Crime and Justice

How Vermont’s Catholic Church hid decades of child abuse

Catholic church

An interior stained glass window and exterior tangle of tree branches reflect off a closed Vermont Catholic church door. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

[B]URLINGTON — Before Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne invited questions at a recent press conference pledging cooperation with a current local and state investigation of past church-related misconduct, he turned to reporters with his own inquiry.

“Want me to mike up?” he asked. “Any problem with the sound?”

Longtime observers of the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington couldn’t believe what they were hearing. They remember the church’s muzzling response regarding the late priest Michael Madden, who was charged with sexual improprieties during a 20-year career at five parishes and the local St. Joseph’s Orphanage — the latter the subject of a recent BuzzFeed story that sparked the new probe.

In the 1980s, a county state’s attorney tried to subpoena then-Bishop John Marshall, who served from 1972 to 1992, to testify in court. The diocese, citing the Bible and the U.S. Constitution, argued its leader was immune from such calls.

“In order for the church, its priests and bishops … to enjoy the constitutional right to freely exercise their ecclesiastical or religious functions,” one of its lawyers argued, “it is essential that they have independence from state authority.”

A judge went on to rule the diocese had to provide internal information. But the church didn’t comply with that demand either, prompting the state to drop multiple sexual assault charges against Madden in return for a no-contest plea on a single count of lewd and lascivious conduct.

Bishop John Marshall

Bishop John Marshall served from 1972 to 1992. Provided photo

The priest, spared prison with a deferred sentence, opted out of a state Corrections Department sex offender treatment program for a church-run alternative. There he told a therapist he had molested dozens of teenage boys — only to go on to violate his probation six times and, only because of that, serve two years in jail.

Vermont’s Catholic Church is making headlines this fall by agreeing to work with law enforcement, releasing past child abuse victims from nondisclosure agreements and forming a lay committee to review clergy misconduct files and publicly release the names of abusers — news in part because the state’s largest religious denomination has a decades-long history of defying court orders and outside review.

‘Prevented the truth from getting out sooner’

The diocese has found itself back under a magnifying glass ever since the BuzzFeed story, titled “We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage,” spurred authorities to reopen an investigation into the now-closed Burlington facility, which operated from 1854 to 1974.

Back when former orphanage residents first spoke publicly in the 1990s about what BuzzFeed sums up as “unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children,” the diocese offered each $5,000 to waive their right to further legal action. As many as 160 pursued the deal and more than 100 accepted payment, according to news reports a quarter-century ago.

But that was only part of the Vermont Catholic Church’s wider suppression plan. Take the instance of two women who say they were raped as teenage girls by the now deceased priest Benjamin Wysolmerski, who was transferred to eight parishes during his 35-year career.

“He did it while he was the teacher at the school teaching us catechism,” one woman said in a 1994 court deposition. “He did it on back roads going to visit people who he was helping in the parish. He did it to me in the attic of my grandmother’s home.”

The woman said Wysolmerski eventually impregnated her and paid for an abortion. She went on to write then-Bishop Marshall, believing he already knew because the priest had showed her a letter other women had sent the diocese about the situation.

Instead, Marshall replied: “My study has uncovered nothing so far to corroborate your story and some rather strong evidence, which would seem to exonerate the one against whom you have made your allegation.”

St. Joseph’s Orphanage

Burlington’s former St. Joseph’s Orphanage was open from 1854 to 1974. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Wysolmerski, denying all claims against him, never was charged criminally. But the two women, believing the priest had victimized as many as 25 girls, filed civil lawsuits against him before settling with the diocese for undisclosed sums.

Burlington lawyer Jerry O’Neill, a former federal prosecutor, represented the two in court. He recalls a judge ordering the diocese to share its personnel records, only to watch the church balk until it was sanctioned $5,000 and threatened with a default judgment if it didn’t pay the fine and provide the files.

“They were absolutely unwilling to produce any of the information whatsoever,” O’Neill says today. “I am sure that the diocese’s settling in secrecy prevented the truth from getting out sooner and thereby ran the statute out on other claims.”

