Vermont bishop: `It is not enough to apologize'

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BURLINGTON — Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne held an unprecedented Sunday press conference to vow "concrete courses of action" in response to recent national news-making reports of past child abuse by church personnel.

"As ministers of Jesus seeking to imitate the Good Shepherd, we know how `actions speak louder than words' is even truer today than it was in the past," Coyne said in a corresponding statement to the state's 120,000 Catholics. "It is not enough to apologize — if we mean what we say, we must be prepared to act, and we are."

The website Buzzfeednews.com sparked headlines this past month when it published a story titled "We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage" that not only recounted previously documented problems at the now-closed Burlington facility but also revealed new allegations from a former resident who said she saw a nun push a boy from a fourth-floor window to his death around 1944.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, State Police, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Police Chief Brandon del Pozo are scheduled to address the Buzzfeednews report in a joint media event Monday.

"We'll do an investigation," Donovan told VTDigger Friday. "We are concerned about any allegations of abuse — any allegations of any sort of cover up is something we will look at."

The bishop, for his part, surprised longtime observers of the Vermont's largest religious denomination by addressing the issue at Sunday Mass and a subsequent press conference at Burlington's St. Joseph Cathedral.

"Shining the light of truth upon the wrongs of the past can help us to continue our efforts to rid the church of the darkness of sin and guard against the recurrence of wrongdoing," he told parishioners, who greeted his words with applause. "I will do everything I can to help them discover the truth."

That may be difficult. The statewide Roman Catholic Diocese has a roster of the children who lived at the orphanage from 1854 to 1974 but no records for any adults who worked there, as the facility, which closed nearly a half-century ago, was managed by the Montreal-based Sisters of Providence.

That said, Coyne stressed the church was committed to "two initial concrete courses of action."

"First, each of us is available and willing to meet with any survivor of abuse, especially if it came at the hands of clergy or religious," he said in a statement on the diocese's website. "As your brothers in faith, we need to hear your stories, to apologize, to offer any help we can, and to listen to what you feel needs to be done to make sure, as much as humanly possible, that this never happens again."

"Secondly, each of us in our own way will take on the gospel practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving for a twofold intention: first, to manifest our shame and grief that children and vulnerable adults were sexually abused by our brother clergy and that structures of authority allowed this to happen; and second, with the prayerful intention that the Catholic bishops of United States will be open to the necessary systemic changes that must take place within our church in order to end the continuing abuse of power that has allowed for scandal and sin at its highest levels."

In the past, diocesan leaders admonished reporters who published stories about church scandals on a Sunday. Coyne, Vermont bishop since 2015, developed a different take on public relations as the Archdiocese of Boston's communications secretary and spokesman shortly after the start of the Massachusetts capital's priest misconduct scandal in 2002.

"Coyne's has been a more forthcoming and compassionate voice," the Boston Globe — which won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the situation — wrote at the time he replaced a less-transparent lay official.

Coyne since has served as the communications chairman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and as Pope Francis' media aide during the pontiff's 2015 visit to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

"One of the largest mistakes that we made was we let the lawyers drive the bus," Coyne said of the church's earlier public relations strategy. "The best way to respond to this is as a pastor. Pastors try to talk to people."

Coyne, who has a social media presence that includes at least 15,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter (@bishopcoyne) and his own website, bishopcoyne.org, has released four public statements about church misconduct in the past month.

The bishop wrote Aug. 1 upon the resignation of American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly sexually abused minors and adult seminarians: "Please know that the Diocese of Burlington remains committed to supporting and caring for all victims of abuse, especially those abused by members of the clergy. I, along with the clergy, staff, and volunteers of the diocese, will continue to work to ensure safe environments for all God's people, especially children, youth and vulnerable populations and that no form of harassment, sexual or otherwise, is tolerated within our community."

He wrote Aug. 26 upon news of misconduct by more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania: "I am embarrassed as a Catholic and, most especially, as a bishop, that this is all continuing to happen almost 16 years after the first major disclosures of the sin of sexual abuse of children and the cover up by bishops. Over the past few years here in the Diocese of Burlington, we had begun to `turn the page' and speak positively about our faith instead of apologizing for the sinful behavior of our clergy and shepherds. Now, we seem to be back at stage one."

And he wrote Sept. 4 upon the Buzzfeednews report: "Over the last six weeks, new revelations of scandalous and even criminal activity by bishops and priests have deeply angered and shaken all of us. While this fresh moment of crisis calls us firstly to a spirit of prayer, it also demands action: both to work toward justice and healing for victims, and toward a broader commitment to renewal and change in how the church's leaders serve you, the people of God."

Coyne discussed the issue with the diocese's 70 priests this past week and with about 100 lay representatives from throughout the state on Saturday. He's scheduled to speak with his fellow U.S. bishops Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

"While my voice is only one among the 25-30 in the room," Coyne said in his latest statement, "please know I plan on bringing to the discussion what I will have received from my clergy and lay people."

"What I hear clearly," he told reporters Sunday, "is people want things to change."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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