By COLIN FLANDERS

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington last week released a report naming 39 priests who dating back to 1950 have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children in Vermont. 

Four of the accused served at St. Ann Catholic Church for at least a portion of their careers (See the accompanying list for details). The behavior of one of those priests, Alfred Willis, is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

A seven-person lay committee wrote the report after months of combing through thousands of clergy personnel files at the request of Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, who at a press conference called the extent of the Church’s sex abuse crisis in Vermont “staggering.” 

“The victims of these priests are still bearing the wounds of what happened to them,” Coyne said last Thursday, reading from a prepared statement. “Until now, the scope of all of this has been our ‘family secret.’”

“If only a list of priests with credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor had been released 15 years ago, perhaps we would be farther along our collective path of healing,” he later added. “But for many reasons, this was not able to happen.” 

The committee, led by former state prosecutor Robert Simpson and Spectrum Youth & Family Services executive director Mark Redmond, found that the statewide diocese allowed abuse allegations to go unreported for decades. In some instances, priests were transferred to other parishes, or sent to treatment before being returned to duty, the committee wrote. 

The 39 priests named in the report represent 9.3 percent of the 419 or so clergy assigned to the diocese over the last seven decades (An additional priest named in the report was found to have a credible accusation in Iowa, but the committee said it was unaware of any allegations in Vermont).

“What is particularly painful is knowing how lives were changed irreparably by what happened to the victims when they were young,” the committee wrote. “For some there might have been the opportunity for healing, but for many there may have been a series of life choices intended to cover scars that only resulted in more pain and disappointment. Lives have been lost because of the abuse that occurred.”

The report detailed no recent cases of misconduct, with all but one of the allegations occurring before 2002. None of the 40 priests are still active clergymen, the report says. 

Thirteen are still alive. Among them is Alfred Willis, a former assistant pastor at St. Ann’s accused multiple times of assaulting boys.

In a lawsuit filed last year, a man who says he was among Willis’s victims is suing the diocese for moving Willis to St. Ann’s in 1979 after he had been accused of sexually abusing children at St. Augustine’s parish in Montpelier. Willis served as an assistant pastor at St. Augustines from 1976 to 1979.

According to court documents, Willis was suspended by the church after multiple allegations of sexual abuse were made against him at St. Ann’s, where he was also an assistant pastor.

Those same documents claim that while the church ultimately defrocked Willis in 1985 and refused to transfer him to other parishes, then Bishop John Marshall tried to dissuade the state’s attorney from prosecuting Willis.

In 2004, the church paid $150,000 to another of Willis’s victims, admitting at the time that it had known of Willis’s behavior since seminary, and had transferred him without telling parishioners of his past

Bishop Coyne said last week he had attempted to speak with living priests named in the report before its release, contacting eight in total. He recalled receiving “all different kinds of emotions.” 

The committee said while publication of the list may harm the legacy of the accused, it may also offer “long-missed consolation” to the victims and their families.  

“It is just one small step that might offer healing,” the committee wrote. 

Coyne commissioned the citizen panel in October 2018, a month after state leaders announced they would be creating a task force after reading a Buzzfeed News article that documented allegations of abuse at Burlington’s St. Joseph’s Orphanage. In a statement Thursday, Vt. Attorney General TJ Donovan said he had reviewed the report and his office’s criminal investigation is ongoing. 

The bishop said he met with the independent citizen panel twice since – once at the beginning of the process and once near the end – and stressed the final document was published just as the committee wrote it. 

Some names had already been publicized over the years through civil lawsuits, their personnel files becoming public when introduced as evidence; VtDigger reports that more than 50 Vermont men and at least 2 women have sued the diocese over the last two decades, winning more than $31 million in damages.

Others in the report were named for the first time. 

The committee did not detail specific allegations. Nor did it say how many accusations it found against the priests, only noting that each faces at least one credible accusation. Committee member Mike Donoghue, longtime Vermont journalist and head of the Vermont Press Association, said the group left out such numbers because it knew there was no way to be sure that it would capture the full extent of the allegations. 

The committee said it received 52 personnel files of priests identified by the dioceses as having some type of complaint. From there, it tried to determine the credibility of the accusations, judging the plausibility and probability of the claims, whether they could be corroborated with another source or evidence and whether the accused admitted the abuse. 

The files ranged in length, with some more than 1,000 pages long, covering everything from academic records and vacation requests to correspondence between the priest and the Bishop at the time and documents associated with the allegations. Records for priests belonging to other religious orders or communities, meanwhile, like the Edmundites or Maryknoll, were less comprehensive.

The committee recommended the diocese adopt a more formal system moving forward that could make it easier to keep track of complaints. 

“Additional files are and will need to be reviewed as more allegations surface,” the committee wrote. “Formalizing the reporting process and including independent citizen panels are steps toward ensuring these crimes are no longer hidden. We all need to protect our children.” 

Some committee members have also agreed to continue stay abroad if more allegations come because of the report going public, Coyne said. 

Coyne said there has been only one allegation of misconduct since the diocese adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. The charter implemented mandatory reporting and removal policies for any credible allegations as well as proactive measures like abuse recognition and prevention training and background checks. 

Asked if he believed the Church could ever regain the trust of parishioners who left because of the sex abuse scandal, Coyne said many will probably never return. 

“The wound of this is generational,” he said. “I think it’s going to haunt us for decades still to come. All we can continue to do as a Church is to do the right thing for the right reasons, one person at a time.”

Six people are currently suing the diocese over abuse claims, Coyne said, and he acknowledged the report may lead to more litigation, especially since Vermont no longer has a statute of limitations for civil cases involving sex abuse of children thanks to a bill Gov. Phil Scott signed into law last year. 

The bishop said he hopes any victims seeking compensation will contact his office rather than file a lawsuit, which “gets expensive on both sides.” But he said he also hopes there’s “not a lot of victims out there that haven’t already come forward.” 

“We don’t have any money,” he said. “There’s no more insurance and we have very limited unrestricted funds. I hope we can settle, but I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

“I don’t know,” he said again moments later. “I just trust in God. I just have to trust.”

The full report can be found at vermontcatholic.org/promise. 

Independent editor Michelle Monroe contributed to this report.