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The Sacrifice of Father Thomas Doyle

In an excerpt from Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, authors Jason Berry and Gerald Renner trace one priest's decision to help victims of clerical sex abuse.

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Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, explores the current crisis in the Catholic Church through the lives of two priests. Marciel Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ, is a powerful priest in Rome and an accused pedophile. The other man is Thomas P. Doyle, an American member of the Dominican order who sacrificed a rising career at the Vatican Embassy to become an advocate for abuse victims.

Doyle was born in Wisconsin in 1944 and raised in upstate New York and Canada. "His natural disposition toward authority might have sent him toward an FBI career," the authors write. "As a boy he hunted with his dad and at eleven he joined the National Rifle Association; he remains a member to this day."

In 1986, Doyle joined the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain, eventually attaining the position of Lieutenant Colonel; he was in Iraq last year ministering to U.S. troops. He also has testified against the church in many legal proceedings, while remaining a priest. The following excerpts from Vows of Silence follow major turns in Doyle's life, beginning with his seminary studies in Dubuque, Iowa.

Just before Christmas 1967, the faculty priests at Aquinas Institute went out for dinner. The prior -- the priest elected to lead the Dominican community -- announced he was leaving to get married. The gathering broke up with torn feelings. When the bell rang at Aquinas, Thomas Doyle and his fellow seminarians trooped into the common room and got the news. Feelings of betrayal by a leader darkened the festive season; some men asked why they all couldn't marry and be priests. In the months that followed, two faculty priests quit; disillusioned seminarians followed. Of the twenty-six men who began with Doyle, six would be ordained. By 2002, only three were priests.

- - -

In 1971 Doyle was an assistant pastor at St. Vincent Ferrer parish in River Forest, a suburb of Chicago, when a divorced man asked his help. Could he get his first marriage annulled, and remarry in the church? Divorced Catholics were rare in Doyle's parents' generation. Many Catholics believed that divorced people could never remarry within the church, though canonical proceedings did allow for annulments. Those who remarried civilly or in other churches were forbidden to receive communion. Doyle drove downtown to the Loop and visited the Chicago Archdiocese's tribunal where priests and lay staff dealt with the Code of Canon Law.

An annulment had stricter standards than a civil divorce, but if aberrations like spousal abandonment or systematic abuse were proven, the tribunal could deem the sacramental bond "invalid," opening the way for a new exchange of vows. Doyle helped his parishioner get an annulment and presided at the man's wedding. Suddenly, people were calling him for help on annulments. He listened as women sobbed, telling of husbands who had beaten them for years; he met kids numbed by violent and alcohol-drenched homes; he heard women talk about frigidity and being abused as girls. He saw the proud exterior of men turn brittle as they revealed sexual secrets that had plagued them for years; some were impotent, others homosexual, and though they loved their families, they wanted out of marriage. In this undercurrent of suffering, Doyle reasoned that Christ's church must help its hurting members.

"Cardinal Cody wants to see you," his Dominican provincial said one day.

The mansion of Chicago's cardinal-archbishop overlooked Lincoln Park in a zone of downtown real estate called the Gold Coast. Cardinal John Cody ruled the nation's largest archdiocese with an iron fist. Cody forced many older priests out of parishes they had served for years. He would show up at a rectory unannounced, wait hours if the pastor was out, and when the man walked in order him to vacate on the spot. His decisions could be bizarre. When the psychologist Eugene Kennedy advised him that a priest on the verge of collapse should enter a therapeutic facility, Cody gave the anguished priest money and a plane ticket to Paris. The priest flew off to a mental breakdown, and ended up in a New York hospital. "Who could read Cody's mind?" says Kennedy. "He wanted to control everything."

As a cautious Tom Doyle was ushered into his office, the famously moody cardinal, bespectacled with sagging jowls, inquired about his background, life in the Dominicans, how he liked his parish. Father Doyle answered politely, truthfully. Remarking on his work with divorced Catholics, Cody asked if he knew canon law. "Not much, Your Eminence." Cody had been a scholar on the canons relating to marriage. The cold exterior melted into a strange bearish warmth as he praised the young priest for helping those who needed the church.

