Tom Doyle: Vatican is the World’s “Last Absolute Monarchy”


February 25, 2014

Tom Doyle is a priest and long-time advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse. A former canon lawyer for the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., Doyle says the church’s power structure has served to exacerbate the abuse crisis. “The attitude that the clergy are somehow … above other Catholics and that we have to be protected at all costs, I think this is a heresy,” he told FRONTLINE. “It’s an evil virus that infects the institutional church.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 5, 2013.

Let’s go back in time a little bit to the early ’80s when you really were an insider. What was your job at that time?

I worked from 1981 to 1986 as the Secretary Canon Lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C. I was chosen for that job by the papal ambassador at the time. …

As a younger priest what were your own dreams for the future? How did you see your course moving?

I had a Doctorate in Canon Law which I received in 1978. I was working in the administration of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and I will not be disingenuous and say I was ambitious. And I was thrilled when I got the position at the Vatican Embassy because I knew where that would lead, and I figured it would lead me to becoming a bishop some day if I played my cards right. …

My position when I went there was to manage the process whereby candidates for the episcopacy were investigated and vetted. This is a highly secretive process. In the Catholic Church when you are under consideration to be a bishop, you don’t know about it. There are no interviews. You don’t come in with recommendations and say, “I want to apply for a position as a bishop.” It’s highly secret. You don’t even know you’ve been under consideration until you’re told that you’ve been appointed.

I managed that process not only for the selection of bishops but for the appointment of bishops. If a bishop was transferred, the process of investigation, of sending out the secret letters to people to find out the state of the diocese, the possibility of this or that candidate, I handled all of that. I would get all the information, synthesize it, take it to my superior … the Vatican ambassador, and he would go over it and he would make the final recommendations and send it to the Vatican for the final processing.

You were once very much on the inside and have a real sense of how the Holy See functions. How would you describe the way it all operates?

The Vatican is a place. That’s the geographic location of what’s commonly known as the Holy See. That’s the political term, the legal term for the government of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Holy See is the last absolute monarchy in the world today. The pope, when he is elected, is answerable to no human power. He has absolute authority over the entire Roman Catholic Church, direct authority that reaches down to individual members.

All of the governing officers in the Vatican itself, what we call the Vatican Curia, operate on delegated authority from the pope. They speak in the name of the pope. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are no separation of powers as we know of in most democratic societies. For example, in the United States there is the executive, the president; the legislative, which is the Senate and the House of Representatives; and the judiciary, the Supreme Court. No one of those completely controls the country.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the office of pope includes the three main offices of government. He is the supreme judge, the supreme legislator and the supreme executive, so there’s no separation of powers. There is no possibility of checks and balances.

The same is true of the office of bishop; each individual diocese is theologically referred to as an individual church. In fact, it is a small mini-church in a sense, where the bishop has absolute power subject to the pope, and the pope’s power is absolute. So the pope can fire a bishop without cause, in a heartbeat. But within his diocese the bishop, too, his office embodies the chief judge, the lawgiver and the executive of the diocese. …

One gets a sense that the bureaucracy is full of cliques, almost like competing courtiers vying for influence at the court of the king. Is there any truth in that?

I believe that there’s a lot of truth in the fact of describing the Vatican Curia, which is the administrative body of the worldwide church, as a collection of small fiefdoms, of cliques of individuals [with] different agendas vying against one another. …

It has been said that the only people who really understand what’s going on in the Vatican Curia are the individuals who have worked there for decades. It’s like the middle management, the lower rung of the middle management. They know where the power is distributed, and the power is constantly shifting: who’s in favor today may not be in favor tomorrow, because it all depends on who you know. …

1985 was a year that was critical to you. Tell me what happened.

1985 was critical, but it all began, in a sense, in 1983, in a small diocese in Louisiana, the Diocese of Lafayette, when the bishop of the diocese was forced to enter into confidential agreements with several families whose sons had been sexually violated by a priest named Gilbert Gauthe.

Gilbert Gauthe had been violating children. He was a true pedophile in that his victims were all prepubescent boys, with one exception. There was one little girl; the rest were all boys.

