How can you spend your workdays chronicling thousands of cases of Catholic priestly sexual abuse — and still remain a Catholic?
Before the release of “Spotlight,” the movie detailing the massive abuse cover-up in Boston, I asked that of Anne Barrett Doyle and Terry McKiernan. They’re co-directors of BishopAccountability.org, which documents that abuse from an office in Waltham, Massachusetts practically overrun by floor-to-ceiling files and more than 100,000 pages of Church records, court documents, media reports, letters from mothers of victims, victims themselves, and even abusers detailing their crimes.
Doyle and McKiernan have done this work full-time for more than a decade now. Yet both not only remain Catholic, they say their faith has increased.
Here’s how Doyle and McKiernan explained that a few days back in their Waltham repository.
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“Everything good in my life has come from Catholicism. I’ve never been more Catholic than I am now. It’s never been more vivid and important to me to pray every day,” said Doyle, a mother of four married 35 years now. She talked about the shared family rituals — the Masses, baptisms, weddings, Easters — with her kids, father, siblings (all 9 of them) and her Jesuit-schooled husband.
But mostly she talked about her mother, her “hero,” who had a passion for trying to change the Church. She wrote letters to bishops “as a loyal critic,” Doyle said.
“That’s exactly how I feel about our work. We’re loyal critics. I really do feel I’m doing this for justice for survivors, but also for the Church. It’s absolutely crucial that the Church fully owns up to this heinous and deliberate enabling.
“My parents are both 90, about to celebrate 70 years of marriage. My mother says about my father, ‘Can you believe how handsome this guy is? No wonder I had 10 kids with him. This man gives me heaven on earth.’ When I’m with them, it’s like I’m in a holy presence.
“My mother,” Doyle said, “knows God with this vivid sense of God’s presence in everyone around her.
“I see this joy and grace all coming from God, from the discipline of Catholicism and the self-questioning and the sense of reverence. My mother has a great deal of respect for the priests. But she imbued us with a sense that the laity needs to have equal power.”
Doyle took that lesson to heart. Once, at a packed Mass in her hometown parish, the priest said something the 14-year-old Anne didn’t like. The archdiocese had refused to baptize the infant of a local couple who’d been publicly pro-choice. “I heard the priest approving of that and I thought, ‘That baby’s not guilty. That baby should be baptized.’” So the teenaged Anne raised her hand from the back pews, stood up before the entire confused congregation, and said, “There is a second side of the story. That baby was innocent.”
Doyle took that lesson to heart again in 2002 when she first read about the sexual abuse crisis in The Boston Globe. “We were just a nice Catholic family minding our own business. The Sunday I read the stories, I said to my husband, ‘I can’t go to Mass today. I have to go to the cathedral (Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston where Cardinal Bernard Law said Mass) and confront Cardinal Law.’ ‘SPEAKING OUT IS HOLY.’ That was our sign.”
Said Doyle, “I didn’t even know any victims until I met them then in picket lines. That was the beginning of my education about the corruption of the hierarchy, and it was the most profound spiritual education of my life.
“Now I choose every day,” she said, “to ask God to help me do his or her will, that my work be free from ego and anything petty. I repeat that many times a day. I don’t know where all this is headed or how this will end up, but my whole life, ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be in touch with heroes. Now,” she said, working with survivors, hearing their stories, “I’ve been in touch with heroes. I’ve been in touch with saints.”
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Terry McKiernan went to parochial school in the Bronx in the 1960s and then Fordham Prep, where a priest turned out to be an abuser and molested some of his friends. Yet there’s a St. Jerome medal around McKiernan’s neck and a rosary in his pocket beside a dog-eared copy of Emily Dickinson, “the greatest religious poet of all time,” he said. “She accepts the fact that being a religious person sometimes means being a despairing person and having a hard time. I think there’s been too much of a tendency after Vatican II to think religion makes everything nice — not really the road we’re invited to walk.”
He quotes from the beatitudes in Sunday’s gospel. The last one, he says, is particularly relevant: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of Me.”
Catholics themselves have insulted and resented and rejected not just the work McKiernan and Doyle do, but the stories of victims as well. Some still do.
But McKiernan, like Doyle, said “being raised in the faith taught me that truth is important, that we’re better than this. Abuse is not a right-wing problem or a left-wing problem. Conservative priests do it. Liberal priests do it. We should all be able to get together on this.”
He also believes there’s something uniquely Catholic about the abuse he’s documented. How damaging it is for a child to be abused by a priest who’s called “father” and who has the power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. How the shadowy confessional has too often turned into a fertile, secret place for victim recruiting. And again, post-Vatican II, how suddenly “newfangled and new-age” priests, McKiernan said, would take boys for walks and face-to-face talks or even face-to-face confessions, then “groom” and ultimately abuse them. Phil Saviano, a survivor depicted in “Spotlight,” remembers going to confession to the very priest who molested him. He’d “confess” that he’d yelled at his brother or lied to his mother. Then he’d add, “And Father, you know the rest.”
Said McKiernan, “These priests picked on really spiritual kids, really devout, and made them vulnerable. Yet you get to know survivors and they are amazing human beings, still the spiritual people they were when they were abused.”
For a long time after the scandal broke, Terry McKiernan would leave his wife and kids and Natick home in the dark on Sunday mornings. He’d drive an hour and a half each way for an 8 a.m. Mass in East Longmeadow because Rev. Jim Scahill was the only pastor who’d publicly refused to send collection money to the Springfield, Massachusetts archdiocese when it kept a convicted child molester in its ranks.
“I didn’t feel I could go to Mass unless I felt really sure about the priest,” McKiernan said. “Then it just began to seem sort of ridiculous.”
Now he goes to Mass at different churches, “parachuting in,” anonymously, soaking up different styles, different cultures. He receives the Eucharist. He says his Rosary. And he travels coast-to-coast collecting records from diocese after diocese — more than 100 cities so far — where known abuse has continued, hidden, for years. He said he still has terrible trouble going to baptisms “because we’re supposed to keep the (babies) safe and raise them in the faith. And then they get older and you just don’t know … to think of it is really haunting.”
Like Anne Barrett Doyle, McKiernan said working inside the abuse tragedy has strengthened his faith, if not his faith in the Church and its bishops. “I’m spending more time in Catholic churches than many priests do,” he said. “I’m thinking all the time about the Church and my relationship with it and what it’s all about. It’s this dilemma and paradox, a kind of attachment to it, as well as an aversion.”
Terry McKiernan said that during one such aversion moment, he briefly considered converting to Judaism. He’s thought about other forms of worship as well. But not anymore. “I am a Catholic,” he said. “I will always be a Catholic.”