Bishop Christopher Coyne at a press conference on sex abuse in 2019
A New Jersey man is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington over sexual abuse dating to 1978 involving a since-disgraced priest who was under the diocese's authority.
The civil complaint, filed in Vermont Superior Court on Tuesday, accuses the diocese of allowing the Rev. Leo Courcy Jr. to continue his ministry for decades with "unfettered" access to children, despite knowing he was a pedophile.
Christopher Silletti's parents met Courcy when the priest was assigned to a parish in Deal, N.J., in the 1970s, the complaint states. The priest "became a frequent guest in the family home" and often celebrated holidays there before abusing the young child on multiple occasions, Silletti alleges.
Courcy, who was still alive at the time of the 2019 diocesan report, has been named in several sexual abuse lawsuits over the years. The earliest dated to 1994 and named the Burlington diocese as well as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, according to an online dossier published by the Florida law firm Horowitz Law, which represents the latest plaintiff.
"It appears that there was a concerted effort by Church officials to make sure that Courcy stayed ‘below the radar’ in his assignments, most of which were very short-lived," Silletti's attorney, Jessica Arbour, said in a press release.
The Diocese of Burlington continues to face new civil sexual-abuse cases since Vermont revoked the statute of limitations for such claims in 2019.
Jerry O'Neill, a Burlington attorney who has represented many of the plaintiffs, said he's filed a dozen cases since the statute of limitations was lifted. His clients have settled in four of those cases, but the diocese "hasn't shown any interest" in resolving cases since last September, O'Neill said.
Settlements have varied in size, but are "mostly in the mid-six figures," he said.
At the time the diocese released its report on abusive priests, Bishop Christopher Coyne surmised that civil claims could exceed the church's ability to pay. O'Neill said that point has not been reached. "They clearly have the assets," he said.
Under Vermont law, child sexual abuse cases must be filed under seal. Silletti's case was not. Arbour wrote in an email that her client wanted to proceed using his name.
"Chris wants all victims of sexual abuse to see that he is standing up and taking back his power, because it may give them the strength to do the same when the time is right for them," she wrote.
A diocesan spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying that the diocese had not yet been served with the civil complaint. She did not answer questions about the number of active and recently settled cases involving the diocese, or how much the diocese has paid out to sexual abuse survivors since releasing its report in 2019.