He had been reported to the bishop several times from the entire duration of his career as a priest, which began in 1972, and the bishop did nothing but shift him from one place to another. Finally it reached critical mass, and he could no longer shift him.

So in 1983 they entered into an agreement with I believe six families, paid them a couple of hundred thousand dollars apiece on the condition that they signed a document releasing from liability everyone from the bishop all the way to the pope and promising silence. …

I knew nothing about any of this until a letter was received by the papal ambassador and given to me to handle. It was a letter from the vicar general, the second in command of this diocese, a Monsignor [Alexandre] Larroque, which was sent to us for information purposes only, describing for us the situation. …

Maybe a week later, we received another letter from the same man, the same vicar general, saying, “I’m sorry, but things have changed; all is not under control, and one of the families has withdrawn from the agreement and has obtained the services of a civil attorney who is suing the diocese.” This had never been done. Nobody had sued the Catholic Church up until that era for sexual abuse of their children. That’s when things changed.

I was given this letter. My job was to simply create the file, prepare responses for the ambassador’s signature, talk to the diocese and find out what was going on, and, above all, see that they kept a lid on it, that there was no publicity, that it didn’t become known to the public causing scandal. …

“The Vatican … is the last absolute monarchy in the world today. The pope, when he is elected, is answerable to no human power. He has absolute authority over the entire Roman Catholic Church, direct authority that reaches down to individual members.”

Not long after this family filed a civil suit, the district attorney, a man named Nathan Stansbury, filed criminal charges against the priest, because it was still within the statute of limitations. That actually is when things begin to significantly change, because when he filed the criminal charges, the media got a hold of it, and it became the focus of attention. What was very significant at that time was the fact that [New Orleans investigative reporter] Jason Berry … published a series of four articles, not so much on the actual sexual abuse but on the cover-up, because that was the real issue, the cover-up.

… I’d put the diocese in touch with a priest named Michael Peterson, who was also a psychiatrist, who specialized in helping priests with substance abuse problems and psychosexual problems. Not long after Peterson became involved he was down there, and he was interacting with Father Gauthe’s attorney, a man named Raymond Mouton. All of a sudden I am contacted by Mouton, who says, “I want to meet you.” So he flew up to Washington in January of 1985, and we met.

I found him to be a fascinating individual — volatile, a chain smoker, very intelligent, and he got right to the point. He said: “I’ve got a problem down here. There’s about eight other priests floating around the diocese that are covering up for him that are also violating kids. This is a problem because it’s causing me problems the way I’m trying to work out a defense for my client.” Mouton suddenly began communicating with me several times a day on developments down there, and it became a major part of my daily job.

He and I and Father Peterson kind of came together. We coalesced in maybe February of 1985, [and] we decided … we would write up some sort of position paper for bishops on how to respond. …

My boss, the papal ambassador knew everything that was going on and was supportive of what we were doing. He thought this was horrendous, the violation of children, but he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the whole thing, and I don’t think any of us could. I had more of an appreciation of it, and a different appreciation, because even at the early stages I had met some of the victims and my life was changed when I met them. Then it went from a purely academic issue, from names on a piece of paper to human beings and that, of course, for me at least, it was a drastic change. …

We put this manual together, and that’s what it was commonly known as, the manual. My boss, the papal ambassador, was very supportive. Cardinal [Bernard] Law [then of the Boston Diocese] was very supportive. Several other cardinals were very supportive of not only the manual but the action plans that we had proposed that went with it, which consisted of a, what we called a crisis intervention team, which was centered around an office at the bishops’ conference in Washington, and the coordinator of that office would coordinate reports from around the country of sexual abuse. If a bishop called in and said, “We have a case,” we would ask him if he wanted help, and if he did we would find people to go to him and help him deal with the case on the spot.

And we prioritized dealing with the victims. That was number one. We said at the time: “Don’t send clerics in there to the family. Send someone other than clerics. Send a kindly sister, a nun, somebody who can go in and not be identified with the clerical world.” We told them to be totally open with the media, report it to the police and so on.

