by Sarah McDonald in THE TABLET, 10 March 2022

A leading canon lawyer has said that the Catholic Church should model itself on the self-help fellowship Alcoholics Anonymous. He said that the early church was probably more like AA in the way it was run, than the Church today. 

Canon lawyer Dr Tom Doyle warned that an “unrealistic and exalted concept of priesthood” had contributed to the clerical abuse scandals and said: “Stop glorifying a clerical elite.” 

Speaking to a webinar organised by lay reform group, We Are Church Ireland, the priest, who has advocated for decades on behalf of victims of clerical sexual abuse, called for an end to the “heretical theology” in which priests project themselves as superior human beings who are closer to God than the average layperson.

He said this had been a feature of Pope John Paul II’s theology of priesthood.

Clericalism, he said, “is a disease that enhances this concept that they are special. This clerical mystique is made even stronger by the concept of celibacy.”

He criticised as “nonsense” a seminary formation in which trainee priests are “totally isolated from normal people” and are taught that relationships are of secondary importance – “that as celibate monks or priests, they are in a higher calling than lay people who are married, namely, their parents”.

“One of the reasons why sexual abuse by clerics has been so widespread and why people have gotten away with it is because of this mystique about the nature of the priesthood. That somehow priests take the place of God.”

Calling for an end to the “exalted concept of the priesthood” he said it enhanced the control clerics had over the children. “When an abuser starts the process of grooming a victim, it almost always starts within the context of ministry, in a parish, in a school, in an orphanage.”

He also called for an end to the exaggerated image of the institutional church and the exaggerated importance of the bishop as part of the institutional church.

According to Doyle, the main excuse for covering up and for not turning in abusive priests had been to protect the image of the church. 

He dismissed the often-heard excuse from bishops and leaders that they “never realised” how bad the abuse was. “We never understood this. We never knew that this is a problem.”

He said: “My response has been that if you didn’t know there was a problem, how come you buried it in secrecy? They did know. Any grown man or woman who says they never realised that a man or woman having sex with a child was harmful to the child – they are either a consummate liar, or sociopath, or an idiot, or all three combined.”

In his talk titled, Abuse and Cover-up in the Catholic Church, Dr Doyle said the issue of clerical sexual abuse was a worldwide one and always has been. “Sexual violation of anybody is a psychosexual disorder. It is not limited by geographic boundaries or by nationality.”

Noting that there are active victims’ groups in Sub Saharan Africa, he said this was a region where the bishops are most resistant to change. “So many of them say, ‘We have all these rules against homosexuality, so we can’t possibly have sexual abuse by clerics.’ That is a total lie – it is rampant there,” Doyle criticised.

Tom Doyle said he believed the self-help group Alcoholics Anonymous was the closest thing to the early church he has seen.

“AA is not counselling or group therapy. It is a meeting of men and women who have something in common. It is deeply spiritual, and it works. It helps us to become better persons. It helps us to avoid drinking by healing ourselves. It stresses honesty, non-judgmentalism. It is what I think the church probably was the beginning.”

Admitting that his own faith had been “dwindling to almost nothing” due to witnessing for years Church leaders lie in abuse cover-ups, he said it had been restored by AA.

AA does not have a pope, bishops, clergy, property, money or investments. It is not based on authority or power, he said. “I think that is something that we need to think about as far as church is concerned.”

He highlighted that one of the things the abuse crisis is doing is forcing the institution and the people to “look more and more like what the Church is supposed to look like, which is the body of Christ, not the body of the Vatican.”

He added: “There will always be sexual abuse but what has to be different is the way we respond to victims and those who have been harmed.”

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