‘They’re revictimizing these people’

The diocese was continuing to cover up past abuse when the Boston Globe revealed decades of unreported sexual allegations against clergy in the Massachusetts capital in a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 series featured in the film “Spotlight.”

In response, the Vermont diocese said it would investigate statewide claims of misconduct, although it only would specify the number and nature of complaints as “a few” and said it didn’t plan to give prosecutors the names of accused priests.

“We do have a policy in place,” an aide to then-Bishop Kenneth Angell, who served from 1992 to 2005, explained to the press in 2002. “We think that it is working.”

Then-state Attorney General Bill Sorrell disagreed and demanded the church’s personnel files. That Easter, the bishop voiced “renewed determination that victims will find justice and healing.” But two months after the state’s records request, the diocese had yet to deliver anything and said it would only provide files since 1982, knowing the majority of allegations occurred before then.

Bishop Kenneth Angell

Bishop Kenneth Angell served from 1992 to 2005. Provided photo

In the spring of 2002, Angell placed six unnamed practicing priests on leave and provided paperwork on them and 13 unidentified former clergy to the state. By summer, the attorney general’s office was investigating charges against nearly 40 recent or retired clergymen. By fall, the first of what would be 40 civil lawsuits would be filed against the diocese. By winter, a county superior court judge had ordered the diocese to hand over all its clergy misconduct records since 1950.

A year later, however, the church had done so little the Globe published a story headlined “Vt. Diocese Called Slow to Respond to Abuse” that reported the church’s flouting of court orders and failure to reconcile with victims.

“They’re revictimizing these people,” O’Neill, representing all the accusers, was quoted. “We want to know what the diocese knew in relation to specific priests and whether they knew what the size of the problem was and what they did about it.”

Assistant Attorney General Cindy Maguire told the Globe the diocese hadn’t reported any of the misconduct claims to the state before the Boston scandal broke nor had it placed any of the accused priests on leave until her office announced its investigation. Ultimately the state didn’t charge anyone criminally, but only because credible claims found were too old to prosecute under statutes of limitations.

‘They could have settled a long time ago’

The diocese, for its part, began to settle the first of its lawsuits.

“I am very confident we would have won these cases in court on the basis these events are just so old and the plaintiffs waited too long to come forward, but obviously we’re dealing with a new era in terms of handling these claims,” one of its lawyers said at the end of 2003. “We’re going to do our best to put all of these cases behind us as quickly and fairly as possible.”

The church, however, was anything but conciliatory. In one case, its lawyers sought unsuccessfully to introduce one accuser’s entire sexual history, including that with his wife. In another, they argued state statute at the time of one reported aggravated sexual assault called a rape victim “a female person” and “since plaintiff is male, his alleged rape could not have violated” the law.

That caused many accusers to settle with the diocese.

Jerry O’Neill

Burlington lawyer Jerry O’Neill. Provided photo

“Besides what happened to me, I didn’t need to be revictimized by them dragging their feet and trying to wear me down,” one man said upon wrapping up a case in 2004 rather than continue to wait for the church to comply with a motion holding it in contempt of court. “With the money they spent on defense, they could have settled a long time ago.”

Making matters worse, O’Neill had to file court papers to ensure the settlement after the diocese didn’t pay his client as scheduled.

Little changed when Angell made way in 2005 for another bishop, Salvatore Matano. On the one-year anniversary of the new leader’s ordination, headlines reported the diocese had yet to fully comply with a tougher sex abuse policy at the same time a court was selecting a jury for the first of a string of Vermont misconduct trials.

By then, a judge had ordered the attorney general’s office to give O’Neill most of its findings — including transcripts of interviews with people claiming priest misconduct; correspondence between the state, the diocese and clergy; and church personnel files — because, in his opinion, “the release of these materials to the plaintiff is clearly in the ‘public interest.’”

‘It would be the best to minimize the cost’

The resulting 500 pages of photocopied paperwork revealed not only abuse but also the fact the diocese knew certain priests were problematic when it transferred them from one local parish to another. Not wanting that information publicized in court, the church settled the first trial case just before its April 2006 opening gavel. The sum: A record $965,000.