The second part of our proposal [was] the creation of a commission by the bishops or a committee that would study this issue, every angle of it, and get the most up-to-date information on all angles. That meant getting involved in the secular world — psychological, legal, liability, the whole thing. …

What was the response?

Our report and our recommendations, they were never taken seriously by the leadership of the bishops’ conference. … We were disappointed. We were disappointed in the fact that they did not seem to be taking this issue seriously at all.

In December of 1985, Father Peterson, Mr. Mouton and I — on our own — mailed a copy of this report with a cover letter to every bishop in the United States. Since then, many of them have been questioned in court, through the many lawsuits. Some have admitted receiving it; some have denied ever hearing of it.

Was the reaction to your doing this what caused the fact that you had to leave the embassy?

… By the end of 1985, beginning of 1986, I continued to push this issue, to talk about it and to try to emphasize it, but it was apparent to me that from the signals I was receiving from some of the bishops, but especially from the staff and my boss at the embassy, that they thought it was now a dead issue, that they had done everything that needed to be done. They had an executive session at one of their meetings and issued a few press releases about it. The next thing I knew I was told that I was no longer needed on the staff. So in the beginning of 1986, I left the Vatican Embassy. …

Although they would never say it straight out, that “We’re getting rid of you because you are a rabble-rouser and because you won’t back off of this issue” — they would never say that — they said that they needed the office space for someone else.

So I left the embassy. But in all honesty, I was not heartbroken to leave, because by then my illusions had been shattered in many, many ways. I believe I saw the inside of the workings of the institutional church in a way that I’ve never believed even existed. I was severely disillusioned.

And yet you remained in the priesthood?

I remained in the priesthood, but I certainly did not want to stay on that career track, … so in 1986 I joined the Air Force as a chaplain, and I found the years I spent there, almost 20 years in the Air Force, to be the most satisfying episode in my dull life. …

“My illusions had been shattered in many, many ways. I believe I saw the inside of the workings of the institutional church in a way that I’ve never believed even existed. I was severely disillusioned.”

But all through the years of my involvement in the Air Force, all my time in the Air Force, I continued to be directly involved with this issue as it continued to develop in ways that I never expected.

One of the key ways it developed was the control of the fallout. The control of how this would unfold was shifted from the institutional church, from the bishops, to the victims and the laypeople, because it got into the civil courts. This had never happened before in Catholic history. But these cases, the individuals who were upset with the way they had been treated by the bishops, [felt that] their only alternative, as many of them saw, was to go to court. And what they wanted in court was not money; it was 1) recognition that what they said happened really happened; 2) they wanted acknowledgment by the bishops that this was wrong; and 3) they wanted something done about this priest so that he could never harm a child again.

These promises had been made to many people prior to that by the bishops, and then they discovered the bishops had lied to them, because they had not moved the priest, or they had not brought him offline; they had not gotten him help; he’d pop up somewhere else. That infuriated many of the parents and many of the victims.

But the bishops, I think, couldn’t understand this fury, because none of them are parents; none of them have ever been parents, and none of them had the vaguest notion of that incredible bond that exists between a parent and their child. None of them understood the heartbreak that can happen when you find out your child has been sexually violated and then how that heartbreak is significantly increased when you find out it’s by someone who you trusted more than anyone else in your life, namely your priest.

You take a central position now in []. Tell us about that.

The Whistleblowers came together as a group at the suggestion of Anne Barrett Doyle from to give acknowledgment to the whistleblowers, to offer a place for others to come for support. … What we’ve done is issued some statements, some letters and so on, and people are beginning to respond. We’re getting hits so to speak. We’re getting requests on the website for help which is basically what we wanted to see happen. But it’s ironic that this whistleblower organization — I think there were maybe only 10 of us at the outset, who were identified as clerics or religious women, there are two religious women who have publicly stood up and sided with victims and criticized the institutional church for the way they have been mishandling this problem.

In some cases at great cost to themselves.

