A History Lesson from Tom Doyle

In 1984, Tom Doyle was a rising star in the Church. Then he got involved in the abuse scandal in Louisiana. He saw it was a systemic problem, and tried to address it. But Pope John Paul preferred to sweep the problem under the rug, and Doyle’s persistent attempts at policy change lost him his job and his career. Doyle’s review of Pope Francis’s abuse summit is a history lesson: “Abuse summit achieved something, but not what pope or bishops expected.” Since the Vatican keeps trying to rewrite history, this is especially important. Most current accounts of the Church’s abuse problem are seriously in error.

First, Pope John Paul knew all the facts by 1985. He also established policies to make sure the Vatican was kept informed of future events. Pope John Paul also issued guidelines for handling the problem, something that Mr. Doyle tactfully understates, as precedents from quasi-infallible popes are almost as binding as Canon Law.

Doyle characterizes Vatican policy since 1985 as “almost nonstop rhetoric about the issue that has been a mixture of denial, blame-shifting, minimization, explanations (the most bizarre, that it's the work of the devil), apologies, expressions of regret, promises of change.” Note that “most bizarre” policy – blaming the problem on Satan – is one that Pope Francis repeated several times in the months leading up to his summit.

More background from Doyle:

“The other element that fits right in with the bishops' pattern of response over the past 35 years is that they made promises but did nothing. People have been begging the bishops for years to stop talking about it. Stop the endless flow of empty platitudes and empty promises and do something. Unfortunately, the hierarchy's long-held belief that their words are sufficient to change reality has been completely useless.”

Here I would qualify Doyle’s comments. I think American bishops have shown signs they were willing to go beyond empty promises. But the Vatican quashed those attempts.

His subsequent review is better:

“After 35 years of pious platitudes, empty promises, baseless excuses, demonizing victims and fighting the march to justice at every turn, Pope Francis and the bishops should realize that an extension of the legacy of past defensive behavior would fall flat on its face, and it did. The reality, whether the pope likes it or not, is that the institutional church cannot fix itself. Its past attempts at doing so have failed. Future attempts such as the scheme to have metropolitan archbishops manage the prosecution of bishops accused of abuse or complicity will only end up the same way every other attempt run by the church ended up: a failure.”

But hope springs eternal. Doyle congratulates Pope Francis and suggests he is blazing a new trail: “The fact that the pope convened the leadership of every bishops' conference in the world is a major feat in itself. No matter how you cut it, this should be a sign that the pope takes the issue seriously and, hopefully, for most of the right reasons.”

Pope Francis has stonewalled since he took office. His special commission on child abuse was just an attempt to buy time. The release of Pennsylvania’s Grand Jury report put tremendous pressure on the Church, whose flock had grown increasingly restless. When the conference of American bishops was about to vote on some concrete proposals, Pope Francis squelched them, offering the pretext of a future Vatican summit. Doyle tsays that Pope Francis’ convening a summit of leading bishops was “a major feat” and a sign of great determination. Calling a meeting of his subordinates isn't such a big deal. I am not persuaded that Pope Francis had a Damascene moment.


Doyle concludes:

“The Vatican summit produced no decisive, action-oriented results, just more platitudes and promises. I consider this a positive because it should remove any doubt about whether the Vatican and the hierarchy have the ability or the will to take the radical steps essential to fixing the problem. It is also positive because it showed what has been obvious for so long: The church has responded and will continue to respond to sexual violation and to its victims in a pastoral and decisive manner, but it is the lay men and women of the people of God, and not the clergy, who have been and will continue to be the driving force in this.”

While Doyle previously spoke of Pope Francis’ change of heart, now he recognizes that the papal summit was just “platitudes and promises.” Doyle places his trust in “the lay men and women of the people of God” – a rather sectarian view of the Catholic laity. While the Catholic laity has behaved better than its hierarchy, to date, most substantive change has been driven by secular authorities. Hopefully, between the power of the legal authorities and the power of the laymen’s purse strings, there will be change. Like the Reformation, which Mr. Doyle references, the change will not come easily or quickly. Fortunately, due to the impotence of the modern Church, it will be much less bloody.


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