Thus began an odd friendship. Seasoned by the confessions of wrecked marriages, Doyle saw Cody as beleaguered, unable to articulate his own pain. He was careful not to play therapist to a cardinal. Secretaries came and went with documents to sign; Cody slept alone in the big house, surrounded by stacks of papers. With a large reach of family and friends, Doyle was upbeat about life. Cody confided about alcoholic priests he was helping financially, and support to women with out-of-wedlock children. The fathers were priests, Father!

Doyle did not become Cody's confessor, but as Cody spoke of his compassion, Doyle saw a lonely man yearning for affections that his stormy habits barred him from finding.

Ambitious young people commonly seek out older, powerful figures they may not like, yet whom they cultivate in finding a career ladder. Cordial Tom Doyle ended up liking the old man. Cody not only encouraged his burgeoning ministry with the divorced, he provided financial support for Doyle to study the canon law. In 1973 Doyle went to Rome for courses in church jurisprudence.

- - -

By 1978 Doyle was back at the parish in River Forest, working on annulments at Chicago's tribunal. He resumed his visits with Cardinal Cody, more unpopular than ever in Chicago yet on good terms with Pope John Paul II.

In 1981, a canonist working at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., resigned to become a Dominican superior. The apostolic delegate, or papal envoy, was the Italian Archbishop Pio Laghi. Doyle was stunned at the invitation to interview in Washington for the canon lawyer's position.

Born on May 21, 1922, in Castiglione, Pio Laghi was a peasant's son who advanced through the priesthood with doctorates in theology and canon law in Rome. He was thirty when Pope Pius XII selected him for the Vatican diplomatic corps. The 59-year-old Laghi had a quick mind and elegant manner. He was a trim man with dark eyes, close-cut silver hair and "a frustratingly consistent forehand on the tennis court," in the words of Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania. Fluent in four languages, Laghi had served in Nicaragua during the Somoza regime, then in India, Jerusalem, Cyprus and finally Argentina.

Doyle sat in Laghi's large office where a photograph of the pope hung prominently. With a prelate's gold chain draped across his chest, Laghi spoke of the need to select correct men to become bishops, reviewing qualifications to ensure that the Holy Father had a list of three candidates from whom to choose each new bishop. The topography of the church was changing. As descendants of Irish, Polish and Italian Catholics settled into affluent suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest, the influx of Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans into Florida, and Salvadorans and Mexicans into the Southwest and California, pushed the frontiers of the church. Laghi emphasized the need for naming new bishops as Rome carved out new dioceses.

Laghi kept talking -- about the need for bishops loyal to the Holy Father's vision for the church, about the Holy Father's emphasis on evangelization. Doyle had written his master's thesis in political science on Lenin's theory of social revolution. As archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla had lived through the horrors of Communism. As pope, John Paul II was sending signals of disapproval to Latin America where advocates of Liberation Theology sought an empowerment of the impoverished masses as part of their spiritual destiny.

The pope saw Marxist thought as influencing such theologians. As Archbishop Laghi kept talking, Doyle, eager for a career track to become a bishop or diplomat, wondered, Why is this guy yakking so much? Isn't he curious about who I am?

An aide interrupted to say that the guests had arrived.

In marched John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, tall and gray-haired with regal bearing (as befits his name, meaning "king" in Polish), accompanied by two newly named auxiliary bishops. Laghi showed the Americans into the dining room; French Canadian nuns served a celebratory meal with wine in honor of the two men who had joined the hierarchy. One bishop proposed "a toast to the Holy Spirit," which struck Doyle as stupid. But you can't not drink to the Holy Spirit when you're sitting with the apostolic delegate and cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia. Laghi and Krol did most of the talking, ruminations on the recent shooting of the Holy Father in Rome by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish terrorist. The table was charged with speculation about news on Agca's reputed ties to Bulgaria and the Soviet KGB. A plot to kill the pope was evil of the harshest form.

Cardinal Krol and the two bishops departed after lunch. Coffee-logged, Doyle readied himself for questions.

"How soon can you come?" said Pio Laghi.

Well, replied Doyle, he would have to ask his superiors.

"Yes, fine," said Laghi matter-of-factly. "Go ask them."

And that was it -- no questions, just come back when your superiors have agreed to let you work for the Holy Father. Doyle thanked Archbishop Laghi, realizing the job had been his to lose. The Vatican delegation! He flew back to Chicago on wings of joy and congratulations from his brother Dominicans.

