Burlington Diocese releasing abuse victims from nondisclosure agreements

Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne addresses past child abuse by church personnel at a press conference last month at Burlington’s St. Joseph Cathedral.

By KEVIN O’CONNOR
VTDIGGER.ORG

Vermont’s Catholic bishop is releasing abuse victims from nondisclosure agreements signed with the state’s largest religious denomination.

“Since 2002, the Diocese of Burlington has not required any NDA with survivors as part of a legal settlement,” the Most Rev. Christopher J. Coyne said Friday. “It is my hope that this past action as well as the present one will allow the truth of what happened to survivors and their families to be heard.”

The website BuzzFeed News sparked headlines this past month when it published a story titled “We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage” that not only recounted previously documented problems at the now-closed Burlington facility but also revealed several deadly new allegations not reported in a series of well-publicized lawsuits in the 1990s.

Coyne has agreed to cooperate with state and local authorities who recently announced a joint investigation into any and all church-related allegations.

“I pledge to you,” he reiterated Friday, “that I will do everything that I can to make sure this never happens again and to work for healing and reconciliation with those who were so badly abused.”

The bishop’s waiving of nondisclosure agreements pertains only to those signed with the Vermont diocese rather than separate church entities including local schools or religious communities such as the Weston Priory, which is also part of the probe.

“Out of respect for those who asked for an NDA so as to maintain their own personal privacy in these matters, the diocese will continue to maintain the agreement,” Coyne said.

But for everyone else, “they are now free to tell the story of what happened to them as they see fit.”

The BuzzFeed News article not only recounts previously documented “unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children” at the Burlington orphanage that was open from 1854 to 1974, but also has made national news for claims by a now-deceased resident who said she saw a nun throw a boy out a fourth-floor window to his death three-quarters of a century ago.

In response, the Vermont attorney general’s office is teaming with local and state police and the Chittenden County state’s attorney to request and review any and all claims found in the church’s possession or filed by the public who email orphanage@bpdvt.org, call (802) 658-2700.

In the 1990s, the diocese offered abuse victims $5,000 each 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 at the time. Another 28 took orphanage overseers to court, but most dropped their cases when a judge ruled they couldn’t receive church letters documenting their abuse or band together in a consolidated trial.

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