Vermont diocese to identify abusers
BURLINGTON — Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne will form a committee of lay men and women to review the statewide diocese’s clergy misconduct files and publicly release the names of abusers. “Lay” refers to Catholics who are not priests, nuns or other members of the clergy.
“The crimes of the past were horrific and the damage to the victims and their loved ones horrendous,” the bishop said in a statement Wednesday. “A major part of restoring trust in the church is transparency — the disclosure of when and where the abuse occurred and who were the abusers.”
Coyne will create “an independent committee” with an unspecified number of members to cull the diocese’s misconduct files and compile a list of personnel accused of sexually abusing a minor.
“I will then make this list public,” he said.
“As to the details included with the list, they will be determined in consultation with the committee,” the bishop continued. “I hope to reach out to potential members of this committee as soon as possible so that they may begin this necessary work.”
The website BuzzFeed News sparked recent headlines when it published a story titled “We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage” that not only recounted previously documented problems at the now-closed Burlington facility but also revealed several deadly new allegations not reported in a series of well-publicized lawsuits in the 1990s.
In response, Coyne has agreed to cooperate with state and local authorities who recently announced a joint investigation into church-related allegations. He also is releasing abuse victims from nondisclosure agreements signed with the state’s largest religious denomination.
The diocese was compelled to share its personnel files with the Vermont attorney general’s office in 2002 after the Boston Globe uncovered decades of unreported sexual abuse allegations against priests in the Massachusetts capital. Upon review of records from 1950 and 2000, the state never charged anyone criminally because claims found credible were too old to prosecute under statutes of limitations.
Survivors, however, were free to file civil lawsuits or seek financial settlements. Some 40 Vermont men went on to pursue cases in Chittenden Superior Court alleging childhood sexual abuse by priests, and many personnel records became public when they were introduced as evidence.
Even so, the lay committee will be the first group of people other than church leaders or lawyers to see the files in their entirety.
In his statement, Coyne reached out to those harmed by not only abuse but also “the mishandling of the claims of abuse by bishops in America.”
“We will never be able to apologize adequately but will continue to try and hopefully have some positive impact in their lives going forward,” he said. “Those efforts include acknowledging their stories and committing and assuring to them and the entire committee that these crimes will never occur again — that we are worthy of the trust we seek that we will keep children and vulnerable adults safe.”
“I wish to affirm my commitment to being open and transparent in these matters in our diocese,” he continued. “Once the committee has created a list for publication, we will reach out to any survivors we can to let them know that the list will soon be published and that it will include the name of their abuser. We will also try and reach out to the family members of any deceased clergy whose name will be on the list.”
Coyne stressed that allegations found in the files show no current misconduct, “but rather involve abuse occurring decades ago and before the church adopted its current protection policies in 2003.”
“I want to assure everyone that the present policies are working to protect children,” the bishop said. “Any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor is immediately turned over to public authorities for their investigation, not ours.”
Although Coyne can’t yet specify a schedule for releasing information, “I hope to convey to the committee a sense of urgency to complete their task but will allow them the necessary time to do so.”
“Every announcement and discussion of clergy abuse, I am sure, is quite painful and potentially re-traumatizing for survivors and their families,” he said. “In this instance, disclosure of clergy names will also be painful for the families.”
“My hope is that this disclosure commitment will contribute to publicly revealing the truth necessary for fulfilling our promise of transparency and respect for the abused,” he concluded. “Please know that I will continue to do all that I can to promote the necessary healing for all impacted by the scandal of abuse.”