“This was much more than we wanted to pay,” a church lawyer said at the time. “But we decided that it would be the best to minimize the cost.”

In response, O’Neill released the information anyway. The most incriminating came in a 1978 letter in which Bishop Marshall acknowledged the church knew now defrocked priest Edward Paquette had molested boys in two states when it assigned him to parishes in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.

Bishop Salvatore Matano

Bishop Salvatore Matano served from 2005 to 2014. Provided photo

“Despite the demands of two sets of irate parents that ‘something be done about this,’ Father Paquette’s pastor and I are determined to take the risk of leaving him in his present assignment,” Marshall wrote to a treatment center working with the priest. “Our thinking is that, knowing the awareness of others, concerning his problem, Father Paquette will have reason for ‘self-control.’”

Even with a torrent of negative news reports, the diocese wasn’t done fighting. A month after agreeing to the nearly $1 million settlement, its lawyer called for the removal of the judge who oversaw the case from future ones. The bishop, for his part, aimed to shield the church from having to pay out too much money by placing all its local parish property in charitable trusts.

“In such litigious times,” Matano wrote in a May 2006 letter to the state’s Catholics, “it would be a gross act of mismanagement if I did not do everything possible to protect our parishes and the interests of the faithful from unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault.”

‘Bishops will pay money to avoid accountability’

In response, O’Neill charged the diocese with waging a “campaign of intimidation” that was part of a “power play” aimed “to interfere with judicial independence.”

“This harsh language,” the lawyer said in court papers at the time, “would seem to be intended to send a message to those who the diocese’s priests sexually molested as children that their efforts through the civil justice system were an ‘unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault’ on the diocese.”

O’Neill also believed the move to shield local parish assets broke Vermont’s fraudulent conveyance law.

“You can’t take property you have, transfer it and then say it’s beyond the reach of your creditors,” he told the press at the time. “It is a slap in the face to the victims. It’s saying to them, ‘Although we let our priests abuse you, we will not be fair and compensate you.’”

For its part, the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the diocese should be helping rather than blaming victims.

“You and your brother bishops often settle cases just before top church officials are forced to disclose under oath, in open court, how much they knew and how little they did about dangerous predatory priests,” then-SNAP director David Clohessy wrote Matano. “When absolutely forced to do so by courageous victims, bishops will pay money to avoid accountability.”

‘Handled as secretly and silently as possible’

The church didn’t change. Shortly after, O’Neill charged the diocese with concealing nearly three decades of personnel records on George Paulin, an accused former priest in Ludlow, Newport and North Troy. At first, the church denied the files existed. A month later, after court pressure and press coverage, it announced it had found them after all.

“They were misfiled,” a church lawyer said.

In the first trial in 2007, a prosecutor testified that Bishop Marshall tried to intimidate lawyers investigating charges against Alfred Willis, a onetime priest accused of abuse in Burlington, Montpelier, Milton and places out of state.

Recounting a 1979 meeting, a colleague of then-Chittenden County State’s Attorney Mark Keller recalled Marshall saying that abuse was “gravely wrong,” the priest was “very remorseful” and the parents involved didn’t want any public action so to protect their children and the church.

When Marshall learned the state’s attorney still wanted to pursue felony charges of lewd or lascivious conduct, Keller’s colleague said the bishop’s “attitude changed” from “extremely gracious” to saying “this could be viewed by the church as Mark (a Catholic who graduated from St. Michael’s College and the University of Notre Dame) committing the sin of scandal.”

National priest abuse researcher A.W. Richard Sipe. Website photo

(Keller went on to testify he met with church officials but couldn’t remember whether Marshall was there, adding “I don’t recall ever hearing the term ‘sin of scandal.’”)

The same case also featured national researcher A.W. Richard Sipe, who reviewed the personnel records of 102 Vermont priests accused of abuse since 1950 and found the diocese had reassigned almost 60 percent to another church, usually without reporting their sexual histories.

“It was handled as secretly and silently as possible,” Sipe said. “Victims were paid to go away. And this diocese, like many others, minimized what happened. What lay people would term a ‘rape’ would be ‘improperly touched.’”

