The statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington knew at least 40 Vermont priests faced accusations of sexually abusing children over the past seven decades but did nothing to alert the public or police, a lay-led church committee announced Thursday.
The committee, given unprecedented access to personnel files once seen by only Catholic leaders and lawyers, issued an online report that named the accused clergy — none whom are currently working but several who are still alive — and acknowledged past officials of the state’s largest religious denomination covered up the claims so as not to spark court suits or scandal.
“While most of these allegations took place at least a generation ago, the numbers are still staggering,” Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne said Thursday. “These shameful, sinful and criminal acts have been our ‘family secret’ for generations.”
The report showed no current misconduct. All but one of the allegations occurred before 2000.
Detailed revelations about priest misconduct were not made available. The report did not say how many victims there were, and church officials said they would not disclose that information.
“Many abusers and their victims are deceased, so some might ask ‘Why engage in this process?’” the committee wrote. “Publication of a list may cause harm to the legacy of accused perpetrators, but the list also may offer some long-missed consolation to victims and their families and friends.”
“What is particularly painful is knowing how lives were changed irreparably by what happened to the victims when they were young,” the committee wrote. “For some there might have been the opportunity for healing, but for many there may have been a series of life choices intended to cover scars that only resulted in more pain and disappointment. Lives have been lost because of the abuse that occurred.”
Church leaders acknowledge publicizing the list of priests could subject the diocese to more lawsuits. More than 50 accusers have won nearly $31.5 million in settlements in the past several decades. Their shared lawyer, Jerome O’Neill of Burlington, still has six cases pending in court.
“My reaction is disappointment,” O’Neill said of the report he believes should have been released long ago by previous church leaders. “It was more important for those bishops that they protect the reputations of their child-abusing clergy and the diocese itself than to protect children from being sexually assaulted.”
The worldwide Catholic Church has faced damning revelations about clergy misconduct since 2002, when the Boston Globe published a child sex abuse investigation dramatized in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”
After a new round of national headlines resurrected the subject last year, Coyne released accusers from nondisclosure agreements and gave his diocese’s long-locked personnel files to a lay committee to review and release the names of diocesan clergy who have faced “credible and substantiated” allegations of child sexual abuse since 1950.
“While there has been significant action by the church here in Vermont and in the United States to address the issue,” Coyne said Thursday, “the whole sordid tale of what happened in 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.”