- - -

The stormy years in seminary had toughened Father Doyle. Wearing French cuffs at receptions on the embassy circuit, he met Vice-President and Mrs. George Bush. He had lunch with Catholic advisors in the White House. Having never imagined such a life for himself, he liked it and wanted to move up.

Doyle conducted background checks on priests nominated for the hierarchy. In vetting bishops, Doyle relied on people who knew a given candidate. A questionnaire went to such people with a cover statement exactly as printed here: ANY VIOLATION OF THIS SECRET NOT ONLY CONSTITUTES A GRAVE FAULT, BUT IS ALSO A CRIME PUNISHABLE WITH A CORRESPONDING ECCLESIASTICAL PENALTY. The questionnaire asked about the priest's attitude toward "the documents of the Holy See on the Ministerial Priesthood, on the priestly ordination of women, on the Sacrament of Matrimony, on sexual ethics, and on social justice ... loyalty and docility to the Holy Father, the Apostolic See, and the Hierarchy; esteem for and acceptance of priestly celibacy."

The prospective bishop was never interviewed, nor even supposed to know he was under consideration. The process was a "pontifical secret."

One thing Doyle omitted from his reports was the reason behind the declining numbers of priests; some twelve hundred men were leaving American clerical life a year, most of them to marry. A similar attrition factor was emerging in Canada, Australia and Ireland. The mandatory celibacy law and the birth control prohibition were taking a toll.

Silence was a powerful force in ecclesiastical culture -- things unsaid could be as important as the timely word. Under John Paul, no priest who wanted to be a bishop could speak against celibacy, or the birth control ban, or in favor of ordaining women. Doyle knew that any number of would-be bishops did not share Rome's positions. In the arc of history the church had to reckon with the sensus fidelium -- the "mind of the faithful." Until then, he told himself, he was working for the greater good.

The evidence of things unsaid shadowed assumptions of power. As Tom Doyle was learning, the great sin in ecclesiastical culture was to violate its ethos of secrecy. Cardinals take an oath to the pope to safeguard the church from scandal -- to prevent bad information from becoming public. No bishop or nuncio (papal ambassador) wanted to get near stories about gay priests or suggest that the church would be better if priests might marry -- or be female. Most hierarchs took the long view: a church nearly two thousand years old had survived many scandals. Some future pope could make celibacy optional with a stroke of the pen.

- - -

In 1984, Lafayette, Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe was indicted for crimes of pedophilia. Doyle soon he learned of cases in other states from Father Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist who directed a hospital for troubled priests, St. Luke Institute, in a suburb of Washington.

Doyle wondered about the quality of his intelligence from Louisiana. His concerns were borne out with the hurricane arrival of F. Ray Mouton, Jr., the lawyer defending Gauthe on criminal charges. Mouton flew to Washington in a January freeze of 1985 to seek advice from Peterson. A star football player in high school, Mouton, thirty-seven, was married with three children. He had prospered as a plaintiff attorney in personal injury cases; he had also defended big-time drug dealers. The Gauthe case had jolted his faith. In a civil deposition the priest admitted to having sex with thirty-seven boys, four times the number of victims in the indictment. Gauthe had taken photographs of young boys in sex acts, fondled them in confession, had oral sex on fishing trips and in the rectory of a rural village where he lived alone for five years until 1983 when three young brothers finally told their daddy.

Church officials did not inform parishioners where the priest had gone or what he had done beyond "grievous misconduct ... of an immoral nature." As Mouton put it, if the bishop had only leveled with people, gotten the boys in therapy, acted like the church, they could have avoided litigation. Instead, plaintiff lawyers arranged therapy, and a year later the boys testified to the criminal grand jury.

Doyle liked the way Ray Mouton's mind worked. He used common sense like a hammer. He spoke compassionately about the families Gauthe had traumatized -- farmers, trappers, oil workers -- who would take years to recover. In south Louisiana, old folk still spoke French. Recalling his family's years in Quebec, Doyle felt an ache for those Cajuns. He interviewed Mouton for hours. Then, with eyes smarting from Mouton's cigarette smoke, he telephoned the embassy and told a colleague to call the papal nuncio off the handball court. "I need to talk to him right away."

