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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Still Catholic, but changed


nne Barrett Doyle served fish to her family the night before last but she sat down to a dinner of beef stew herself.

Flouting Catholicism's prohibition on eating meat on Fridays during Lent is a small expression by a Reading mother of four of her profound disillusionment with the leadership of her church.

How can the rituals of this season of reflection and repentance seem anything but ironic to Catholics in light of the Boston Archdiocese's escalating legal war against victims of clergy sexual abuse?

It is not enough that the church protected serial predators, that it blamed children for crimes perpetrated against them, that it tried to evade accountability by invoking the constitutional separation of church and state, that it hopes to use victims' therapy sessions against them at trial. Now, the churchmen who kept silent in the face of systemic evil want to gag those who exposed their secrets, want to challenge the memories of those who suffered because of their neglect, want to pretend that prayer alone can heal a wound that is still an open sore.

Is it any wonder that Bishop Richard G. Lennon's healing service on Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross attracted a crowd nine times smaller than anticipated? Had each parish sent five worshippers, as Lennon requested, the pews would have been packed. Instead, no more than 200 Catholics came to hear a call for reconciliation from the apostolic administrator who replaced Cardinal Bernard Law at the helm of the Boston Archdiocese.

"The hierarchy's hypocrisy" calling for reconciliation while battering the victims in court "is causing cynicism in the laity," says Doyle, who joined the protest outside the cathedral while Lennon presided at Mass inside. "Spokesmen for the archdiocese keep saying that balancing an adversarial legal posture with its pastoral role is complex. Well, it's not only complex; it's impossible."

Doyle's forehead, furrowed in anger and frustration, was also dusted in ashes, the symbol of a penitent Catholic on the first day of the 40-day Lenten season. Her parish priest at St. Agnes Church in Reading placed them there. "I still go to church. I still pray, but my kids feel my utter disillusionment."

The oldest of her four children, who range in age from 10 to 17, wrote about the church crisis in her college applications. Her essay was "a mix of pride and resentment" at how the scandal spurred her mother into action. As a founder of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, Doyle has been a regular at demonstrations in Boston and also in Manchester, N.H., where the bishop is also under pressure to resign for his role in shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish.

"What the bishops don't seem to understand is that they continue to insist on having everything on their own terms," says Doyle of church leaders. "The abuse was on the predators' terms. The coverup was on the bishops' terms. Now they want the healing on their terms, too. It doesn't work that way. When trust is betrayed, the first step toward healing is to put control in the hands of those who were victimized."

The church's inclusion of Elizabeth Loftus on its expert witness list indicates that the church's legal strategy is to do just the opposite by putting the victims' memories on trial. Loftus, a psychologist, has made a career debunking the theory that traumatic memories can be repressed for decades and later recalled. There is perhaps no more contentious topic in psychology today. Adherents of opposing views don't merely disagree; they demonize one another.

It defies belief, but not possibility, that the Catholic church in Boston intends to suggest in court that this scandal is nothing but a figment of the victims' imagination. The idea makes Doyle's stomach turn. "It's ironic isn't it?" she says. "The church that taught us how precious every person is in God's eyes is making a mockery of that ethic in its treatment of these victims. I may have to double my meat intake during Lent."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/9/2003.
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