Catholic Church Sex Abuse: Tom Doyle and the Survival of the Spirit

Fr. Tom Doyle is a Catholic priest who belongs to the religious Order of Preachers, or more commonly known Dominicans. Depending on your perspective he is either a disgruntled, reviled priest or a John the Baptist-like hero who has dared to take on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for their complicity in the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal. Those who revile him usually belong to the group who aided and abetted the sexual abuse cover-up plaguing the Catholic Church. I know Tom Doyle, consider him a friend and an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. Doyle has been a “thorn in the side” of the Catholic Church for more than two decades now. He’s not a thorn because he’s simply a priest. He’s a problem for the hierarchy (the bishops and cardinals) because besides being a priest he is also a noted scholar. He knows canon law (church law) as well as church history.
Doyle gave the keynote address in July 2008 to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. The address was entitled “The Survival of the Spirit While Mired in the Toxic Wastes of the Ecclesiastical Swamp”. The address is both a rousing call to arms for advocacy and change as well as a thoughtful and scholarly analysis of the abuse crisis.
Doyle points out that the 2002 scandal in Boston was not unique in the history of the Catholic Church. The modern scandal was unique in the cover-up of the abuse and the bungling fashion in which the Church authorities, bishops primarily, handled the abuse crisis.
Perhaps more importantly, is Doyle’s assertion of the devastating effects on the victims of sexual abuse. As Doyle correctly points out, this is not something “gets over with and moves on.” The effects of abuse damage the psyche to the point that there remain wounds long after the abuse has ended. Because the abuse is perpetrated by so-called men of God, the abuse takes on a spritual character not easily diagnosed or “fixed”. As a lawyer, I’ve had numerous experiences where church lawyers ask for an accounting of the victims’ suffering as if it’s as easy as composing a grocery list. While these lawyers intentions may be neutral, they fail to realize that a facile categorization of injuries is nearly impossible and only adds to the suffering of the victim. Many times, the victims that has the tremendous courage to come forward is not able to verbalize the pain, alienation from God, and psychic trauma they’ve suffered. It’s as if they now live in an altered state.
One of the more subtle but vitally important aspect of Doyle’s address is how the Church has molded its victims to think of heaven, hell, sin, and redemption. In the Catholic belief system, a priest holds the power of forgiveness. Many survivors, victimized by a priest, must now turn to a priest for forgiveness and assurance that they are “right with God” even though they were victims of a crime! Doyle describes it accurately when he calls the entire situation “toxic”. According to Doyle, “forgiveness” is manipulated into something that it is not. It incorrectly requires a forgetting of the abuse with no consequences to the perpetrator of the institution that it covered it up.
Doyle’s piece is a must read not only for survivors but bishops who want to “move forward” without the accountability associated with real reform and progress. It’s a shame that in all likelihood the bishops will view the address as another attack on them and the institutional Catholic Church.