Bishop Coyne: “It’s gonna take us a long time”

Well, my substitute hosting duties on The Mark Johnson Show are over for this round. On my last day, Monday, came the interview I’d most been looking forward to*: The Most Rev. Christopher Coyne, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

*And that’s saying something; I had a lot of great guests, and I thank them all.

When Bishop Coyne was installed in January 2014, much was written about his career in the Church, including his years as chief spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese. But little scrutiny was given to that period, which was a crucial one in the history of the modern American Church.

The Archdiocesan spokesman in 2002, carefully choosing his words.

The Archdiocesan spokesman in 2002, carefully choosing his words.

He was the front man for Bernard Cardinal Law during the depths of the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Archdiocese to its core. It ultimately forced Cardinal Law, one of the most powerful Churchmen in America, to scurry off to a well-appointed hidey-hole in the Vatican, where he still resides.

There were many things I wanted to ask the Bishop. But, in light of the continuing scandals in the Church, the one thing I most wanted to ask about was whether the Church has changed itself, improved, reformed — and how he reflects back on his time defending the seemingly indefensible.

I give him full credit. He answered with honesty and humility. Sure, he was a bit defensive about the institution to which he has devoted his life; but he admitted that the Church had dug its own moral cesspit, that it had no one to blame but itself, and that restoring the compromised moral authority of the Church will take a lot of hard work and a very long time.

It was much more than I expected from a Church lifer. And yeah, I believe he was being sincere.

He began by acknowledging that the Church “fell short horrifically over the decades” in preventing abuse, removing offenders, and bringing them to account for their crimes. He insisted, though, that the Church has learned its lesson.

…the Church in the United States has done everything that we can to protect children, to remove anybody who has a real claim against them, a real allegation against them, to make sure that they’re not going to be in a place where they could harm children, to educate our adult volunteers as well as our clergy about proper boundaries, about do’s and don’ts, about looking for the warning signs of abuse, about what you do when you suspect abuse.

He then perhaps overstated his case by claiming that “in many ways, one of the safest places for children to be is in the Catholic schools and the Catholic Church because we have such strict rules in place.” That claim might be met with skepticism from many. But Bishop Coyne himself acknowledged that the Church will have to prove itself in real life, not just in a well-written rulebook. When I asked him if the Church had lost its moral authority, I expected a denial, or at best some temporizing. But he met the question head-on:

Oh, something as horrible as this? Yeah. It’s gonna take generations. Anytime we begin to speak to matters regarding morality or ethics or something like that, it’s an easy comeback. ‘You shouldn’t be talking, with all that your church did to children and the way you covered it up.’ You’re right. You’re right. and it’s gonna take us a long time until we can get to a place where we’re not having to be defensive about it.

The only ones we have to blame when this happens, is ourselves. Because we allowed this to happen, we didn’t clean up our house, and we are still paying the price for that. I think the only way we can respond is to do one good thing, one person at a time, and to continue to build it brick after brick after brick.

It’s gonna take years, because we were doin’ it for years.

As for his time in Boston, he began with a surprising revelation:

When I took the job, I was asked three different times to take the position in the midst of all that was going on, and I frankly didn’t want to have anything to do with it, because it was just such a horrific story and it was going to be very difficult to handle, and to handle well. But Cardinal Bernard law called me into his office and asked me as a personal favor to do it.

He must have realized that no matter how he handled the job, it would be a stain on his resume and reputation for the rest of his career, fair or not. And he was right.

Bishop Coyne says he agreed to take the job on the condition that “I would not spin or lie,” and that nothing he did or said would “hurt victims or hurt their families.” He says he “tried my best” to be open in his dealings with the media:

I think if you go and speak with any of the media that were part of that back then, they will tell you that I was somebody who tried, as best he could. I didn’t spin, I didn’t stonewall, in the sense of being the company man. I tried, as best I could, to help make better a terrible situation. The problem is, nobody was going to look good standing out in front of that situation or being the spokesman for Bernard Cardinal Law because the Cardinal was so disliked and vilified by so many people. I still get people who come to me and say ‘I have a lot of respect for you, but not for what you did back in Boston.’ And I understand that.

Which elides the question, ‘How did the Cardinal become so disliked and vilified?’ But I’ll move on.

He closed with some thoughts on how he is dealing with the scandal in the Burlington diocese, which has a sordid history of its own.

The most important thing is we’re maintaining policies and procedures for the protection of children. And any clergy member or any lay person who has a significant allegation against them of any improper behavior with children is immediately removed from contact with children. And reported, if necessary, to the police.

Hm. The “if necessary” seems to allow some uncomfortable wiggle room for Church authorities. But let’s hear him out:

And I will say that if any time, I do not do that, I will be the first to offer my resignation. Because you have to allow people to trust you, that you will stand by what you say.

The hardest thing is to try to reach out to the victims and their families, to try and be pastoral to them. To maybe get them back to the Church. …All those things that I can do as a pastor, one, to make sure it doesn’t happen again, two, if it does happen, that we follow procedures and guidelines to protect families and children, and three, to always say, if I can, that famous phrase, ‘The Buck Stops Here.’

If I don’t stand there and hold up the line, then I don’t deserve to be sitting in this chair.

I can quibble about some of his statements. I can recall, perhaps with imperfect memory, that he played a more, shall we say, ambiguous role during his service under Cardinal Law. But on the whole, I take him at his word. He is a faithful servant, and his much-touted social media messages reveal a man who is deeply invested in the traditions and rituals of the Church. But I do believe he really wants his Church to live up to its own ideals.

I also give him credit for answering all my questions without rancor. I only had about 25 minutes to speak with him; as it turned out, the scandal took up almost half of our time. But that was less because I was hectoring him, and more because he was so willing to engage me on the issue and speak some uncomfortable truths.

I found it a revealing and worthwhile interview. I hope he did, too.


2 thoughts on “Bishop Coyne: “It’s gonna take us a long time”

  1. Cynthia Browning

    Thanks for doing the interview and for posting your observations here. I know you did not have time but I would have been interested in his comments about Pope Francis and his various initiatives. Cynthia B.


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