As one of 12 sons and daughters raised in a devout Catholic family, he had a gnawing feeling for almost 20 years that someday, he would learn that one of the priests he grew up around had been accused of abusing children. Was it a priest they encountered when their band of siblings participated in youth group, in choir, as babysitters during Mass?
On Monday night, the news that one man feared finally arrived.
“I never thought it would be Monsignor Coyne,” said the former parishioner, who did not want to be named. “It’s just painful to hear.”
He saw Joseph Coyne’s name on a list, released by the Archdiocese of Washington on Monday, of 31 clergy members who served in the archdiocese who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children, dating to 1948.
Some of the crimes were widely known. Eighteen of the men were eventually arrested, and at least five more turned up on lists of accused clergy members in publicly searchable databases. But the crimes allegedly committed by others were kept secret for decades. Only on Monday did their former parishioners learn that their priests had been accused of abuse.
The list — which includes 30 priests, one of them a bishop, and one deacon — does not include those deemed not credibly accused or accused of other sexual misconduct. Among the names on the list are R. Joseph Dooley, chaplain of the D.C. police and fire departments from the 1960s through the 1980s. He died in 2002. The list also names Edward Hartel, who died in 2013. He had retired and said Mass at home alone in Chevy Chase, a friend of his told The Washington Post in 2010. He was accused of, and denied, groping a boy in the 1970s. Among the more notorious on the list is Robert Petrella, who was accused by at least 25 men of molestation and was convicted twice of abuse. He later went off the grid, eking out a living crabbing and selling groceries on the Eastern Shore. His whereabouts aren’t known.
Spokespeople for the archdiocese did not respond to questions about whether they reported all 31 clergy members to authorities.
The revelations sent shock waves through Washington-area parishes, including St. Andrew the Apostle in Silver Spring, which Coyne led in the 1960s, and Little Flower in Bethesda, where he moved until his retirement.
Coyne was ordained in 1945 and served as a priest for nearly 50 years, rising to the rank of monsignor. On Monday, the archdiocese acknowledged for the first time that Coyne had been accused in 1992 of abusing a girl in 1962. The church investigated the allegation, which was made two years before Coyne retired, and quietly removed the longtime church leader’s priestly faculties in 1995. He died in 1999.
He was never arrested, and the archdiocese did not say whether he was ever reported to police.
Parishioners said Tuesday that they were astonished that they had never heard about the 26-year-old allegation.
“He married my parents. He came to our house for dinner. He baptized my brothers and sister. He married two of my siblings,” said Robert Ostmann Jr., who grew up in the Little Flower parish. “My mother is devastated.”
Ostmann distanced himself from the Catholic Church many years ago because of his disgust about the sexual abuse scandal exposed by the Boston Globe in 2002 and the church’s response to it. “I gotta tell you, if somebody like Coyne was implicated in this, it’s got to be so widespread. I’ve never heard a hint of anything about him — I just think it’s pervasive,” he said. “I just don’t have much faith in the institution.”
The Archdiocese of Washington is the latest diocese to publish a list of clergy members who have been accused of abusing children, opening up secrets that were kept in closely held bishops' files for decades. More than 50 dioceses have released such lists, Terry McKiernan of the group Bishop Accountability, which catalogues abuse allegations, said Monday.
The Washington list comes at a tumultuous time: Pope Francis accepted on Friday the retirement of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archdiocese’s leader, who said he would step down earlier than planned because of criticism he has received for how he dealt with abusive priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi said that this list had been in the works since 2017, and that she could not say why Wuerl, who remains the administrator of the archdiocese at Francis’s direction until the pope picks a successor for him, chose to publish it now, so soon after his retirement announcement.
The highest-ranking name on the list was among the most secret — Thomas W. Lyons, who was ordained in 1948 and rose to be an assistant, or auxiliary, bishop of Washington in 1974. He was also director of education for archdiocesan schools from 1964 to 1974, according to a 1988 Post obituary, which said he was responsible for the education of more than 50,000 children in private and church programs. “During his years as auxiliary bishop and as education director, Bishop Lyons often made surprise visits to Catholic schools, and he frequently carried a basketball in the trunk of his car to engage pupils in pickup games,” the obituary read.
The list put out by the archdiocese on Monday said that Lyons was first credibly accused of abuse in 2002, 14 years after his death in 1988. Additional details released Tuesday said the archdiocese received allegations of abuse from two minors for conduct that was claimed to have occurred in 1965 and 1976. Officials said no credible allegations of abuse were received during Lyons’s lifetime.
But on Tuesday, Tom Doyle, a former priest who now advocates for victims, said there was more than one earlier complaint.
Doyle, who used to work for the Vatican’s U.S. Embassy in Washington, said that he personally oversaw an investigation of a complaint in the early 1980s, and that the archdiocese knew of that and other complaints by boys against Lyons.
A Pennsylvania man who said Lyons raped him when he was 12, in the priest’s rectory at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Northwest D.C., said he tried for nearly seven years to get a meeting with Wuerl, and finally did around 2013. The man, now in his 60s with a successful career and three children, said he wrote almost monthly to the archdiocese before he got a meeting he described as offensive and painful.
The man said that if publishing the names helps other survivors know they aren’t alone, he will be very glad. When he found out about the earlier Lyons accusation from Doyle, it changed his life, he said.
“The worst thing about all this was I was robbed of my faith. I was a pious kid. … I thought about becoming a priest,” he said. The Post typically does not name victims of sexual abuse.
Archdiocese spokesman Ed McFadden declined to comment on Doyle’s allegation and on the survivor’s depiction of how long it took to get a meeting with Wuerl. The survivor said he was abused in 1967. It wasn’t possible Tuesday night to clarify the contradiction between his and the archdiocese’s statements.
At Little Flower’s noon Mass on Tuesday, Robert Paetz, 64, was struggling to reconcile the church he wants to believe in with the institution that has housed these abusers.
Paetz said that he heard rumors about a priest abusing a child in his parish when he was just 10 years old. And when he entered seminary himself, he was horrified to see priests and seminarians frequently violating their vows of chastity. He abandoned his goal of entering a religious order, and for decades, he abandoned the Catholic Church.
But he missed it, and he couldn’t find the same spiritual sustenance in an Episcopal church or elsewhere. When he moved to Maryland recently, he went to Little Flower to give the Catholic Church another try. He was encouraged by what he found there — but was shaken to learn upon the list’s publication that this church, too, had an abusive leader in its past. “I was so disenchanted with the church,” he said as he left the noon Mass. “But going somewhere is better than nothing at all.”
About 30 others prayed at the church together Tuesday, many of them retirees who have been involved in the church for decades. The Rev. Patrick Lewis did not mention the list of abusers in his homily.
“What’s most shocking is that the parish hasn’t addressed it today. They’ve been surprisingly mute on this entire topic, and it’s really upsetting,” said one longtime parishioner, who did not want to be named.
Monsignor Peter Vaghi, who heads the church today, would not discuss his plans for helping Little Flower parishioners process the news.
One Alabama man who grew up at St. Andrew, attending first through eighth grade there in the 1960s, was rethinking his childhood with apprehension Tuesday.
The man, who didn’t want to be named because he wants to protect his parents' reputations as leaders in the Maryland Catholic community, remembers Coyne as very interested in children. The priest was frequently on the playground at recess time and picked his favorite altar boys to serve at Mass.
He is now remembering that priest on the playground, watching him and his playmates. “It didn’t impact me. But I worry. I shudder to think classmates were exposed to something.”
This report has been updated.