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A Priest in the Camp of the Sexually Abused

Clergy: Former church insider, now a U.S. military chaplain, is hailed as an unsung hero by victims' advocates.

April 20, 2002|COLLEEN BARRY | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

RAMSTEIN, Germany — Hundreds of alleged victims of clergy sex abuse might never have come forward if not for a former Roman Catholic insider who is now a military chaplain at Ramstein Air Base.

Father Thomas Doyle was once a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington and on the fast track to becoming a bishop. But soon after the first major U.S. clergy scandal emerged in the 1980s, Doyle says he saw a conflict between trying to protect the church and the victims--and sided with the victims.

Now he is one of the few priests committed to appearing in civil court as an expert witness for alleged victims of abuse. He has consulted with hundreds of alleged victims in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, and testified in dozens of cases.

Victims' advocates hail him as a long-unrecognized hero. In public, church officials are gently critical of Doyle, though sometimes there are private expressions of hostility.

Doyle, an American, insists that his goal has always been to help the church become a better institution.

"I wasn't outspoken because I wanted to be a maverick," he said in an interview at his apartment in southwestern Germany. "I found out the system didn't want to bear the truth. I was shocked."

When clerical sex abuse of minors first became an issue, Doyle was working at the Vatican Embassy, where he oversaw the promotions of U.S. bishops. He was smart, ambitious and conservative--with master's degrees in philosophy, political science, theology and canon law.

In 1984, Doyle was asked to prepare a response to a letter from the vicar general of Louisiana informing the embassy that Father Gilbert Gauthe was accused of sexually abusing five children.

"At that time, I was still trying to protect the institutional church at the same time as the victims," Doyle said.

The scandal appeared containable at first. Gauthe's diocese was negotiating settlements. But a week later, another letter arrived at the embassy: One of the families had pulled out and was filing a civil suit.

The case became a watershed, marking the first time the U.S. church had publicly confronted sex abuse of minors.

Gauthe pleaded guilty to molesting 11 boys and admitted victimizing dozens more.

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Protocol on Issue Not Formally Adopted

Working with two other men--Father Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist who has since died, and Gauthe attorney Ray Mouton--Doyle drafted a protocol intended to help bishops deal with abuse by clergy.

But the 98-page manual describing a broad range of medical, legal, insurance and pastoral issues was never formally adopted as the authors hoped, despite initial backing from influential cardinals.

With his career stalled, Doyle joined the U.S. Air Force in 1986 and turned his focus toward helping survivors of clergy sex abuse.

Said Mouton: "I really believed in what we were doing. He believed in what we were doing.

"It was like the church said, 'You go walk points for us and find the enemy.' And we did; we found the enemy and radioed back, 'The enemy is us.' And they called a strike in on us."

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it is not true that the report was ignored.

"The bishops did learn from him, and from other sources," and took many actions then and later, he said.

In 1992, the bishops adopted a set of advisory principles on dealing with abuse by clergy and expect to address the issue again at their June meeting in Dallas.

Survivors of clerical abuse say innumerable cases never would have been heard without Doyle.

"There are victims numbering in the dozens, if not hundreds, who would not have come forward if not for his patient listening and steadfast support," said David Clohessy, who runs a Chicago-based network for people abused by priests.

Rugged and trim at 57, Doyle is comfortable with his everyday life in the Air Force. He loves to fly airplanes, is a lifelong member of the National Rifle Assn., and is more at ease in military garb than in a Roman collar.

"There is more integrity in the leadership of the military than in the Roman Catholic Church," he said. "An officer does not walk past a problem."

Doyle seems surprised that the latest American clergy scandal has led to next week's meeting between the pope, Vatican officials and U.S. cardinals.

But unlike in previous cases, he said, both the offenders and the superiors who protected them are now being held accountable.

"I was involved in all the big cases," he said. "I saw the bishops lie on the stand. I saw the evidence, clear as a bell. But they survived. It's like a Teflon hierarchy.

"This time it's different."

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