical power.
It is possible, however, to end on a hopeful note. The audit, no matter how flawed, did take place; and the bishops, perhaps too slowly, are gradually coming to a realization as individuals and as a corporate entity, of the almost unimaginable dimensions of this vast and complex phenomenon. They are still in basic denial about their own decisive role. They appear to be still afraid of victims and survivors. The way the audit was ultimately directed by the bishops shows they are still obsessed with control.
Yet there are signs that the church as a whole is very slowly moving out of its corporate denial. No matter what the reasons, the institutional church is not where it was twenty or even five years ago. The church – the whole church and not just that tiny percentage who are the clergy and the hierarchy – is further along on the road to openness than when it all started. If in fact the institutional church is closer to its self-proclaimed ideal of being “the people of God,” it will be because of the pressure, urging, anger and persistence of the thousands of victims and survivors who have had the courage to step up and not allow themselves to be swallowed by the anonymity of history.