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Doubt: a Parable

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Mike Hopkins
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Prof. Dowd
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Doubt
In the 1960’s, American society was going through drastic times of change. The civil rights movement was in full force, and the women’s rights groups were joining together for the same purpose of equality among all. Due to the societal changes, instability was present in schools, places of employment, and religious institutions and generally regarded gender, race, sexual preference and religion. In John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” all of these variables were used to create an open ended play that allowed the audience to decide the guilt or innocence of the character Father Flynn, the integrity of Sister Aloysius, judgment of Donald Muller, the inconceivable acceptance of Mrs. Muller, and finally the varying perceptions of Sister James. Upon reflection I firmly believe that Donald Muller was the victim of Father Flynn’s sexual deviance who was chosen because of his anticipated short stay at the school, and the color of skin. I also believe that Sister Aloysius only struggled with doubt because her suspicions were never validated or disproven.
The era for which this play was set provides a means to understand why Father Flynn was never tried among a jury of his peers. John Jay College of Criminal Justice published a report stating “clergy sexual abuse of minors in the American Catholic Church is a historical problem with the vast majority of cases occurring from the mid 1960's to the mid 1980's” (Plante). The hierarchies of the church, during this time, were more likely to cover up any incidents of inappropriate behavior, on the part of their clergy, than to demand that they answer to the claims or suspicions of abuse. Furthermore, as we saw with Sister Aloysius, internal church protocol demanded that she brought any complaints or questions to a priest, who would ultimately make the choice as to where it would go from there, if anywhere. This provided the priests an additional layer of protection. This is significant because in today’s society a priest would undoubtedly be questioned because the victim would have the resources available to make their claim known, unlike the near non-existent resources available in the 1960s.
Father Flynn chose his victim wisely when he selected Donald. “He’s isolated. The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for” (Shanley IV). The accusation was that Father Flynn brought Donald to the rectory and gave him wine to drink while later molesting the young boy. “He is the only negro in the school. That did affect my thinking on the matter,” Father Flynn explains to Sister Aloysius as he is being questioned (Shanley V). As Donald was the only black boy in the Catholic school, with few friends, and an abusive relationship with his father he was the perfect target for Father Flynn. He could feel confident that Donald wouldn’t tell his friends, because he didn’t have any. Father Flynn was also aware that Donald was only attending the school for a short period of time because his previous school was no longer safe due to his “nature”. Also since Donald’s father beat him because he did not condone his “nature”, Father Flynn could be certain that Donald would not confide in his parents. All of these factors led to Donald being the safest target for Father Flynn to victimize with little fear of being exposed.
Women of the 1960s were just starting to find confidence in standing up for their beliefs. It would have been almost unthinkable for a nun to question a member of the priesthood, so Sister Aloysius had to be patient and cautious when she spoke to Father Flynn. As part of the accusations of Father Flynn’s encounter with Donald, Sister Aloysius disguises the meaning of the meeting by telling Father Flynn it had to do with the pageant. “We must be careful, in the pageant, that we neither hide Donald Muller nor put him forward,” Sister Aloysius explains to Father Flynn (Shanley V). This quote sends a clear but indirect message. It reinforces that all matters regarding Donald needed to be carefully thought out because all interactions would be scrutinized due to his differences and even the slightest mistake in positioning him in the play, or any other situations, could lead to a misunderstanding. So while women were standing up for what they believed was their right to be heard, Sister Aloysius was finding the same confidence to protect a young child who was unable to protect himself.
The most shocking scene of the play, in my opinion, was the acceptance of Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller. “It’s just till June,” she said (Shanley V). She knew Donald had drank the wine, and had suspicions that his “nature” was unlike most, but she was willing to look the other way so as not to have Donald removed from the eighth grade. For her it was almost as though it was easier to not shake things up. Her conclusion was that he was just like Father Flynn, so it really wasn’t worth being kicked out of school, or being further punished by his father. This type of acceptance reinforced the fact that there was not one single person, other than Sister Aloysius, who had been willing to call for a stop to the abuse, not even his mother.
Sister Aloysius most likely would have been satisfied with the removal of Father Flynn from the church if she had not heard of Sister James belief that the Father was innocent. Throughout the play Sister James had gone back and forth with her thoughts on the guilt or innocence of Father Flynn. Could she be misinterpreting recollections, and things that she had witnessed? Or was she simply not yet comfortable with independent thought? When Sister Aloysius had asked the others to watch Father Flynn’s interactions with Donald, Sister James recalled times that were probably improper. When Father Flynn simply states that he is innocent, Sister James feels compelled to tell him she believes him. As Sister Aloysius has Sister James on her side in the beginning, it empowered her. Nearing the end when Father Flynn informs Sister Aloysius that Sister James believes he is innocent, her doubt is realized, and confusion takes over. Ultimately once left to have only her own conviction, lacking proof, confession or even someone else’s shared suspicions she no longer had trust that she had not unjustly accused Father Flynn.
The play challenges the audience to draw their own conclusion. Is Father Flynn innocent or is he guilty of sexual deviance involving Donald? I undoubtedly find him guilty. In the 1960’s any individual who chose to give their futures to serve God, were allowed to enter the priesthood. Their previous lives outside of the church were not a consideration. Background checks were not conducted, and since the church was very successful at burying any claims of misconduct Priests moved from one church to the other without their past following them. The play gives us various clues to indicate the guilt such as the time spent alone in the rectory, Donald drinking alter wine under Father Flynn’s supervision and the protection Father Flynn appeared to be providing to Donald. The most compelling clue that spoke of his guilt was his decision to leave the church on his own, without being asked. He didn’t use the authority that he had over Sister Aloysius to have her removed from her position. He walked away, a guilty man because it would be easier for him to find a new victim in an environment where no one would be watching him with suspicion.
In closing, the era of the 1960s was the beginning of a large number of sexual scandals involving the church. Most cases were unreported because it was a time of white male dominance, and privacy was still present in the church. As I stated earlier, times were rapidly changing and women were trying to put an end to a male empowered society, while the African American’s were just starting to enter predominantly white communities. It was very unfortunate for Donald that he was a gay, black student in a white male dominated environment. The elements of society during this era made him the perfect victim for a sexually deviant and powerful male Priest. Although Sister Aloysius provided closure for Donald by ensuring Father Flynn did not continue to victimize him, she herself became a victim. She will forever live with doubt because Father Flynn never confessed his sin to validate her suspicions. In the end Donald was still a victim, Father Flynn was still in a position to molest young men, and the hierarchy of her church silenced Sister Aloysius. If these events were to take place today, the ending would have been completely different due to the equality of our society.

Works Cited

Plante, Thomas. The New John Jay Report on Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church. 18 May 2011. 1 April 2012 <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201105/the-new-john-jay-report-clergy-abuse-in-the-catholic-church>.

Shanley, John Patrick. Doubt: A Parable. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2005.…...

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