- - -

Cardinal Silvio Oddi, the head of the Congregation for Clergy, visited Washington in the spring while Doyle was working with Ray Mouton and Mike Peterson on a detailed report about pedophile priests. Laghi asked Doyle to brief the Vatican official. Oddi, short and rotund, was a balding man with a strain of volatility. As a Prince of the Church, Oddi stayed in the cardinals' suite on the third floor of the embassy, a lavish mini-apartment that included a bedroom and substantial parlor with a large desk.

A huge cardinal's ring was gleaming on Oddi's finger as Doyle began a somber recitation of facts from Louisiana -- children harmed, a priest going to prison, other priests removed -- touching on information in several dozen cases in various states. Doyle emphasized the addictive nature of child molesting: Gauthe had had sex with scores of children.

Cardinal Oddi's face turned red with anger. He forked his index and middle fingers in a scissor's shape and made a criss-cross motion. "We should find out who those priests are and cut them off!" he said, meaning their testicles.

"Your Eminence, it's against the law in America to castrate men."

"They're our priests," retorted Oddi. "We can do what we want!"

"It doesn't quite work that way, Your Eminence."

Enflamed by the idea of priests molesting children, Oddi stated that the Vatican would hold a meeting of all the Congregations and issue a decree. The idea intrigued Doyle, though how it would be done, and by whom, was a drama within the Roman Curia he could only begin to imagine. But Oddi's ire was a good sign.

- - -

Completed in May 1985, the long report by Doyle, Peterson and Mouton was eventually sent to every bishop in America. The document examined medical and legal issues of the pedophilia cases, and warned of a national scandal if the hierarchy did not adopt a sound policy. To Doyle's dismay, the report was ignored and he found himself losing favor with bishops.

- - -

Pio Laghi said nothing about the pope's concern, nor did he volunteer any Vatican role in changing institutional behavior. His meaning was clear: American bishops must solve their problem. By early 1986, with reports on cases in Australia and Canada, Doyle realized that recycling sex offenders was rooted in a governing mentality. No bishop wanted to push the issue at the conference level, though Doyle at the behest of several bishops had given closed briefings to priests. Laghi hinted that he might turn his talents to other projects. But after four and a half years at the embassy Doyle was disillusioned.

At work his colleagues seemed remote, especially the Italian priests whose emotional distance suggested he was crazy for taking on such an issue. When a colleague asked when he would have his office cleared, Doyle realized that he had received his walking papers. No one said, You're fired. In keeping with the ornamental customs, Laghi proposed a dinner in his honor, a formal grazi for nearly five years of service to the Holy See.

Doyle had broken the unwritten rule of getting too close to a scandal; his idea of justice, so American, clashed with a Roman detachment and mannerly style. There had been no inflammatory event; it was rather a problem Doyle could not put aside, and it divided him from them.

Laghi's idea of a banquet infuriated him. The whole operation was so hypocritical, he fumed to Michael Peterson. "I don't want that bullshit!"

"Do the dinner, Tom. Leave on good terms."

Doyle realized his friend was right: don't burn your bridges. He provided a short list of names, including that of Father Peterson, to be invited for the supper.

Doyle had been teaching canon law as an adjunct faculty member at Catholic University and applied for a full-time position, but after job interviews he knew he'd blown it. He could not put on the calm front of a seasoned academic; he had an edge and it showed.

He could have found a pastor's job in any number of dioceses. But that sense of closeness to God, central to his vocation, had collided with the hierarchy. He had never been rejected in this way; he did not want to be under just any bishop's control. Bitter that his career trajectory had collapsed, he sometimes woke at three in the morning; the anger made it hard to turn the pillow and roll back to sleep. He remembered people he had counseled, leaving a bad marriage, afraid of the unknown. He felt betrayed by the Church of Rome.

He found clarity in the gospel of St. Mark: "Jesus called [the disciples] to him and saith unto them, Ye know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them: and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you: but whosoever would become great among you, shall be your minister; and whoever should be first among you, shall be servant of all."

It had been fifteen years since his ordination. He loved the giving of Christ's Word in ministry, the joy of sharing the sacraments. He did not want the structure with all its Byzantine conflicts and egos to wreck his vocation. There were many victims, too great a pent-up rage. Unable to persuade the hierarchy that a torrent of violations would unleash volcanic winds, he repeated words that became a prayer: This is evil. I am going to help those who have been harmed by this evil because that's what a priest should do. This is what I believe you want. Lord, help me do it right.

