The report released this week by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington names 40 priests accused of sexually abusing children in Vermont since 1950. Many of them were long-serving and notable within their communities.
The findings are painful for what is likely to be hundreds — if not thousands — of Vermonters who were abused and mistreated. It also tears at communities.
Bishop Christopher J. Coyne in his statement, aptly titled “Sins of the Past,” once again attempts to apologize, but it can never truly be that. This report, even without specific claims and numbers of victims, suggests an institutional failure to protect the most vulnerable.
The report, which was compiled from records at the Diocese of Burlington over a 40-week period, is the most comprehensive, independent examination of “credible and substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor made against” Vermont clergy.
“Until now, the scope of all of this has been our ‘family secret,’” Coyne said in his lengthy statement.
Family secrets can be toxic. Harmful past experiences — unspoken, unaddressed, and known only by a few — fester like neglected wounds. The innocent victims of the family secret are often made to feel ashamed about what happened, as no one seems to listen to them or even, sadly at times, believe them. While these secrets remain hidden, those who have been hurt are often unable to find the healing they need, especially if those who harmed them are still ‘part’ of the family, even if only in memory.”
Coyne acknowledges the church’s unjustifiable role in this abuse as a mea culpa to the victims and all Vermonters. The acknowledgment is welcome, but a whisper compared to the screams of the abused.
“These ‘sins of the past’ continue to haunt us. These shameful, sinful, and criminal acts have been our ‘family secret’ for generations. While there has been significant action by the Church here in Vermont and in the United States to address the issue of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the cover-up of those crimes by those in authority, the whole sordid tale of what happened in (the) decades leading up to the U.S. bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has not been fully aired. That is why I have asked that this report be compiled and published,” Coyne said.
The committee that looked into the files believes it had full access. Some of the personnel files were more than 1,000 pages deep. Even files with unsubstantiated claims were up to 400 pages. As one committee member noted, “The Catholic Church doesn’t throw anything away.”
Not even pedophiles.
The findings show — clearly and redundantly — what the Boston Globe Spotlight team unearthed in 2001, earning that news team the Pulitzer Prize and international notoriety: Bad priests were just shuffled around.
Vermont’s leaders in the church were part and parcel of the problem. There are well-documented clergy in these findings who were known to have been moved from other communities, where accusations dogged them like a plague.
Some could argue it was about “seeing the good in everyone,” or trying to “save” priests who hit the bottle, hit children, raped children, or suffered from mental illnesses. But that is no excuse, and we now live in a shattered world of victims.
The committee members seem satisfied that they unearthed all of the criminal activity documented by the diocese here. (There is always the off-chance there is a secret stash of files, or certain names were systematically omitted. But the committee seemed convinced the unfettered access was genuine, and that given the severity of many of the claims — and subsequent actions — that there (were) likely no major culprits omitted.)
We take Coyne at his word that the system won’t fail in such a catastrophic, sinister way ever again. But this report gives us pause. It provides doubt by virtue of its patterns. It suggests there are always people preying on the vulnerable, and willing to ignore the greater good.
Coyne stated: “… I promised to continue the Diocese’s efforts to address past abuses of children by clergy, to work toward healing for those who have experienced abuse, to maintain a zero-tolerance policy for any individual with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse, and to be transparent about the prevention, handling, and response to the sexual abuse of minors. In order to do so, it is clear to me that we must be fully honest about these sins of our past. If only a list of priests with credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor had been released 15 years ago, perhaps we would be farther along our collective path of healing. But for many reasons, this was not able to happen.”
In the coming weeks and months, our Vermont communities will be talking about who knew and didn’t act. Some truly painful days are ahead now that names are associated with actions. We cannot truly heal from these heinous misdeeds, but we can work to ensure it can’t happen again.