Bishop Coyne Pledges Cooperation in St. Joseph's Orphanage Probe | Off Message

Bishop Coyne Pledges Cooperation in St. Joseph's Orphanage Probe

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Bishop Christopher Coyne - MATTHEW ROY
  • Matthew Roy
  • Bishop Christopher Coyne
Vermont Bishop Christopher Coyne told parishioners and reporters on Sunday that the church will cooperate with an imminent law enforcement probe into horrific allegations of abuse at St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage.

Toward the end of the 10 a.m. mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington, the bishop stepped to a podium to respond to recent news reports.

On August 27, Buzzfeed published an investigation documenting decades of alleged physical, sexual and mental abuse suffered by children at the North Avenue, Burlington facility, which closed in 1974. The story included claims that children died at the hands of nuns. On Friday, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told Seven Days that authorities plan to investigate, and Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan confirmed that a state task force would conduct a probe.
Coyne's remarks Sunday were his first public statement on the reports.

"The fact that those events happened over 50 years ago does not lessen the horror and grief that we all feel at the thought of innocent and vulnerable children suffering abuse at the hands of those who should have cared for and protected them," he said. "Shining the light of truth upon the wrongs of the past can help us continue our efforts to rid the church of the darkness of sin and guard against the recurrence of wrongdoing."

He pledged full cooperation. "I welcome the formation of a task force, and I will do everything I can to help them discover the truth."

Coyne further said he hopes to meet with former residents of the orphanage. "I need to hear their stories, to apologize, to offer any help I can, and to listen to what they feel needs to be done to make sure, as much as is humanly possible, that this never happens again."

When he was done, people in the pews applauded.

After the mass, Coyne answered reporters' questions in the cathedral.

Coyne said he believed any relevant documents have already been handed over to authorities during previous lawsuits regarding the orphanage and a separate inquiry into abusive Vermont priests more than a decade ago. However, Coyne said, he has assigned a staff member to search for any remaining records.

"If we have anything, we will turn it over," the bishop said.

A press conference involving Donovan, del Pozo, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and other officials is scheduled for Monday. Coyne said he will be traveling, which prompted him to lay out the church's position on Sunday.

The probe will prove a challenge. Many of the alleged victims and orphanage staff are deceased. A number of elderly nuns now live in Canada.

"I don't know where this is going to go," said Coyne. "I just trust in God that [we] will find the truth as much as possible. It's going to be difficult, because it was a long time ago."

The orphanage was the subject of barrage of lawsuits from victims in the 1990s that detailed many of the abuses.

The bishop has had to address wrongdoing by church officials in the past. He acted as spokesperson for the archdiocese of Boston when the priest abuse scandal broke there in 2002.

Coyne said the church has not received any subpoenas or interview requests from authorities.

The bishop said he was caught unaware by the news Friday that law enforcement officials plan an inquiry into St. Joseph's. When pressed whether it bothered him not have received a heads-up, Coyne said, "It does, but I'm not sure whether we're entitled to that because of what we did. I can understand why they would be concerned that we're not trustworthy ... and I want to do anything I can to rebuild that trust."

"I'm filled with sorrow and shame that our family did this," Coyne said.

Vermont has around 27,000 active Catholics, according to the bishop, who was appointed to his current post in 2014.