“Real intervention did not come easily and did not come early,” he continued. “Priests were sent for treatment only if there was danger of scandal or the problem couldn’t be contained.”

Shortly after Sipe’s testimony, a bishop’s aide acknowledged the church had shielded accused clergy for years by keeping allegations secret.

“Yes, we wanted to protect the priest’s privacy,” the aide said on the witness stand.

‘They knew that this man had repeatedly acted out’

But the biggest shock came in June 2007 when a judge declared a mistrial after a church lawyer disregarded an agreement about what questions couldn’t be asked in front of the jury.

“I have never seen anyone so explicitly violate the order of the court,” O’Neill told the press at the time.

The diocese, for its part, said it disagreed with the decision, although one of its lawyers added, “Perhaps now on retrial we will have a different judge with a different perspective.”

Catholic church sign

A sign outside a Vermont Catholic church reads in part, “Blessed Are the Children.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

That strategy backfired a year later when a 2008 jury ruled the diocese should pay a record $8.7 million for negligence in hiring and supervising Paquette, the priest with the most incriminating information in his file. The verdict was almost nine times the previous record $965,000 the diocese paid two years earlier.

A former Vatican canon lawyer went on to deem the Vermont church “irresponsible” and “negligent” in dealing with the priest.

“They knew that this man had repeatedly acted out in every assignment in spite of intervention, but I didn’t see any indication that either the pastors or communities were informed,” said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who left his position in 1986 to assist victims and co-author the book “Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse.”

But that didn’t stop the diocese from appealing the $8.7 million figure and subsequent verdicts of $3.6 million in December 2008 and $2.2 million in October 2009 to the Vermont Supreme Court. Its lawyers questioned everything from evidentiary rulings to whether the diocese should be subject to punitive damages because of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

Everything changed in 2010. A civil court judge, facing 25 more abuse lawsuits, proposed merging a majority of them into an unprecedented joint trial. The diocese, still awaiting a Supreme Court decision and facing a winner-take-all future, announced it wanted to settle many if not all of the cases by selling its historic 32-acre Burlington headquarters overlooking Lake Champlain and its 26-acre Camp Holy Cross property along Malletts Bay in Colchester.

That May, the diocese agreed to drop its Supreme Court appeals and pay more than $20 million to settle almost 30 outstanding lawsuits. Three years later in 2013, the church settled a dozen more for $6.75 million to end a near-bankrupting 11-year, 40-case saga that would cost it a total of more than $30 million.

‘I just trust in God that we’ll find the truth’

After, the press invited Matano to offer his opinion about the Vermont diocese’s future. His office declined — in part, it said, because some outlets had published stories about church scandals on a Sunday while others had printed comments by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“Based on our past experience with your articles, and other reporters and news agencies in Vermont, I have no well-founded confidence that your article will be unbiased,” a bishop’s aide emailed this writer in 2010. “In the future, please God, this confidence can be restored.”

Bishop Christopher Coyne

Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne speaks to reporters at Burlington’s St. Joseph Cathedral. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Current Bishop Coyne shattered the diocese’s silence upon his arrival in 2015. He developed a different take on public relations as the Archdiocese of Boston’s spokesman shortly after its 2002 abuse reports and since has served as communications chairman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis’ media aide during the pontiff’s 2015 visit to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“When I was in Boston, one of the largest mistakes we made was that we let the lawyers drive the bus,” Coyne said of the church’s earlier public relations strategy. “That was not the pastoral thing to do.”

Coyne, who has a social media presence that includes at least 15,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter (@bishopcoyne) and his own website,, has released more public statements about church misconduct this year than his predecessors had collectively since the start of the scandal.

“I’m getting emails from people saying, ‘You should close the orphanage,’” he said at a recent press conference. “I’m saying, ‘It’s been closed since 1974.’”

That’s why, for the first time, a Vermont Catholic bishop is opening up.

“While I rely obviously upon legal counsel, the best way to respond to this is as a pastor,” Coyne said. “Pastors try to talk to people. You don’t want to get defensive. You don’t want to make excuses. I don’t know where this is going to go. I just trust in God that we’ll find the truth as much as possible.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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