SALEM — It’s not easy speaking up for what’s right.
Yet, because the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest, dared to confront the Church about its sexual abuse cover-up, and Horace Seldon, a former minister with the United Church of Christ, combated racism for more than 40 years, many people’s lives changed for the good.
Both Doyle, 68, and Seldon, 89, were honored last night with the 21st annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, the first time that two individuals representing two separate causes won the award since it began in 1992. Before a capacity crowd of 177 at the Peabody Essex Museum, Mayor Kim Driscoll and Salem State University President Patricia Maguire Meservey joined board Chairwoman Julie Rose in presenting Doyle and Seldon each with a framed photograph of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial and a $5,000 check.
The award has been given each year to a modern-day champion of human rights who refused to stay silent in the face of injustice, symbolizing the lessons and tragedies of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
“The Salem Award is always a highlight of the year for me because it says that Salem has learned a vital lesson from the witch trials,” Driscoll said. “Horace and Thomas have different gifts, and we’re thrilled to be able to honor and recognize them.”
Both recipients were nominated and selected for their sacrificial commitment to truth and justice.
“In this day and age, even considering how far we’ve come around these issues of sexual abuse and racism, we know there’s more to do,” Rose said. “These two men have had an extreme impact in these areas.”
Now a resident of Vienna, Va., Doyle was one of the first to speak publicly about how Catholic Church leaders in the early 1980s covered up the news that priests had been sexually abusing children. As he came forward with his concern for the victims, many Catholics mobilized to demand both explanations and change from Church leaders. Doyle is now recognized as one of the country’s most reliable sources on clergy molestation, testifying as an expert witness in legal cases and news reports. He continues to counsel survivors, lectures, writes and volunteers in numerous ministries.
“Victims and survivors refer to Tom as the bravest priest in America,” Meservey said. “This bravery is matched only by his compassion.”
Doyle said he was surprised to learn of the award. “It matters not because I like the limelight — I don’t — but because it acknowledges the victims and survivors of both spiritual and physical abuse by Catholic clergy,” he said. “It pours cold water on the collective bishops’ attempts to convince the people that the problem is now over, which it is not. Every time something like this (award) happens, no matter who gets it, it puts a spotlight on the problem.”
The ultimate success of events like this, he said, would be if people came forward to acknowledge that abuse had happened to them and now want to seek help.
Seldon, too, noted the award’s importance as a way to continue addressing injustices. In 1968, when Seldon learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, he dedicated his life to eradicating racism. He founded Community Change Inc. in Boston, a nonprofit addressing racial issues through community activities, resources and education. Seldon also taught a course on racism for 52 semesters at Boston College before retiring. At age 73, he became a National Park Service ranger for the Boston National Historic Site and a historian specializing in the abolition movement. He resides in Wakefield.
“We pay tribute tonight to those who died rather than compromise their personal beliefs,” Seldon said. “This award is a wonderful recognition of trying to get things done.”
In addition to the annual award, the mission of the all-volunteer board of the Salem Award Foundation includes upgrading and maintaining the Witch Trials Memorial — which has received 7 million visitors over the past 20 years — as well as educating the public about human rights and social justice through community partnerships and lectures. The organization sponsored two documentaries during the Salem Film Fest and is currently planning a new book award to honor high school students who exhibit “courage and determination in going beyond the usual approach to a social problem.”
“We want Salem to be known as much for human rights and social justice as it is for many other issues,” Rose said. “This award shows how a single person, with enough passion and enough courage, can help change the world.”