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Victims’ Advocate: Information and Who Controls It Are Key to Abuse Crisis

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington is pictured with Pope Francis during the pope’s Mass in Washington Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Paul Haring)

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

DUBLIN – If Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington is forced to resign following last week’s Pennsylvania Grand Jury report raising questions over his handling of abuser priests during his time as head of the Pittsburgh diocese, one of the United States’ leading victim advocates believes that “many, many cardinals and bishops would also have to go.”

For Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org., a resignation wouldn’t provide what’s merited – it would only provide an exit strategy for one player in a much more complex cast of characters.

“I think what Cardinal Wuerl should do that would be better than resigning is give us information,” Doyle told The Tablet on Tuesday.

“He should give us information about the Archdiocese of Washington,” she continued. “We know nothing about them and what’s going on there. There’s never been a list of [accused] priests, there have never been documents released. And he should be open about [ex-Cardinal] Theodore McCarrick.”

“In a way, I think he could probably do more good there than anywhere else,” she added.

The revelations from earlier this summer regarding McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians and at least one alleged case of abusing a minor, along with last week’s findings that over 1,000 victims had suffered at the hands of more than 300 abuser priests in six dioceses throughout Pennsylvania, has left an already wounded U.S. Church “heartsick and outraged,” said Doyle.

For that reason, Doyle – who is in Ireland this week, ahead of Pope Francis’ visit, for the publication of a list of names of Irish clergy with a history of sexual abuse – is seeking concrete, transparent answers.

In her view, the clerical sex abuse crisis is about information – and who controls that information – and it’s time for that control to be relinquished from the hands of a select few and made available to the public.

“The cruelest thing in the world is for the Church to withhold information that would enable a victim to recover,” Doyle told The Tablet. “It is an act of cruelty to continue to prioritize the priest’s reputation over the healing of a victim.”

Still Fighting for Accountability

Doyle, who began her activism by holding a poster with the phrase “Protest is Holy” outside Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross in 2002 to call attention to Cardinal Bernard Law’s decades-long involvement in cover-ups, is far from pleased that over 15 years and two popes later, she’s still having to fight to hold bishops accountable.

Yet seeing the relief that her work has brought victims, especially when their offenders have been publicly named, helps fuel her ongoing work.

“I know that an immense load of self-blame is lifted from a survivor when they see their perpetrator’s name released publicly,” she said, adding that many of them tell her that she helped save their lives.

For Doyle, because the stakes are so high, she and her colleagues at BishopAccountability.org are not just exposing priests who engaged in sexual abuse but leaders who allowed it to happen.

Honest Reckoning

When it comes to individuals such as Cardinal Wuerl, she wants an honest reckoning more than just a scalp.

“If he would, just once, throw caution to the wind and be totally candid about how this happened, how did someone who was a sexual predator such as McCarrick advance through the ranks?” Doyle asked. “And what is it about the bishops’ culture that lets them just watch and say nothing?”

Pressure from similar questions, which have been mounting over the past week, led Cardinal Wuerl to withdraw from this week’s World Meeting of Families where he was due to deliver a keynote address.

Cardinal Wuerl is not the sole U.S. prelate to bow out.

One week earlier, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, head of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, also withdrew in order to oversee an internal abuse investigation of his archdiocesan seminary.

Doyle believes that Cardinal O’Malley – a close ally of Pope Francis, and widely viewed as a leading reformer on abuse – “gets it better than most” when it comes to sexual abuse, but she said even his response has been incomplete.

“Cardinal O’Malley has been good to victims. He’s trying to do this strategy which the smart, PR side of the Church favors in recent years which is being kind and compassionate to victims and putting a lot of emphasis on victim care, but they’re still not giving us an iota of information,” said Doyle.

“In the end, disclosure and information are crucial to healing,” she said.

Church’s Response

While Pope Francis weighed in with a 2,000-word letter on sex abuse sent to the “People of God,” on Monday, many are viewing his trip to Ireland this week – a nation still reeling from its own abuse crisis a decade ago – as a test of his papacy and whether he can change not only the narrative on the Church’s response to sex abuse, but also the norms for handling such cases.

“He can say I am going to initiate a mechanism for punishing bishops or religious superiors who are complicit in any way and I promise that this time I won’t let any amount of political pushback stop me from implementing this, and I am sorry that I have said over and over again that bishops must be held accountable, but haven’t insisted on making it happen myself. I am going to invoke the full power of the pontiff of the Catholic Church and make this happen,” Doyle said.

Although she wants to be optimistic, she’s certainly not confident that that’s how it will play out. She believes if the Church isn’t willing to take dramatic action, as the unfolding situation in Pennsylvania continues to prove, outside forces will.

“Civil authorities from around the world are going after the Church. It’s an unprecedented time – in Chile, in Australia, in France, in Saginaw, Michigan – [and] something is happening. The untouchability of the Church doesn’t pertain anymore,” she told The Tablet.

“I think the #MeToo movement has had a lot to do with alerting prosecutors to going after institutions that enable sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” Doyle concluded. “The Catholic Church is paying a price for that, and Pope Francis is really facing a choice here.”

“Either he gets his house in order,” Doyle warned, “or prosecutors are going to do it for him.”

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