The Conscience of the Catholic Church

anne barrett-doyle

Anne Barrett Doyle is a devoted mother, practicing Catholic, and one of the fiercest crusaders against clergy sex abuse.

Are you Catholic?”

Anne Barrett Doyle smiled at me expectantly with kind, sea-green eyes.

It was months before the pandemic hit, and Barrett Doyle had invited me over to the Boston loft she and her husband moved into after the last of their four kids left for college.

A crucifix hung on the wall, and a Jesus statuette prayed from a wooden desk. Several Bibles lined the bookshelf. We sat side by side on a plush beige couch.

Barrett Doyle, small and soft-spoken, with shoulder-length auburn hair and rosy cheeks, folded her hands politely and crossed her ankles.

As co-director of Bishop Accountability, an archive documenting the sexual abuse problems of the Catholic Church, Barrett Doyle has devoted her life to chronicling the prosecution of priests who have sexually abused and assaulted children and teenagers.

Barrett Doyle is one of just a handful of women fighting to expose clergy predation, both hailed as a hero by survivors and denounced as apostate by some within the Church.

She is also an ardent, unapologetic Catholic.

For some of the 1.3 billion other Catholics in the world, these last couple of decades have made her question a tough one to answer.

Am I Catholic?

Let’s see: In second-grade, I was baptized in a cream-colored gown recycled from flower-girl duties at a family friend’s wedding.

Mass felt special back then. We sang pretty songs, chanted important things, and wished peace upon strangers.

Sitting in the pews with my parents was like an invitation to the grown-up table.

I wore fancy dresses—and the shoes! Black patent-leather Mary Janes, paired with white tights. Plus a padded headband, usually red.

When it got boring, my younger brother and I thumb-warred through homilies.

Afterward, we ate cheese enchiladas and drank Cokes at the Tex-Mex restaurant nearby. I never gave much thought to why I was Catholic; I just liked being a part of something that felt familial.

Now, as an adult, it’s hard to relate to a religion that mostly excludes women from power, and whose leaders have gone to great lengths to cover up heinous crimes against children. I go to Mass once a year at Christmastime, and the only part I really enjoy are the enchiladas.

So, am I Catholic?

In Barrett Doyle’s living room, I settled on: “It’s complicated.”

Once, when Barrett Doyle was 14, her priest gave a homily praising a decision to deny pro-choice parents their baby’s baptism.


She raised her hand, stood up before the congregation, and said: “The baby did nothing wrong. This is not the parents, and the baby should be baptized.”

Anne Barrett Doyle

She nodded. “Some of my closest friends are survivors [of abuse], and they would say I’m supporting a corrupt and evil hierarchy,” she told me.

“I don’t attempt to defend it, and I can’t even explain it. I just know that I am a Catholic to my core. Part of my motivation is to be an agent of change in the Church.”

But the 62-year-old Boston native is more than just a force for good.

She is one of the most feared and respected members of the Catholic Church; a steward of the world’s largest trove of documents holding accountable powerful men who have committed unforgivable acts—and unimaginable sin.

Barrett Doyle’s life mission began the morning of January 6, 2002.

At 6 a.m., she poured herself a cup of black coffee, and tucked into the Boston Globe, savoring a peaceful moment alone before everyone woke up. She stared at the front-page feature: “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years.”

The story reported, in excruciating detail, how Boston Cardinal Bernard Law moved an abusive priest from parish to parish after finding out he was molesting young boys.

For years, Barrett Doyle had taken pride not only in her role as a nurturing Catholic mother, but in the ritual of walking into church each Sunday with her children trailing behind like little ducklings. But this—this news rocked her.

How could she lead her family through the doors of their beloved St. Agnes Parish now?

She didn’t.

Instead of going to Mass, Barrett Doyle and her husband, Bill Doyle, loaded the kids into their minivan and drove to the cardinal’s downtown offices, where protesters had started gathering with signs reading, “Speaking Out Is Holy,” “Keep the Faith, Change the Church,” and “Full Disclosure: Release the Files.”

What do you do when something you love so much goes so terribly, inconceivably wrong?

When the institution that breathes life into your days—when your very belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, which for you is akin to believing in food or air—is threatened? Continue reading

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