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Colorado’s Catholic churches will open records to independent investigator in effort to account for alleged sex abuse

Prompted by a Pennsylvania grand jury’s bombshell report last year, the Colorado effort is aimed at giving alleged victims recognition, solace. Former Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer will lead the review.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, photographed on Feb. 19, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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The three Catholic dioceses of Colorado will open their records to an independent investigator in an effort to provide a full accounting of sexual abuse of children by priests through the decades, part of a national reckoning for the church after an explosive grand jury report last year in Pennsylvania.

The investigator will compile and make public a list of priests with substantiated allegations of abuse, including where the clergy were assigned and the years when the offenses were alleged to have occurred, under the initiative announced Tuesday by the church and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

The initiative also will include a full review of the church’s policies and procedures in responding to and preventing abuse. And it will set up a reparations fund for victims, paid for by the church.

“It’s well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands our attention,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat. “I am so pleased with the church today in recognizing the need for transparency and reparation for survivors.”

Colorado’s former U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, will lead the independent investigation. Half of his fees will be paid by private, anonymous donors known to state officials; the other half will come from the dioceses in Denver, Pueblo and Colorado Springs. No state funds will be used.

From left: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman speak to reporters at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The review will go from 1950 onward and is primarily intended to make sure that there are no known abusers still in the church.

“It’s important to note this is not a criminal investigation,” Weiser said at a news conference Tuesday. “This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic church.”

The independent investigation in Colorado comes as states across the nation — from New Jersey to Nebraska — are examining cases of sexual abuse by priests in their Catholic dioceses in the wake of the Pennsylvania report. Authorities, including in Colorado, have used the model as a launching-off point for reviews, using a mix of grand juries and agreements with the church to allow independent investigations.

Discussions about the voluntary agreement began in August under former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. The findings, two years in the making, alleged sexual abuse by hundreds of priests and a cover-up dating back decades.

The Pennsylvania investigation prompted a number of victims to reach out to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office about their own experiences. In addition, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests asked for an investigation in Colorado and other states.

In turn, state authorities began examining how to do their own accounting of what may have happened at churches in Colorado.

As the attorney general’s office was exploring how to investigate, church officials reached out. That prompted conversations about how the two sides could move forward outside of the legal system, Coffman told The Colorado Sun.

“We worked with our colleagues in attorneys general offices throughout the country … to compare approaches,” Coffman said at the news conference. She thanked Weiser for moving forward with the plan.

“It is a recognition of survivors of sexual abuse by priests, who are not here with us but live throughout our state and watch our actions today with painful personal interest,” Coffman said. “To them, I want to say we recognize and we validate your experience. Whether you have spoken about what happened to you or you have kept it in your heart over the years, today, we acknowledge your burden and your pain.”

The plan is a hybrid of what has been done in other states. It doesn’t fully involve law enforcement — no subpoenas or a grand jury investigation — and it doesn’t allow the church to investigate itself. Troyer’s report, which will be public, is expected this fall.

The idea isn’t to yield prosecutions, per se, but if criminal abuse is uncovered, authorities could move forward to prosecution.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila said the church is confident “there are no priests in active ministry currently under investigation.”

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person, like a priest, is profound,” Aquila said. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will begin the healing process.

“We also acknowledge that the bright light of transparency needs to shine on the church’s history related to child abuse. With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families.”

Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila signing official documents during a church ceremony on Aug. 10, 2018. Colorado’s three Catholic dioceses on Tuesday announced they will open records to a special investigator for a full accounting of sexual abuse of children by priests. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Details of the agreement

The attorney general’s office says it is not aware of any previous, unreported criminal conduct.

Still, if criminal conduct is uncovered, the agreement is that the allegations will be forwarded to law enforcement and be included in the public report. There is no statute of limitations in Colorado for sexual abuse of a child.

Weiser’s office has agreed to make resources available to district attorneys in Colorado as needed.

