Orphanage Controversy Puts Bishop in a Familiar Setting — the Spotlight | Religion | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Orphanage Controversy Puts Bishop in a Familiar Setting — the Spotlight

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Bishop Christopher Coyne - MATTHEW ROY
  • Matthew Roy
  • Bishop Christopher Coyne

As churchgoers filed out of St. Joseph Cathedral after Sunday mass on September 9, Bishop Christopher Coyne approached a gaggle of reporters. He was about to make his first remarks to the news media following the publication of a BuzzFeed investigation that recounted, in devastating detail, physical and sexual abuse at the former St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington. Still in the flowing green vestments he wore on the altar, the bishop asked camera crews where they wanted him to stand and fretted that the cathedral's high ceiling would affect audio quality.

"Want me to wear a mic?" Coyne asked. "Any problem with the sound? Are you hearing me? All set?"

He then calmly dispatched questions about the orphanage. He said the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington would cooperate with state and local authorities, who were drawing up plans for an investigation. He pledged he would always be available to talk with reporters.

After four relatively quiet years leading Vermont's 27,000 Catholics, Coyne has been thrust into the spotlight. If anyone is uniquely suited for the moment, it's him.

Coyne made a name for himself as spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston and Cardinal Bernard Law when the Boston Globe exposed the priest sex abuse scandal in 2002. As he has risen in the Catholic hierarchy, Coyne has developed a reputation as a communications whiz. He has hosted podcasts, and he tweets about his love of the New England Patriots, the Boston Celtics and restaurateur Guy Fieri. When Pope Francis visited the U.S. in 2015, Coyne served as the pontiff's media coordinator. He has chaired the communications committee for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for four years.

In his current role, Coyne has made no excuses about the sins committed by the church.

"We abused children, and we broke our promises to families in terms of caring for those entrusted to us," Coyne, 60, said in an interview in his South Burlington office. "Their lives were broken. So we have nobody to blame but ourselves ... The only thing I can do is everything I can to make sure it doesn't happen again and try to give [comfort] to the victims."

While his experience has made him more comfortable and adept at dealing with scandals, Coyne acknowledged this was not how he envisioned his career.

He was the middle child of seven, raised in the working-class suburb of Woburn, Mass. His dad was a mailman; his mom stayed at home. Coyne attended public school, but his family was active at St. Barbara Parish, where Coyne served as an altar boy.

"There were always priests in and out of the house, coming over for dinner," Coyne said. "I was very drawn to the happiness I saw in those guys."

As a child, Coyne said, he had a rambunctious side and was often booted out of Boy Scouts meetings for talking out of turn, though he was always invited back.

He earned a bachelor's degree from University of Massachusetts Lowell, attended a seminary in Brighton, Mass., and went to work for the Boston diocese. At one point, he tended bar at a since-closed Waltham restaurant, the Cottage Crest.

In 2002, shortly after the Globe broke the story of decades of abuse and church cover-ups, Law, who had ordained Coyne in 1986, asked him to serve as a lead spokesperson for the diocese. Coyne, who was teaching at a seminary at the time, had hosted a television show on a Catholic public access network and occasionally fielded calls from reporters.

Coyne twice said no; he wanted no part of the scandal. The third time Law asked, Coyne relented. He said he had three conditions: He would never lie, he would never disparage the victims, and he would have access to church records to help reporters get answers. Law, who eventually resigned in disgrace after revelations that he had protected abusive priests, was at least true to his word on that pledge, Coyne said.

The bishop admitted he has never seen Spotlight, the Oscar-winning 2015 film documenting the Globe's investigation. "If you were in the wreck, would you really want to see a movie about the wreck?" he asked.

Coyne served as the archdiocese's spokesperson for three years, routinely answering questions about the crimes of priests. He assumed that role would stunt his career.

"Anybody who had been touched by the scandal in any way is tainted, because it was so sinful, so bad," Coyne said.

Instead, he rose swiftly. After his stint as spokesperson, he served as a parish priest at two suburban Boston parishes until he was appointed auxiliary bishop in Indianapolis in 2011. During his introductory press conference, he joked about his martini-mixing skills and his devotion to Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

But the revelry was dulled by a statement issued by a Boston-area group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: "As long as the Vatican keeps rewarding tainted clerics with close ties to horrific scandals, the church will keep being tainted with more horrific scandals."