In most cases at great cost to the career and to the personal lives of the individuals. Those of us who have, I guess, been the most outspoken and the most directly accusatory of the hierarchy have lost any possibility of a career in the clerical world — myself included obviously, and I was the first one. …

You are still a priest of the church, yet you wear civilian clothes. Is that a statement?

Yes. First off, I am still a priest, but I am not active in the official ministry of the Catholic Church. I would not be allowed to function in any diocese; you need the permission of a bishop to function. So I am quite removed from the institutional church and from the official life of the clergy in the institutional Catholic Church.

I do not wear clerical garb at all. I don’t wear it for a couple of reasons. Probably the most important one is that I do not want to be identified with the clerical subculture, because I see clericalism as one of the most prominent and important causes for this entire problem.

The attitude that the clergy are somehow removed and above other Catholics and that we have to be protected at all costs, I think this is a heresy. I think it’s an evil virus that infects the institutional church, where the church is identified with the clergy, and it should be identified with the people. The victims in these cases, they are the church. They are the most important part — not the bishops, not the chancery officers or the monsignors; it’s the victims and their families. …

You’ve met two popes, John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, in your early career.

Yes, that’s true.

What were your views of these men, and how did it change over time?

My early view of John Paul II was, I thought he was the greatest thing to happen to the church. I was a total fan of him. I found him to be powerful. He was upholding orthodoxy; he was strong; he was outspoken. One of the interesting mementos I have of my time in the church is a signed copy of the Code of Canon Law from Pope John Paul II that my former boss got for me.

In time, I looked at John Paul II with a different set of eyes, with a totally different attitude, grounded in the experience I’d had with this whole sexual abuse issue and grounded and influenced by his complete lack of adequate response and leadership.

What about Cardinal Ratzinger? What do you feel about his approach to the whole problem?

I had the opportunity to meet Cardinal Ratzinger a couple of times when he was a cardinal, when I was in my other position. I found him to be a very charming, self-effacing, gentle person. He is a very cerebral man. I think his whole life exists in the cognitive level.

However, when he encountered, as pope, the issue of sexual abuse of children, I think his reaction to the reality of it was genuine, but he was not able to take the definitive action that was required and is required. He himself met with several victims, spent maybe one or two minutes in about five countries, starting in the United States, Great Britain, Malta, Australia. He met with them, probably was very moved by his encounters with them. But he was a creature of the institutional church. That’s the only life he ever knew, and he could not do what was necessary.

“None of them understood the heartbreak that can happen when you find out your child has been sexually violated and then how that heartbreak is significantly increased when you find out it’s by someone who you trusted more than anyone else in your life, namely your priest.”

He made it very clear when he came to the United States in 2007 that bishops must put this as a priority, reaching out and helping victims. What the bishops had been doing for the most part with regard to victims — not all of them, but many of them — had been punishing them for having had the audacity to challenge the church. What Pope Benedict should have done, what we hoped he would do, would be to publicly remove a number of the prominent bishops who had been hiding perpetrators, shuffling them around and punishing victims through the law courts.

But he didn’t do that. He did none of that. He didn’t even penalize in any way the bishops who themselves had sexually abused children, and there are several of them throughout the world who are known to have, [at] one time or other, sexually abused children or adolescents. When they were discovered, they retired, and that was it. None of them were ever investigated or subjected to any penal sanctions whatsoever.

He sent out such a strong signal in that Good Friday speech about the filth that was infecting the church and the rest of it. The intention was there, but the practice never really happened.

Pope Benedict sent that signal out with the Good Friday speech and some of the other statements he made with regard to the sexual abuse of children, which were very strong and were very good. None of them were followed up with significant action, or action at all.

I believe one of the things that’s important to understand is something I learned when I was on the inside, is that the ecclesiastical [system], the Catholic bishops, the Catholic governmental system in the Holy See put tremendous value on words and phrases, believing that they will change reality. So if the pope says the filth in the Roman Catholic Church has to be eliminated, well, it doesn’t eliminate itself. And where he had to start with that statement was in his own bureaucracy — in the Vatican itself, which was rife with corruption, financial corruption; which was rife with all sorts of problems. But nothing happened, and probably — and I just say “probably” — because Pope Benedict was not capable of taking the action that was necessary.

