Catholic church doesn’t understand toll of child sexual abuse, says US priest

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Father Thomas Doyle tells royal commission the church does not want to understand just how profound the impact of abuse is on survivors

Father Thomas Doyle

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One of the first American priests to have broken ranks on child abuse said the Catholic church still fails to comprehend the depth of spiritual damage done to victims.

Father Thomas Doyle, then a canonical lawyer at the Vatican’s Washington embassy, was tasked with investigating child abuse cases in the US in the mid-1980s, preparing a 40-page report for the nuncio, or papal ambassador, which he said was handed to the pope.

Doyle’s warnings about the abuse went unheeded and he said he was pushed out of his position with the embassy in 1986.

He has spent the time since helping survivors, speaking to thousands of individuals abused by Catholic clergy.

Doyle, giving evidence to the child abuse royal commission in Sydney on Tuesday, spoke of a life-changing moment in his early years of examining abuse claims, when he met a 10-year-old survivor face to face.

“When I looked into his face, I still see it, it was empty,” Doyle said. “And that moment changed my life. The parents were simple, good, decent people who could not comprehend why they were being treated the way they were by the church.

“They couldn’t understand why this man had been shifted from one place to another, to another. I had no answers.”

Doyle is one of many experts called this week to give insights into the church and the causes of the crisis to Australia’s royal commission into institutional response to child sexual abuse.

The royal commission is in its final three weeks of examining the Catholic church and, on Monday, heard damning statistics showing that 7% of priests abused children between 1950 and 2010.

In one Catholic order, St John of God Brothers, 40% of clergy were alleged perpetrators, while one in five Marist and Christian brothers were the subject of allegations.

Doyle said the church’s approach to the issue still failed to comprehend the damage done to survivors and those around them.

“One of the massive holes in the Roman Catholic church’s approach to this issue, still today, is a failure to completely comprehend the depth of the spiritual damage that is done to the victims, to their families, especially their parents, to their friends and to the community itself,” Doyle said.

Doyle said the church did not want to understand just how profound the impact of abuse was on survivors.

“Because if we learnt how bad this really is, it’s not going to make us look good in the long run,” he said. “We’d rather look the other way.”

The institutional structure of the church, as the official entity for Catholics to achieve salvation, had become sacrosanct, Doyle said.

He said the protection of the “institutional church” had become “of all-encompassing importance” to the Catholic hierarchy.

Doyle said that had contributed to efforts to cover up crimes and silence victims.

“The protection of this entity is of all-encompassing importance and that means the bishops themselves must be protected at all costs, and must be protected from embarrassment, from being lowered in the esteem of the community,” Doyle said. “Because if these things happen, the church will be seriously tainted.”

Doyle also spoke of a US priest, who had been accused of abusing five daughters from the same family. Doyle said the priest was to be sent to Holland, because there was no extradition treaty in place. That was designed to allow him to avoid court, Doyle said.

The privileged status of priests in the community, he said, put them “on a pedestal” and in positions of power and trust. He said that could be used to control and scare victims. In the eyes of children, the priest represented god.

“Many victims that I have talked to are completely confused through all of this because they’re taught that anything sexual is a mortal sin,” he said.

The training of clergy, particularly in celibacy, prevented them from maturing emotionally, sexually and psychologically, he said.

He likened priests to a highly educated groups of 14-year-olds. The few priests who stood with survivors and victims were sidelined, silenced, or punished by the church, he said.

“Because they have gone public with an issue that the system would still prefer to keep unknown and buried in secrecy,” he said.

He praised the work of the commission, saying it would have a profound impact, including on the Vatican.

“What you are doing is unique in the world, it is historic, it is going to make a mammoth difference in the long run,” he said. “You’ve taken something on that is mind-boggling.”

The prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described the abuse uncovered in the royal commission as a “national shame” in parliament on Tuesday. He said it could never be allowed to happen again, in any context.

“This is not just a history lesson, this is not just a sad tale from times past, this is a reminder to all of us today, in every part of the nation, to protect the vulnerable in our care, the children in our care, in whatever context,” Turnbull said.

The royal commission continues on Tuesday.

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