Reversing a decades-long position, the Diocese of Vermont announced Wednesday that it plans to name some of the 21 priests accused of sexually assaulting children between 1950 and 2003.
The decision came a day after BuzzFeed News revealed for the first time that a major state investigation into those priests found evidence of criminal acts but took no action.
To restore the community’s trust after “horrific” crimes, Bishop Christopher Coyne said in a statement, “I have decided to form an independent committee of lay men and women to examine clergy personnel files pertinent to any allegation of abuse of minors and to create a list of priests who have been accused of sexually abusing a minor. I will then make this list public. As to the details included with the list, they will be determined in consultation with the committee.”
The diocese did not answer questions from BuzzFeed News about how committee members will be chosen or how they will decide which names to release. In an interview with the Catholic News Daily, Bishop Coyne said other dioceses that have made similar disclosures stuck to only those priests who had admitted abuse, had reached a settlement with a victim, or had a chance to respond to the allegations before their death.
In 2002, after the Boston Globe revealed the cover-up of sexual abuse by local priests, Vermont’s attorney general instructed the Burlington diocese to turn over any files it had about similar matters. In many cases, the church had sat on the accusations for years while the accused were allowed to continue serving as priests. By the time of the investigation, the statute of limitations had expired, and no one was charged with any crimes. The head of the criminal division privately informed the church authorities that the investigation had not "set out to investigate or determine whether" a priest “poses a current risk of harm to children" because that would have been "outside our jurisdiction."
In the case of one priest, Father Brian Mead, investigators found evidence that would have merited charges on multiple counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child. Mead, who denied the allegations at the time, did not respond to multiple inquiries by BuzzFeed News.
Coyne told the Catholic News Agency he did not know why the names were not released after the 2002 investigation. "I wish I could give you an answer," he said. "I don't know.”
But at the time, Bishop Kenneth Angell explained the diocese’s position. “Criminal investigations are confidential under the law,” he wrote in the diocese's newspaper. “For me to have announced to parishes that your pastor is accused of such and such, I think, his good name would have been ruined, regardless of what the state’s investigation determines."
Some of the 21 names have made their way into the public regardless, through press reports or civil lawsuits. Nine have so far remained secret.
Coyne’s announcement comes as the current Vermont attorney general, T.J. Donovan, has convened a task force to investigate child abuse at St. Joseph’s orphanage, as exposed in a years-long BuzzFeed News investigation. In August, a grand jury run by the Pennsylvania attorney general published a 1,400-page report naming more than 300 priests accused of abusing more than 1,000 children.
Christine Kenneally contributed reporting to this story.