18 Years After Dr. Tom Dooley's Death, a Priest Insists He Was a Saint, Not a CIA Spook

updated 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tom Dooley was a real taskmaster, and he had an Irish temper, there's no doubt about that," says the Rev. Maynard Kegler. "But the documents in no way imply that he was an agent of the CIA." The papers in question are recently disclosed agency records that identify Dr. Dooley as a sometime CIA informant (but not as an actual spy). They have sparked a new flurry of interest in the controversial medical missionary—once known as "Dr. America"—whose work in Laos captured the hearts and minds of his countrymen in the innocent days before the war in Vietnam. Ultimately, suspicions about the doctor could torpedo a cause Father Kegler has promoted for five years—the elevation of Dooley, who died in 1961, to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Kegler, 54, acted as U.S.-based liaison between his religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and Dooley from 1958 to 1961. "I spent time with him in this country, not in Laos," says Kegler, "and got to know him well." After Dooley's death from cancer, Kegler, now director of a Buffalo, Minn. retreat house, began the research that would enable him to argue the case for Dooley's beatification. It is the first step in the complex process of attaining sainthood.

Kegler claims he was not surprised when his investigation led him to the CIA. There he found 500 unclassified documents showing that Dooley occasionally helped the agency and that it kept a close watch on him. "He gave them information out of patriotism, love of country and all that the United States stood for in 1958," Kegler insists. "He was willing to do that in return for having a little more freedom to do his work and a little less harassment. But he didn't initiate contact with the CIA, and he took no money for his work."

Nonetheless, Dooley's reputation has taken a beating in recent years from critics on both the left and the right. In the '60s antiwar activists came to regard his brand of self-righteous anti-Communism as one of the causes of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Others have dismissed him as an aggressive self-publicist who practiced ineffective "hit-and-run" medicine. A fund set up to continue Dooley's work after his death went bankrupt, and the man who succeeded him in Laos died by his own hand.

Father Kegler, however, believes Dooley has been maligned. "All of the people I have interviewed who knew Tom personally have been very positive," he reports. "The negative response was all from people who never knew him and never worked with him." As evidence of Dooley's sanctity, the priest cites his decision, while a Navy surgeon, to devote his life to Indochina. "When he saw the plight of those hundreds of thousands of people," Kegler reports, "he said, 'My God, I can't go home and leave them.' Up until that time I believe Tom Dooley was just an ordinary Christian—maybe not even that." The priest is equally impressed with Dooley's courage in fighting his cancer. "The example he gave while facing suffering, facing death, was a great service to the American people," says his sponsor. "Cancer is the greatest fear in the country today."

Kegler's quest to establish Dooley's sainthood—technically, church certification that a dead person is now in heaven—is far from over. He may possibly have to prove that Dooley is responsible for two certifiable miracles, then must submit his entire case to Vatican-appointed "devil's advocates" who will attempt to pick it apart. Kegler remains confident. "When we interpret Tom Dooley's actions in Laos, we have to do it in the context of what he knew of the CIA at the time," he concludes. "In no way will this connection hurt his cause for sainthood—in fact, I think it's going to help it."

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