‘I’ve been dealing with this stuff now for 16 years. Can’t we just get this right?’
BALTIMORE — He used to be the public face confronting clergy sexual abuse, the titanic scandal that ricocheted around the world and cost his boss — Cardinal Bernard Law — his job and his reputation, and chased him into hiding at the Vatican.
He is the Most Reverend Christopher Coyne now, the son of a mailman in Woburn, who was a young teenager when he first heard the calling that would take him to the priesthood and, in 2002, to the side of Cardinal Law, a searing experience that informs who he is today as the bishop of Burlington, Vt.
In those days, I’d stand on the lawn outside the chancery in Brighton and wonder what Chris Coyne was thinking as he was asked by reporters to explain a sickening scandal that was inexplicable.
“We were on the lawn because we couldn’t get into the buildings,’’ Coyne told me in a quiet conference room here where the American bishops continue to struggle to address the scandal that still roils the church. “The human resources staff was concerned about the chancery staff. They were freaking out about the media. They didn’t want to be on camera.’’
Coyne didn’t either. And he’s wondering now why TV camera crews and a small battalion of reporters are following bishops around a harborside hotel here, repeating questions that have been asked now for 16 years.
“I am very surprised by where we are now,’’ said Coyne, 60, a tall man whose hair is speckled with gray. “But that was kind of naive of me. Over the past few months I’ve been saying, ‘For crying out loud, I’ve been dealing with this stuff now for 16 years. Can’t we just get this right?’ ”
As it turns out, the answer to that question is: No. Not now.
Rome has unexpectedly pulled the rug out from under the American bishops this week, postponing their day of reckoning until February.
“There was a movement two months ago to get all the bishops in the United States to resign,’’ he told me. “And I was like: Where do I sign?
“But I loved being a pastor. Being a pastor is the greatest job in the church. Right now, the bishop’s role is a real burden. It is. Especially since you’re guilty by association. I get people who write me and say, ‘You should be in jail like everybody else.’ I didn’t do it. I didn’t cover up. I didn’t do any of this stuff. But that’s the way it is.’’
Yes, that is the way it is today in the American Catholic Church.
For Coyne, the latest development in the long history of his church is bewildering and brings back to him the bad old days by the side of Cardinal Law in Brighton.
Coyne was a seminary professor and the director of the office for worship at the archdiocese before Law tapped him to be his spokesman in 2002.
His long history in the church, which has its roots in his native Woburn — where he grew up with three brothers and three sisters — allowed him to keep his faith when the Catholic faithful were heading for church exits in droves.
“Priests were always in and out of our house,’’ he told me. “Two turned out to be abusers. But we’re intact in the sense that they never made a move on us. Most predators didn’t go after intact families. They went after vulnerable kids. So we were fortunate. I look back at those guys and one of them we used to call ‘Father Touch-and-Feel’ even back then. We were warning our friends that that guy was a little creepy. I wasn’t surprised when his name was put out there. That’s the environment that I grew up in.’’
That makes him perhaps supremely qualified and grounded to deal with the crisis that is swirling here this week, where bishops on Tuesday struggled to grapple with the Vatican’s eleventh-hour about-face — a stunning development that had thrown the bishops conference for a loop.
Coyne is familiar with tumult. He has seen it before.
In the fall of 2005, Cardinal Sean O’Malley sent Coyne to replace a beloved pastor at Our Lady of Help of Christians in Newton, the Rev. Walter Cuenin, who had the courage to speak up against Cardinal Law during the Boston-born crisis.
Coyne became a bishop in early 2011, when Pope Benedict sent Coyne — by then pastor of St. Margaret Mary parish in Westwood — to Indianapolis as an auxiliary bishop.
In early 2015, he was installed as the leader of the statewide Vermont diocese of Burlington, where the crisis has had its impact.
“We’re down about 7 or 8 percent from where we were last year,’’ Coyne said. “There are so many variables but I think the blowback from the scandals is hurting us. I would say personally, from day one when it was happening, it made me more committed to the church because I wanted to be someone who would try to fix it if I could.
“The charter (to address the sex abuse crisis) works if the bishops just follow the charter to its completion and don’t make exceptions. It works. Where bishops have gotten into trouble is we’re not living clean lives ourselves or we’re making exceptions to zero tolerance.’’
As we spoke in a quiet corner of a conference room, Coyne held a well-worn missal, whose binding is held together with black electrical tape.
He leans on that prayer book now as hard as he ever has in his priesthood.
“This is not rocket science,’’ he said, “We can fix this. When I look at the situation in other dioceses . . . they’re pulling guys out of ministry. You’re pulling 16 guys out? How could you miss that? I mean you just have to go back and read everybody’s files and just follow zero tolerance.’’
As his fellow bishops strained to understand the new directive from Rome to stand down this week, Coyne said he remains convinced that his church can find the righteous path, even as church critics assail the bishops and their Vatican superiors as out of touch and clueless clerics.
“We’re going to get this right,’’ Coyne told me before he headed back into the general session of the bishops’ conference. “You know why? Because the laity is forcing us to get it right. The folks in the pews right now, they’re not going to be quiet anymore. They’re not going to settle for halfway measures. These things are not going to be handled just by clergy; they need to be handled by lay folks as well. There needs to be open transparency. And the only way we can be sure we get it right is to have things see the light of day.
“The only way to be sure of that is to do what we should have done in the first place. One of the saddest things we heard in 2002 was: ‘I finally realized that the safety of children should have been our first priority.’ And you hear that now and you say: Why didn’t we think that that should have been our first priority from the very beginning? How could we not think that?’’
Those are the precise questions that were repeatedly asked at the conference here on Tuesday.
Only this time, those accused wore the garments of bishops and cardinals, and not simply the Roman collars of diocesan priests.
The scandal has landed now on the doorsteps of the chanceries and behind the velvet ropes at the Vatican.
The world is watching again and the dismay of the faithful recalls the shortest sentence in the Bible: “Jesus wept.’’
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.