Catholic church hires counselor in Vermont to work with abuse victims

  • Vermont's Roman Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne speaks Thursday Aug. 22, 2019 in South Burlington, Vt., about a new report that found there were "credible and substantiated" allegations of the sexual abuse of minors against 40 priests in the state between 1950 and today. The report said all but one of the allegations occurred before 2000. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

Published: 1/5/2020 10:01:34 PM
Modified: 1/5/2020 10:01:05 PM

BURLINGTON — The Diocese of Burlington is contracting with a mental health counselor in an effort to offer a conduit for survivors of child abuse by priests and other personnel.

“In many conversations and communications with survivors, Bishop Christopher Coyne and other church leaders have been told that it is often difficult for survivors to approach the church directly, especially since it was an agent of the church that was responsible for their abuse,” the diocese said in a statement last week.

In response, the state’s largest religious denomination and its Vermont Catholic Charities have hired counselor Sheila Conroy as a “victim assistance coordinator.” Under the arrangement, survivors won’t have to contact the church to report problems but instead can reach out to Conroy, who will offer links to therapeutic treatment, support groups and related services.

“Many felt that there needed to be another way to get the help and support they need,” the diocese said in its statement.

Conroy —available at 802-855-3016 — received her master’s degree in counseling from Antioch University New England and has worked more than three decades with young people who’ve faced sexual abuse as well as military clients suffering from the effects of war, according to her resume.

The effort is the latest of several instigated by Coyne and the church since police and prosecutors announced an independent investigation of misconduct that dates back three quarters of a century.

The diocese released a lay committee’s report last year revealing it knew at least 40 Vermont priests — about 10% of all the state’s Catholic clergy since 1950 — faced accusations of sexually abusing children over the past seven decades but did nothing to alert the public or police.

“While most of these allegations took place at least a generation ago, the numbers are still staggering,” Coyne said at the time. “In addition to confronting the sins of the past, we must remain vigilant in ensuring these sins do not occur in the future.”

Coyne has freed accusers from past nondisclosure agreements, pledged to work with authorities and created a “Promise to Protect” website. But those actions have yet to curb all the headlines and headaches.

Burlington attorney Jerome O’Neill, who has secured some $30 million in settlements for more than 50 Vermont accusers over the past quarter-century, filed five new lawsuits last summer and another four last month. Even so, O’Neill has voiced willingness to work toward reconciliation.

“I think Bishop Coyne is trying to deal with the legacy problem of abuse,” O’Neill said recently. “I perceive him as someone who wants to be fair. But whether the amount of money the diocese has is adequate to resolve the cases remains to be seen.”

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