Not capable because of a sort of lack of leadership?

I think Pope Benedict was not capable because of his own personality. He had been a creature of the ecclesiastical system for his entire life, and that’s all he knew. And he knew that bishops were protected at all costs. … What he had to do was remove bishops. They focused instead on the priests, the perpetrators, getting rid of them, because they were an easy commodity to get rid of. But they weren’t the main problem. It wasn’t that priests were violating children; it was why were they violating children, and why were they allowed to violate children, and why were they [allowed] to continue to violate children? Still today we have bishops who put perpetrators back in place, and there are still explosions coming up throughout the United States where this problem continues to surface. …

You’ve talked about the illusion of celibacy. What do you mean exactly by that?

Many, many priests are involved in long-term relationships; many are involved in a series of short-term relationships; many have had occasional sexual relationships with men or women. If you’re in the world, as I was for many, many years, I saw it. I saw it around me. So I think it is illusory, and I think what’s mainly illusory about it is that it somehow is necessary to have mandatory celibacy to have an effective priesthood, and I think that’s where the illusion becomes total, because the priesthood, as a form of ministry and sharing the life of Christ, would probably be immensely more effective if married men were allowed and if priests were not mandated to be celibate.

Do you think Pope Francis is somebody who could change the system in any significant way?

I do think Pope Francis can change not only the system but the mind-set of a significant part of the Roman Catholic Church. … I think Pope Francis has the capacity because of the initial signals he has sent out, the initial symbolism of the way he has acted, what he’s worn, which is very important — he’s not put on the fancy robes that that were so championed by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, which sends a powerful signal out to all those forces in the church who saw Benedict XVI as leading the way to restoring the church to its pre-Vatican [II] glory. …

I think the signals he has sent are very, very important, but I also have been around long enough to know that signals and words are worthless unless they’re followed up by significant action.

I think the first thing that Pope Francis has to do is clarify what happened in Argentina, and clarify the questions that have arisen about his role and his response to the military leadership down there, to the reports of sexual abuse of children down there, clarify this. And I think the only way he can possibly do that is to do it up front and straight rather than let the rumors and the stories continue to focus on that part.

Secondly, I believe that it would be absolutely essential if he wants to change the direction of the institutional church. It’s going to mean decisive, risky action. And it’s risky to take on the Vatican Curia, because it is a complicated, multileveled institution that could in effect paralyze anything he wants to do. But he needs to make some hits, and they have to be very crucial and very well planned out who these people will be.

With regard to the sexual abuse issue, which I still see as the most important one facing the church, it’s far more horrendous to violate children than to steal money or launder money. The IOR [Institute for Works of Religion; the Vatican Bank] — certainly it’s important; they’ve got a lot of press attention. But allowing bishops to enable a child rapist, it’s far more important, far more diabolical. I think what he has to do there is take some very decisive, concrete steps. The bishops that are the foremost ones, who have covered up, who continue to cover up, he has to publicly dismiss them. …

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



More Stories

From the Archives: How the Citizens United Decision Changed U.S. Political Campaigns
The 2012 documentary ‘Big Sky, Big Money’ is newly available to stream on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel.
February 1, 2023
Where Are Russian Critics of Putin Featured in “Putin and the Presidents” Now?
What's happened to some of the Russian opposition politicians and journalists who've spoken openly about Vladimir Putin and the crackdown on protesters and critics?
January 31, 2023
‘Children of the Cold War’: Inside Biden and Putin’s Years-in-the-Making Clash Over Ukraine
Watch an excerpt from the new FRONTLINE documentary ‘Putin and the Presidents.’
January 24, 2023
A Reflection on 40 Years of FRONTLINE, From Our Editor-in-Chief and Executive Producer
Our first episode aired 40 years ago tonight — and our work goes on. A message from FRONTLINE Editor-in-Chief and Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath.
January 17, 2023