- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

The sad tale of the Catholic Church's negligence in dealing with pedophile priestswas first a prophetic warning, when, in 1985, a pair of highly regarded priests warned America's bishops about the problem and what needed to be done then.And, as National Catholic Reporter's (NCR) Thomas C. Fox tells us in a hard-hitting story, "What they knew in 1985," what happened to one of the whistleblowers in the scandal, also calls into question the church's commitment to those who bear witness by telling truth to power.

Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, together with another priest and an attorney, tried to warn the bishops about the scope of the problem and the need to take action in the scores of cases in which priests were known to molest children, some repeatedly. Their 92-page document, Mr. Fox noted, warned that priests engaged in misconduct could not merely receive counseling, and that there was "no hope" for a cure in any number of cases. They also urged that bishops "should suspend immediately" a priest accused of sexual abuse whenever "the allegation has any possible merit."

"In a sophisticated society a media policy of silence implies either necessary secrecy or cover-up," they wrote. "Cliches such as 'no comment' must be cast away."

Today, the high cost of not heeding such advice to the victims and to the church is much in the news. Mr. Fox's report provides insight into the price paid by Father Doyle, who some say could have become a bishop. Father Doyle had received a canon law degree from the Catholic University in Washington, Mr. Fox tells us, before being asked by Archbishop Pio Laghi, then papal nuncio in the United States, to join the Vatican Embassy's staff as secretary-canonist. It was in this position that Father Doyle became personally familiar, by dealing with victims' lawsuits against the church, with what the heirarchy desperately wanted to keep from the headlines.

In preparing the report with Father Michael Peterson, then director of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and a lay lawyer, Father Doyle couched his language in the most diplomatic terms possible. The church, the report said, faces "extremely serious financial consequences" and "significant injury" to its image as a result of the "sexual molestation of children by clerics, priests, permanent deacons and transient decons, nonordained religious, lay employees and seminarians."

By June 1985, in just one diocese, the sexual contact between a priest and several children had resulted in more than $100 million in legal claims.Total projected loses for the decade, the authors warned, could go as high as $1 billion. "The potential exposure to the Catholic Church … is very great," they wrote. "Clerics suspected of abuse should not be allowed to function in any priestly capacity."

Despite the vivid warnings, backed by more than 100 pages of supporting evidence, the U.S. bishops meeting in June 1985 at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., took virtually no action. Among those receiving extensive briefings on the report before the reunion was Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, now under fire for alleged negligence in the case of pedophile priests who are repeat offenders.

According to Mr. Fox, Father Doyle later became one of the remaining links between the victims and the church where they once found spiritual comfort. However, he noted: "In the months and years that followed Collegeville, Father Doyle persisted in sounding the alarm. He clearly paid a price. In 1986, he was removed from the embassy (nuncio); he also lost his teaching position in canon law at Catholic University. By several accounts he became ostracized by the bishops."

In contrast, Archbishop Laghi's career flourished. The NCR story notes that, during the period Archbishop Laghi served as Rome's representative in Washington, (1980-1990), the issue of clergy abuse remained largely ignored. In 1991, Pope John Paul II appointed him as cardinal.

The NCR story did not, however, go into the cardinal's earlier career in Argentina. There, as papal nuncio in Buenos Aires, Archbishop Laghi frequently played tennis with one of the military rulers who was later tried and convicted by a civilian court for crimes against humanity. Human-rights activists there say that, although the Vatican's embassy kept a secret list of thousands of people who "disappeared" kidnapped, tortured and secretly killed by the military's clandestine repression, that roster was never made public.

Archbishop Laghi later claimed that his silence allowed him to save some lives, but these cases were limited to individuals from influential families who had access to him. Observers wonder if, by releasing that information, the Vatican's ambassador could have prevented the disappearance of thousands more.

As the Catholic Church is questioned again about its children that it did not protect, it is worth asking who, today, represents the interests of Rome and who represents those of God. And why does the church seem, even still, as worried about the offenders and its image as with the fate of the children who suffer still?


Martin Edwin Andersen, is media director of the Government Accountability Project.


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