Vermont bishop to form lay committee to review clergy files

By Christine Rousselle

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Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, VT. Courtesy photograph.

The Diocese of Burlington, the only Catholic diocese in Vermont, is forming a lay committee to investigate personnel files relating to sexual abuse of minors by priests, Bishop Christopher Coyne announced in a statement Oct. 10. When is concludes its review, the committee will publicly release a list of accused priests.

The committee will examine the same files covered by a previous investigation conducted by the Vermont attorney general’s office in 2002. That investigation covered allegations relating to the years 1950-2000. The files do not include any contemporary accusations of sexual misconduct occurring after 2003, Coyne said.

The announcement comes one day after an article appeared online about Vermont attorney general’s decision that it “would not be prudent” to release the results of the 2002-2003 enquiry into clerical sexual abuse. According to BuzzFeed News, that investigation resulted in the names of 21 men being turned over to state authorities. In most cases, the accused were either deceased or no longer in ministry.

No charges for sexual crimes against minors were brought following the attorney general’s investigation.

There has only been one credible accusation of priestly sexual abuse in the Diocese of Burlington since 2002, which concerned an “at-risk adult.” No priests currently in ministry in the diocese have been accused of sexual abuse, according to the diocese.

The new lay-led committee will also examine files that were initially not fully investigated by the state in 2002, Coyne told CNA in a phone interview. These files contained allegations against deceased priests but were not deemed worthy of further investigation.

Coyne wants the committee to reexamine all the allegation in order to determine whether or not the names of the accused should be made public.

"There's some files that are old, that the priests were deceased, there was no investigation,” he said. “They said, ‘You know, we're not going to investigate this, there's only one allegation, this was an old file, and the priest is deceased and he can't clear his name.’”

“So there's a few of those, and that's what I want the committee to look at, and I want them to make a decision as to whether we're going to release the names of priests that are deceased prior to 2002."

He explained that other dioceses have only chosen to release the names of priests who either admitted to abuse, were the subject of a settlement, or had been made aware of the accusation prior to their deaths so they would have a chance to defend themselves.

Other files, he told CNA, include details of behavior that does not rise to the level of a criminal complaint, but is still “creepy” and a violation of boundary issues. Coyne wants the committee to examine these files to ensure that no additional action needs to be taken.

“(There was some behavior by a priest) that we said, ‘Okay, we can't put you back in ministry,’ but we want to look at those files too and say, ‘You know, do we need to do anything here, have we done that right?’," he explained.

Coyne told CNA that he is unsure as to why the report was not released in 2003, but suspects that the attorney general’s office was reluctant to release names in cases they would not be prosecuting.

"I wish I could give you an answer. I don't know,” said Coyne. “They may have decided that since they couldn't prosecute and they weren't able to bring any charges against anyone that they couldn't name names."

Coyne is, however, “very confident” that his diocese has taken appropriate measures in responding to allegations of sexual abuse. Since 2002, the Diocese of Burlington has had a policy of immediately involving law enforcement following any allegation of clerical sexual abuse. 

"We went one step further in that as a matter of policy from that point on, any allegation that was deemed to be initially credible, namely that it had some sense of truth to it, was turned over to the authorities,” he told CNA. Even if the person making the complaint refuses to go to the police, the diocese would still take the matter to the authorities, he said.

The committee will also determine which details to include in the public list of the accused, such as birth, death, and ordination dates, and Coyne hopes to form the committee soon, so they can start work as quickly as possible.

"I think this is the way forward. I think every diocese has to do this, otherwise we're going to continue to have these stories break every few months all over the country,” he told CNA.

“And every time it breaks, the cloud of guilt goes across all of us."

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