Panel Will Guide Release of Vermont Priest Abuse Information

Vermont’s Catholic bishop says the move is part of an effort to restore trust and transparency in the church

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is planning to make information public about priests accused long ago of sexually abusing their parishioners.

Bishop Christopher Coyne said Wednesday it is part of an effort to restore trust and transparency in the church.

“We were responsible for these heinous and sinful acts,” Coyne acknowledged. “We have nobody to blame but ourselves in finding ourselves in the place we are today.”

Coyne announced a new committee to review what he expects will be 25 or 30 old files on sexual abuse by priests.

The bishop said that group will help guide the diocese in making public the names and certain details about the accused. Before any documents’ release, Coyne said his office would notify survivors and relatives of any deceased clergy on the list, to give them a head’s up to minimize potential pain or re-traumatization.

Coyne’s goal, he said, is to restore trust, and to let survivors know their experiences were heard and respected—to help them find healing.

“The only way, I guess, we can get people to trust us is to stop this stuff and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Coyne told reporters.

The move comes at a time of renewed scrutiny on Catholic institutions worldwide.

A high-profile article for BuzzFeed News this summer thrust into the spotlight allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the defunct St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington more than 40 years ago, including claims of murder.

"I saw somebody push a boy out a window," former St. Joseph's resident Sally Dale said in unearthed deposition video accompanying the BuzzFeed News story. "I knew it was a nun, because she had the habit."

The attention prompted the formation of a new city and state task force that is now probing what really went on in that orphanage, looking for evidence of possible cover-ups.

“There’s a lot of pain that needs to be reconciled and healed,” Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said September 10 at the announcement of the formation of the task force. “And this is not going to be easy.”

Donovan noted at the time that the investigation will surely be difficult, given how old the claims are and the fact many people involved—including the religious order that ran the orphanage—have moved out of Vermont.

The task force is also looking to hear from former residents like Katelin Hoffman, who told her story to necn affiliate NBC 5 News.

“I really struggled all my life,” Hoffman said in an NBC 5 report last month. “I was sexually abused there once by a caseworker and a priest as soon as I got there. Any cruel thing that they could do, they did.”

The Burlington Police Department is maintaining an online portal to take information from people who want to report abuse.

A city spokeswoman said last month that police dispatchers have also been trained to take calls, with access to a screening form and intake information for older folks who may not have computer access.

The phone number for the Burlington Police Department is 802-658-2704.

Bishop Coyne has promised full cooperation with the task force and called the church a safe place today—thanks to current child protection protocols.

As for the clergy files that’ll be reviewed before they’re publicized, Coyne pointed out they are from settled cases. Any fresh allegations would be handled by police and prosecutors, not this new community panel, he noted.

Coyne said in the past 16 years, only one substantiated allegation has been made against a priest, in a case involving a vulnerable adult.

The diocese said no priest currently in its ranks has had a credible and substantiated claim made against him.

The bishop added that he hopes the new review committee will include some non-Catholics, as well as, possibly, retired members of law enforcement and representatives of area non-profits, to ensure greater impartiality and transparency.

There was no timeline placed on the review panel’s work, but Coyne said he will express a sense of urgency to the group when it starts—though he added that he wants it to be a thorough process.

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