Coyne said he understood. "That's absolutely to be expected," he said. "They felt I was defending the indefensible, which I tried not to do."

In December 2014, Pope Francis appointed Coyne bishop of the Burlington diocese. Coyne had no prior connection to Vermont, though he had skied at Killington.

At the outset, he made an effort to visit parishes throughout the state. To his priests, Coyne has emphasized, unsurprisingly, communication skills. He has held workshops and distributed materials to help priests improve their preaching.

"If you get people in the pews, you want to feed them well," he said.

Rev. Dallas St. Peter, pastor at St. Mark Catholic Church in Burlington, said Coyne gave him books on preaching as Christmas gifts.

"He's focused on evangelizing, to help people see the heart of what we have and the life we're called to," St. Peter said. "That's the focus, that there's something great here for all of us. He's very good at communication, especially with the general populace."

Coyne has developed a reputation for being blunt and intelligent with both reporters and church leaders, according to Michael Sean Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper.

"He is very bright — a lot of these [bishops] are not, frankly," Winters said. "He is the kind of guy who understands, if you're not going to be authentic, be quiet. A lot of them don't, and they sound like gibberish. On a scale of one to 10 — 10 being the most forthcoming — he's always an eight or a nine."

Catholic leaders are split between Pope Francis loyalists and a conservative faction dismayed by the pope's reforms, including offering the communion sacrament to remarried Catholics and a more tolerant stance toward people who are gay. Coyne consistently sides with Francis, Winters said.

Coyne has displayed savvy by understanding the unusual trajectory of the St. Joseph's controversy. The BuzzFeed story, though jarring, contained little new information and relied on decades-old court files that were in the news when the victims sued the church in the 1990s. Nonetheless, city officials and the Vermont media have given the allegations plenty of attention. Why?

They were published amid a slew of international revelations of Catholic Church misdeeds, Coyne noted. Stories of a mass grave found at a Catholic orphanage horrified Ireland last year. Revelations surfaced only recently about church leaders systematically protecting pedophile priests in Pennsylvania.

Moreover, because of the Boston scandals, the public is more willing to believe victims of clergy abuse than when the St. Joseph's orphans first came forward, Coyne acknowledged.

Coyne knows, though, that it can be dangerous for him to point out that much of this controversy is old news. "I don't want in any way to give the impression that I am dismissing the terrible things that happened to some of the children in the orphanage and their suffering," Coyne said. "It's a fine line you walk. If you dismiss the stories as nothing new, it can be misconstrued as not having sympathy for the victims."

He has offered to turn over church records and said he has begun meeting with some victims, though he declined to provide details. He said he has struggled to figure out what else to do.

"I sometimes get a little panicky because I say, 'What can I do? What am I being asked to do?'" Coyne said. "I can't go back to the '50s and '60s and earlier and fix what happened at the orphanage." The North Avenue facility operated for decades before closing in 1974.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said that Coyne's stance is encouraging.

"The church has pledged cooperation and we hope that's what we get," del Pozo said. "But this is going to be a formal process. The public depends on us to verify claims."

It's unclear whether anything would win over orphanage survivors, some of whom resent the treatment they got when they went public with their claims. The church fought them in courtrooms. A judge prevented them from suing together, forcing each victim to proceed alone. Many settled for small amounts.

The first to sue was Joey Barquin, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla. In an interview, Barquin remained deeply suspicious of the diocese.

"I think his intentions are probably good and sincere," Barquin said of Coyne. "But I suspect that he was put in that position by people in the hierarchy that know, without any doubt whatsoever, that he hasn't been privy to this information. It's buried from him, as well."

Authorities, meanwhile, have declined to provide a timeline for the investigation. They've set up a website for victims to submit complaints and have scheduled some interviews, del Pozo said.

Whenever it concludes, Coyne said, he will still be in Vermont.

He acknowledged he has been discussed as a candidate to lead a larger diocese, which Winters, the reporter, confirmed. But Coyne insisted he's happy in Burlington, having taken a shine to the city's bike path and its proximity to Boston. He is planning a trip to a Patriots game.

"I have no idea how all this will play out," Coyne said, "but I trust in God and trust that we're doing the right thing."

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