Twenty years ago, the Rev. Thomas Doyle warned the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops about the church’s looming sexual abuse nightmare. Since then, he has become a hero to the victims, speaking out on their behalf and helping them in legal cases in recent years.
In doing so, Father Doyle also became a thorn in the side of the church hierarchy.
In the latest chapter of his turbulent career, Father Doyle was quietly removed from his job as an Air Force chaplain in a clash with his archbishop over pastoral issues.
He lost his endorsement as a chaplain from the Archdiocese of Military Services in September, a decision that until now had not become public. The leader of the Archdiocese of Military Services, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, said Father Doyle had flouted his guidelines about requiring daily Mass for Catholics on military bases and other pastoral issues.
But the demotion has outraged abuse victims and their advocates, who point to the last several years of scandals as affirmation of Father Doyle’s longstanding concerns. They say they suspect he was reassigned in retaliation by the church hierarchy. And it has produced a messy coda to a military career that Father Doyle said he loved deeply.
Father Doyle had served as an Air Force chaplain since 1986. He was at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany from 2001 until September, when he was transferred to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, N.C., where he now provides drug and alcohol counseling services but does not serve as a chaplain.
Speaking from Bamberg, Germany, Archbishop O’Brien rejected suggestions that he was punishing Father Doyle. He said that since he became archbishop seven years ago, he had tolerated the priest’s criticisms of the hierarchy even if they were sometimes “over the top.”
He also said he could have waited until Father Doyle retired in August and avoided the turmoil. “But I can’t abdicate my pastoral responsibility because of what some others who are rather deeply involved in the sex-abuse issue would conclude,” he said.
Father Doyle declined to characterize his reassignment as punitive. “I don’t think it would be fair for me to say yes it is, no it isn’t,” he said. He said he did not want to “pick a fight” with his archbishop and was neither angry nor bitter. However, he acknowledged that his role as victim’s advocate “has not been received well by many bishops.”
His dismissal stemmed from a memorandum he wrote for two superiors at Ramstein interpreting the archbishop’s expectations for how Catholic base personnel should be ministered to. On several points, he appears to contradict the written guidelines of Archbishop O’Brien.
For example, the archbishop had said that base chaplains were expected to celebrate Mass daily and that Catholics at installations with assigned priests “have the right to attend Mass regularly.”
Actually, Father Doyle wrote, Catholics do not have a right to daily Mass, according to church law. Daily Mass is a strong custom, but not “an essential element of the practice” of the faith. He also contradicted Archbishop O’Brien by saying the archbishop’s permission was not needed to substitute a communion service on Sunday for a Mass if no Catholic priest was available.
Father Doyle said his memorandum came to the attention of the archbishop when an employee of the Catholic ministry at the base found a copy. The employee, believing that it meant she would lose her daily Mass, sent it to the archbishop’s office.
Archbishop O’Brien said Father Doyle’s positions had caused him to lose confidence. “There is nothing more important to our priests and our people than the Eucharistic celebration,” he wrote in terminating the priest’s chaplaincy. “Your refusal to accept that and your attempt to provide an alternate authority on that issue is unacceptable.”
For his part, Father Doyle said that he was giving his opinion on church requirements at a time when there was a shortage of priests to cover Ramstein and two nearby bases. He said he completely accepted the central role of the Eucharist and the archbishop’s authority.
Father Doyle is a member of the Dominican order, and his superior, the Rev. Michael Mascari, wrote a letter of support to the archbishop, relaying the priest’s apologies and explanations and asking the archbishop to reconsider.
Father Doyle’s supporters are convinced he himself is now a victim.
“I think the hierarchy has been gunning after him for a long time,” said Jason Berry, an author of “Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II,” which includes a sympathetic portrait of Father Doyle. “He has probably done more damage to the Catholic hierarchy of any priest in America.”
Jeff Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul who has brought such cases for 22 years and often involved Father Doyle, said the priest’s help was often crucial in forcing dioceses to settle cases. “He’s the guy in the inside that knows how it works and how they work,” Mr. Anderson said, referring to the bishops.
The priest’s involvement in the abuse issue dates to the mid-1980’s, when he was an aide to the Vatican representative in Washington and helped write a confidential report, often cited now, about the dimensions of sexual abuse by priests and dealing with the problem legally and pastorally. He grew increasingly vocal in his support for abuse victims, speaking to many personally as well as giving talks and testifying.
“He is far and away the single greatest ray of hope for many, many victims,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Father Doyle complicated his position after losing his endorsement by seeking to replace it with one from the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church, a small body unrelated to the Roman Catholic Church. The priest called that endorsement a bureaucratic fig leaf to keep chaplain status so that he could stay on past his required retirement in August, when he turns 60, and receive a better retirement package. He now calls that decision a mistake and has renounced it.
But the damage was done. A group of priests on Long Island who had invited Father Doyle to speak earlier in April withdrew the request because of rumors he was an apostate.