The Secret Results Of Vermont’s Investigation Into Sex Abuse By Priests

The attorney general’s office felt it “would not be prudent” to release the results.

In the wake of a recent BuzzFeed News investigation that revealed widespread abuse of children at a Catholic orphanage in Vermont, the state’s attorney general convened a task force last month to investigate, pledging to stand up for the victims of abuse. But that office undertook a previous investigation into the abuse of Vermont children by Catholic clergy, in 2002, the results of which were never released.

Those confidential results — some of which have now been obtained by BuzzFeed News — provide dramatic evidence of how many secrets the diocese kept, and how willing state authorities were to keep them hidden.

Two months ago, a Pennsylvania grand jury concluded a two-year investigation by naming more than 300 priests who it said had abused more than 1,000 children. But back in 2002, the Vermont attorney general decided not to make the investigation's findings public, even though prosecutors said they found probable cause to bring criminal charges against at least one priest. When the investigation concluded, the head of the criminal division informed the diocese that it did not "set out to investigate or determine whether" a priest “poses a current risk of harm to children" because that would be "outside our jurisdiction."

The inquiry began a few months after the Boston diocese’s sex abuse scandal broke into public view. William Sorrell, then Vermont’s attorney general, instructed the Burlington diocese to hand over information about allegations of sexual abuse by priests between 1950 and 2000. The diocese submitted the names of 20 men and was later asked to turn over records on a 21st. In many cases, church authorities had known about the allegations for years.

The investigation found enough evidence to warrant charging at least one of the priests, Father Brian Mead, with multiple counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child, according to internal church documents and confidential correspondence obtained by BuzzFeed News. But over the years, as the diocese sat on the allegations and sometimes even paid off the accusers, the statute of limitations expired. As a result, neither Mead nor any other priest faced any criminal consequences for their alleged behavior.

Instead, Cindy Maguire, the head of the criminal division, wrote confidential letters to the bishop, outlining the allegations against each priest, what steps had been taken to investigate, and the outcomes of those investigations.

And that was that. "When you are dealing with a number of allegations, some that date back decades, it would not be prudent to selectively release documents, even with consent," Maguire said in 2002.

Some of the allegations against the priests came out over the years through press reports or civil lawsuits. Nine have remained secret. BuzzFeed News has obtained thousands of pages of internal church documents and confidential letters between the diocese and the attorney general covering seven of the cases. We are publishing the results of the one in which the attorney general's office stated that it had found probable cause that the priest had abused children.

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A Vermont man wrote to Bishop Kenneth Angell in 1996 begging for an investigation into Mead, the priest he said had sexually abused him when he was a child. From the time he was around 11 years old, he said, Mead had bought him gifts, taken him on trips out of state, slept in the same bed with him, and touched his bare buttocks underneath his pajamas. The man said the abuse lasted six and a half years and caused a “treasure chest full of pain” that he carried around every day.

Despite the supporting evidence, including a love letter from the priest and an accusation from a second person, the bishop did not undertake the inquiry that the person who wrote the letter requested, nor did he refer the matter to the police. The victim eventually got a settlement that prohibited him from speaking about the abuse and released the diocese from further liability. And Mead got a job at another parish, with no limitations placed on his ministry. Parishioners were never told what had happened.

In a letter to the diocese in 2004, Mead wrote that he had "made mistakes in overstepping some boundaries" but denied that he was a pedophile or a predator. He admitted that he had he and the boy would hug as he fell asleep, although Mead insisted that they slept in separate beds pushed up next to each other. He also conceded, "Perhaps in the hugging at my bedside I may have patted him on the backside in a way like football players do."

Mead did not respond to multiple messages from BuzzFeed News requesting comment. In 2004, the bishop said Mead could no longer serve as a priest.

The office of current attorney general T.J. Donovan, citing the current investigation into abuses at the orphanage, declined to comment on why the safety of children would have fallen outside the jurisdiction of the previous investigation, or whether the matter was assigned to any other state agency.

Speaking on behalf of the Burlington diocese, Rev. John McDermott told BuzzFeed News that 15 of the 21 men whose names were handed over were either dead or no longer priests by the time the 2002 investigation began. Those who were still serving were removed from the ministry when the investigation began, he said. One of those priests was allowed to go back to the ministry after the investigation found insufficient evidence to charge him for aggravated sexual assault and that allegations of lewd and lascivious conduct were barred by the statute of limitations.

"The others were barred from presenting themselves as priests, functioning as priests, or wearing a collar," McDermott said. "Many were laicized. Most are now dead."

Some of their victims are still alive.

Christine Kenneally contributed reporting to this story.

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