Fascinated by technology and computers, he had taken pleasure in earning his pilot's license. He enjoyed mastering the control panel of airplanes. The thrill of reaching high blue fields folded into a calm, settling beauty. One afternoon, following a column of whales out beyond Cape Cod, he felt an almost mystical serenity. Archbishop Joseph Ryan of the Military Vicariate in Silver Springs had asked him to assist with their tribunal. The certitude of military life reminded him of the priesthood when he had entered: obedience to just authority, individuality and community balanced by a common good. The ordinaries was a separate archdiocese within the U.S. church. Once a priest received his posting as a chaplain, he answered to the military command. Doyle wanted a base, independent and secure, so as not to back down on his life-dividing issue.

At forty-two, he enlisted in the United States Air Force.

- - -

As Doyle's contact with victims and journalists increased, he began to hear from plaintiff attorneys. For a canon lawyer to assist an attorney suing the Catholic Church was a radical shift. Ignored by the Vatican cardinals and dismissed by Laghi, Doyle was rewriting the assumptions of his priesthood. He had no doubt that Jesus would be with the survivors of child sexual abuse. Christ said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." If Caesar held the means to root out corruption in the church, Doyle had no doubt that Jesus would support him in gravitating to Caesar's side.

Jeffrey R. Anderson of St. Paul was in litigation against three Minnesota dioceses for the victims of Tom Adamson. It was the most time-intensive case Anderson had ever taken. Anderson absorbed the investigation costs; if the cases settled or won a jury verdict, he took a third of what the church and its insurance companies would pay, plus recouping his expenses. If he lost, he lost big. Jeff Anderson had a flamboyant, in-your-face quality. A member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he was politically Doyle's opposite.

In spring 1988, Doyle had moved fifty-five hundred pounds of books into his new home at Grissom Air Force Base in Peru, Indiana. His computer was set up. He was getting to know his parishioners, and at night talking on the phone to victims. He did not hang up when Jeff Anderson called. "There's a priest up here in Minnesota named Tom Adamson. They knew he was a child molester, and moved him around, and they've lied about it to me."

"I've got news for you," said Doyle. "That's not unusual."

Doyle discussed the Gauthe cases in Louisiana, of which Anderson had only the sketchiest appreciation. The parallels were striking. This guy Doyle had been on the inside!

"Would you testify to these things?" asked Anderson.

"Yeah, I'd testify."

A few days later Jeff Anderson opened an envelope from the chaplain out in Indiana, and found the ninety-two-page Doyle-Peterson-Mouton manual. Anderson read it, greedily, struck by the wide learning in a complex field and all of it from the inside. The attorney had been gathering documents through legal discovery of the Minnesota dioceses that had shuffled the priest from parish to parish, leaving a trail of sexually assaulted boys. A trial with publicity was the last thing his legal adversaries wanted. Anderson realized how much was at stake. Doyle's document suggested a national scope to a human disaster he had begun to grasp in Minnesota. Most of Adamson's sexual outlets were guys whose lives became scarred by drugs, wild sex, busted relationships, collisions with cops -- the walking wounded.

Listing Father Doyle as a witness gave Anderson major leverage. The defense attorneys realized he had a witness steeped in knowledge of the church's inner workings. Anderson negotiated an average settlement of $550,000 for the first twelve victims of Adamson. More victims started calling. As word of the settlements spread, Anderson found cases in other states. He became the leading plaintiff attorney in the field, interviewed by reporters and on network television as the scandal began to make news.

Anderson was moved by Tom Doyle's compassion for the victims, the time he spent talking to them. An agnostic, Anderson was curious about Doyle's ability to separate his spiritual beliefs from the institutional corruption.

"I look for the light," said Doyle.

After countless phone calls and much correspondence, Anderson realized he had no invoice. He asked about Doyle's charges. "I'd just donate it," said Doyle, off-handedly. As a Dominican he had lived under a vow of poverty. As an Air Force captain he drew a salary, without a mortgage or family to support.

"I paid him ten thousand dollars on those early cases," says Anderson. "A comparable expert in complex litigation might have commanded a million dollars in fees."

As other attorneys began seeking his services, Doyle had to think about the money. He decided to take modest fees that would allow him to give financial support to victims unable to sue because the statute of limitations had expired. In the 1990s he dispensed about $100,000 to such people.

LISA KESSLER
  • Lisa Kessler
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