Discussion of abortion and sexual abuse scandals dominated a forum Bishop Christopher Coyne held at Christ the King Church on Tuesday.
The talk, part of a listening tour bringing Coyne to churches around the state, also touched on how the church can win back parishioners it has lost and what the diocese can do for local parishes. Coyne said this was the sixth such meeting, and common themes from the previous ones included sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church, a decision to lower the age of first communion and calls for the ordination of female priests.
Preaching respectful listening, Coyne opened the floor to the roughly 100 in attendance, saying people who came forward would get 2 minutes each for questions or comments. The first came from a man who began by proclaiming his love for the church and his belief in literal transubstantiation.
“I am very angry at the hierarchy of our church,” he said. “I am angry at your brother bishops and the Bishop of Rome.”
The man said when news of sexual abuse coverups broke more than a decade ago, parishioners were assured that reforms had been implemented and such abuse would not happen again. Then the public learned of more abuses last year.
“Now, I realize the bishops did not do what they said they would do, and I am angry about it,” he said.
The man said his anger was compounded because the scandals robbed the bishops of their moral authority, which they need to argue against measures like H.57, the bill that would preserve abortion rights in Vermont. The man said the bill “borders on infanticide,” while later speakers outright called it infanticide.
“There’s a lot there,” Coyne said. “I can only be responsible for myself. ... I can’t answer for some of the bishops.”
Coyne described how the diocese had appointed a commission — led by a former member of law enforcement who was not a Catholic — to review all clergy personnel files containing a credible claim of abuse of a minor. He said the commission would produce a report he would then make public.
A number of other people described the scandals as having pushed people away from the church. Coyne said a recent national survey found that more than half of parishioners believed abuse of children by priests was still regularly happening and being covered up. Coyne said Vermont’s churches had gone many years without a credible allegation of abuse and that the church needed to be better at communicating to the public. He said he was director of communication for the Archdiocese of Boston after the scandal broke there and hired a professional PR firm.
“We priests, we’re not trained in PR,” he said. “That’s not our skill set.”
Coyne noted that the vast majority of the abuse cases arose in the 1960s and 1970s, which likely offered some window into how they happened. He said it was a time when the church ordained huge numbers of priests, some right out of high school.
“Never did experimentation,” he said. “Never tried relationships out. In many ways, they were repressed adults.”
He said it was also a time when many homosexuals used the priesthood as a way to hide their orientations, and that their sexuality was not “integrated” with an understanding of celibacy. On top of that, he said the culture of the time created opportunities.
“No one balked when the cool father or the young priest took a teenage boy under his arm,” Coyne said. “If he did it with your daughter, though ... even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you would’ve said uh-uh.”
Coyne reacted positively to a suggestion that prayers of the faithful be regularly offered for survivors of abuse. He said he had presided over Masses at which there were multiple parishioners who only he knew were survivors. He also said that when priests add prayers for victims to services, they are sometimes asked by parishioners when the church will “get over” the abuse scandal.
“We are never going to get over it,” he said. “It’s a sin that wounded people in a very deep way.”
Another speaker read aloud a letter he said came from former Poultney state representative Andrew Donaghy, asking if the bishop would direct pastors to condemn H.57 from the pulpit and call upon their parishioners to write to their representatives. The question drew applause. Coyne said he had issued a statement encouraging Catholics to “contact their Legislators as they saw fit.” He called it a “volatile issue” and said a number of people have “very personal reasons” for supporting abortion rights.
“My hope is, as a pastor, to convince them otherwise,” he said. “I leave it up to people to make their own decision. ... My hope is to move the middle.”
Coyne also stated he would not seek to excommunicate Catholic legislators supporting the bill, saying his instruction has been that pastors need to speak to such individuals privately, telling them that they should not take communion until they change to a position in line with “the community of the church.” He said any such legislators are still “brothers and sisters” within the church, deserving of charity, and that excommunication is not a punishment but a measure to try to get people to return to the church.
“I think it’s something that needs to be done privately because people outside of this community don’t understand what it is and what it isn’t,” he said. “Let them make decisions whether they receive communion or not. It’s on their head. It’s on their soul. ... Public excommunication doesn’t do what we hope it does.”
Coyne said he believed his approach was winning over people to the belief that H.57 goes too far.
“We are moving the needle,” he said.