Report alleges sex abuse by 40 Vermont priests since 1950

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A report released Thursday by Vermont's Roman Catholic Church found there were "credible and substantiated" allegations of the sexual abuse of minors against 40 priests in the state between 1950 and today. Six of those priests served in Bennington County.

All but one of those allegations occurred prior to 2000, and none of the priests is still in ministry, the report said. Most of the priests who were named in the report are now dead.

"While most of these allegations took place at least a generation ago, the numbers are still staggering," said Bishop Christopher Coyne, who leads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which covers the entire state.

Coyne commissioned the report last fall after the Vermont attorney general's office launched its own investigation into allegations of abuse at the now-shuttered St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington and amid mounting pressure on the church to respond to abuse claims.

Vermont's attorney general's office is conducting a separate investigation into abuse allegations.

Coyne said until the names were released Thursday the scope of abuse within the diocese "has been our family secret." He said he hopes the report can continue a process of healing for the victims while the church works to regain its credibility as a source of moral authority.

"Family secrets can be toxic," Coyne said during a news conference at the diocese's South Burlington headquarters. "Harmful past experiences, unspoken, unaddressed and known only by a few, fester like neglected wounds."

The release by the Vermont diocese comes as the Catholic Church across the country and worldwide comes to terms with a legacy of the sexual abuse of minors. Last month, the Diocese of Manchester, which covers New Hampshire, posted a list of that included the names of 73 priests.

The Vermont diocese has been grappling with priest sex abuse cases for decades and many of the priests who were named Thursday have been named publicly in the past. The diocese has spent tens of millions of dollars to settle cases, a move that has forced the diocese to liquidate some of its assets to pay those claims.

The diocese is still in discussions with a handful of additional victims, Coyne said.

The Vermont report released Thursday was conducted by a seven-member committee that worked independently from the diocese. The panel included one victim of abuse and one non-Catholic.

While reviewers initially looked at the records of 52 priests, they could only substantiate the allegations against 40. Some of the priests named in the report were born in the late 1800s and the allegations against them were made decades after their deaths.

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The most recent case came from the mid-2000s when a priest later admitted he made unwanted sexual advances on an 18-year-old male without his consent, including touching the man's genitals. The priest was sentenced to 30 days in jail and was later removed from the priesthood.

Committee member John Mahoney, 65, of Burlington, was the abuse survivor on the committee. He said he was abused by the Rev. Edward Foster, who died in 2000, during the early 1970s. He said he endured several years of abuse starting in the seventh grade and lasting until high school when a friend told him what had been happening was not acceptable. Still, he never told his parents.

The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Mahoney has agreed to make his name public.

Mahoney, who reached a legal settlement with the church years ago, attended Thursday's news conference and said seeing the name of his abuser out in the open brought a measure of relief.

"One can only hope that this offers some opportunity for healing of individuals, but healing within the church as well," Mahoney said.

The following six priests served in Bennington County:

- Robert J. Baffa, born in 1937, was ordained in 1966 in North Bennington, and was an assistant at St. John the Baptist in North Bennington in 1966 and pastor of the same church from 1993-2002. He retired in 2002 and died in 2013.

- Donald A. Bean, born in 1934, served as administrator at St. Jerome in East Dorset. He retired in 1994 due to ill health, and died in 2005.

- Paul M. Bresnahan, born in 1928, was an assistant at Sacred Heart in Bennington and assistant principal of Bennington Catholic High School from 1956-57. He retired in 2002 and died in 2003.

- John F. Eastman, born in 1914, was an assitant at St. Francis de Sales in Bennington from 1952-53. He was suspended in August 1953 and sent to Archdiocese of Santa Fe - Jemez Springs, N.M. from 1953-55, relocated to the Diocese of Monterrey-Fresno, California, 1955-67, and was denied reinstatement in Vermont in 1989. He is presumed dead.

- Richard E. Thompson, born in 1941, was an assistant at St. Francis de Sales in Bennington from 1968-71, and pastor of St. Jerome in East Dorset from 1975-77. He was suspended from his duties in 1984, and died in 2006.

- Benjamin D. Wysolmerski, born in 1926, was assistant at St. Francis de Sales in Bennington in 1971. He resigned in 1993 and died in 1994.


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