Do right by victims of clergy abuse

Vermont’s Roman Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne speaks about a report that found there were “credible and substantiated” allegations of the sexual abuse of minors against 40 priests in the state between 1950 and today. The report said all but one of the allegations occurred before 2000.

By Maura Labelle

The following letter was sent to Bishop Christopher Coyne on Dec. 8:

Why are you waiting for me and other clergy abuse victims to die?

As children at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, we were physically, mentally and sexually abused. In December 2020 you said the following during an interview on the WCAX program You Can Quote Me: “I absolutely believe that children were abused at the orphanage. No one is contesting that at all.” You know that there was abuse, yet you do everything you can to avoid helping the abused.

In 2019, you said the following on Vermont Public Radio: “We don’t have any money, there’s no more insurance, we have very limited unrestricted funds.” If the church doesn’t have funds, it’s because of its own actions to hide the money. You know very well that your predecessor, Bishop Salvatore Matano, worked with the church’s attorneys to put $500 million in diocese assets into individual trusts to protect those assets from lawsuits. At the time, Bishop Matano said his actions were to protect the parishes from “unbridled, unjust and unreasonable assault.” We would argue that the unbridled, unjust and unreasonable assaults were made by clergy against children.

In November of this year, you wrote to Vermont Catholics, asking them to give more to your statewide fundraising campaign called “Christ Our Hope: Building a Vibrant Church,” saying that you had already, in just three months last year, raised $4.4 million of your $10 million goal, with most of that money going to individual parishes rather than abuse victims. Of course, that distribution would also protect those funds from abuse lawsuits against the diocese.

Many individual parishes have closed, yet there is no discussion of using funds from those properties to make atonement or restitution with victims of abuse at the hands of clergy. The property which was home to the former Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Burlington is worth millions. Proceeds from its sale should be used to assist former orphanage residents, to make their lives better, as so many of us were unable to meet our potential due to the way we were abused by clergy during our childhoods.

It is also clear to us that the diocese likely paid millions of dollars to attorneys in its effort to avoid atonement for its sins against victims such as the children of St. Joseph’s Orphanage. I call on you to immediately disclose the amount of money the diocese used to line the pocket of its legal teams, as it should have gone to victims instead.

In the 1990s, Bishop Kenneth Angell settled with many orphanage survivors for the paltry sum of $5,000, and forced them to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to get the funds. Ironically, Bishop Angell was forcing the diocese’s own victims to become part of its cover-up. Many of us were not financially stable at the time and agreed under duress to Bishop Angell’s dictates. Bishop Coyne, you have waived the non-disclosure agreement. Now you need to acknowledge that the abuse suffered by children at the orphanage was worth far more than the $5,000 you paid victims, and re-open that part of the agreements.

I believe that your false statements regarding available funds and your inability to make restitution to abuse victims at the orphanage defy the eighth commandment, which calls for God’s people to be truthful. Clearly, the diocese is more concerned about the almighty dollar than it is about following the will of Almighty God. The only reason that funds are restricted is because the diocese itself restricted them to avoid accountability for abuse by clergy, caused by negligence by the diocese.

Clearly, you and other Catholic leaders are waiting this out, so that your responsibility to victims will disappear when we die. It’s time for the diocese to be accountable for its sins, as it requires the Catholic faithful to do. Please help us while we are still alive.

In 2019 you released a report finally identifying abusive priests from Vermont. You called their sins the “sins of the past.” But, Catholic Bishops nationwide recently released a report saying that there had been 4220 reports of abuse by clergy in the United States during the year ending June 30, 2021. And God only knows how many abuses went unreported. Please stop misleading Vermonters with slogans from lawyers and public relations people. These are not the sins of the past. Your experience as a spokesman for former Cardinal Bernard Law, the mastermind of the Boston clergy sex abuse cover-up, makes you especially adept at public relations. I wish you cared as much about doing the right thing.

All of us will be accountable to God for our actions on Earth. Remember Bishop Coyne, whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do unto me. I hope that during the Christmas season you can find it in your heart to do right by victims of clergy abuse.

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