“It is my sincere hope that the independent review we announce today validates survivors of sexual abuse by priests and empowers them in their ongoing recovery,” Coffman said in a written statement. “All survivors deserve to be believed and supported on their road to healing. I am encouraged that the Catholic Dioceses of Colorado have voluntarily agreed to this review by an outside party that, hopefully, allows victims an opportunity to have some healing and helps the church and its faithful move forward from a place of truth and vigilance.”

Former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman speaks to reporters at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

At the news conference, Weiser was asked about how the independent investigation will ensure the church’s complete participation.

“The mechanism is going to be any lack of cooperation will be cited and called out in the report, thereby providing what I believe is a very powerful check and force of accountability,” he said.

As for the anonymous donors paying for half of the independent investigation, Coffman said they have agreed to write a check “and step away from the process.” That means they will have no influence over how the investigation is conducted.

“What they want is the outcome,” she said.

In addition to the independent investigation, the three Colorado dioceses have agreed to fund a reparations program that will exist independent of the church. Two outside experts — Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, who have handled victim compensation for other church abuse cases around the country and high-profile tragedies including the Aurora theater shooting — will administer the program.

“Those victims of sexual abuse will have the opportunity accept or not accept the award,” Weiser said. “The diocese will be bound by any award that is given.”

Former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, a Republican, will lead a committee overseeing the compensation program. Additionally, potential victims will have access to support services.

The framework for the agreement follows what’s been happening for months in other states across the nation.

Similar actions were recently announced in California and New Jersey, where five Catholic dioceses released the names last week of church leaders who had been “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting children. The list had 188 names, including more than 100 church leaders who are dead, according to NJ.com.

The Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, has helped Colorado citizens and victims in other states push attorneys general to take action.

“After reading reports of the Pennsylvania grand jury, I can no longer trust that my children are safe in the state of Colorado,” begins a suggested letter posted on SNAP’s website, imploring the state to open an independent investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests.

“I’m thrilled today,” said Jeb Barrett, who was abused by a priest in Montana more than 60 years ago and now lives in Colorado. “As long as we do not know who the abusers are, because they have hidden the records, it places children at risk of being victimized.”

Barrett was one of three representatives from the Colorado survivors group who met with Coffman last year seeking an investigation. After a 2008 class-action lawsuit in Helena, Montana, the only punishment for Barrett’s abuser was that his name was listed on the diocese’s website.

“I don’t want it to happen to any other families,” he said.

Barrett, a counselor who specializes in helping victims of sexual abuse who are suicidal, worked with Colorado lawmakers 10 years ago to repeal the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of sexual abuse of children. He is still pushing for a similar law for civil lawsuits.

“I didn’t talk about any of this — I wasn’t ready to talk about how it would affect my life and my relationships until I was 63,” the 79-year-old said. “It’s so shaming. Most people think there must be something wrong with them.”

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, photographed on Feb. 19, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s history with clergy and sexual abuse

As in the rest of the country, stories of sexual abuse by priests have spilled out in Colorado in recent years, particularly about abuse that happened decades earlier.

In 2008, the Archdiocese of Denver settled 18 cases of sexual abuse by priests for $5.5 million. The cases involved abuse of young people from 1954 to 1981, and the three priests involved in the cases had already died when the settlement was announced.

Charles Chaput, then Denver’s archbishop, called the matter “hugely mortifying” to the church, according to a 2008 Denver Post article. Chaput now is archbishop of Philadelphia.

Just two months ago, the Jesuits U.S. Central and Southern Province released a list of priests found to have credible allegations of sexual abuse against them. While none of the priests still was serving in public ministry, and seven were dead, the list included 13 priests who had once worked in Colorado.

Eight of the priests worked at Regis High School, and two of those men were linked to allegations involving former students at the high school, according to a letter sent at the time by Regis to its school community.

And last November, a man who had studied at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary went public with allegations of abuse he says occurred in the early 2000s. Stephen Szutenbach was prompted to report his sexual abuse to the Philadelphia Inquirer after he heard a Denver archdiocese leader’s interview on Colorado Public Radio, according to a Denver Post story.

Szutenbach was upset that Denver’s vicar general, Father Randy Dollins, did not mention in the radio interview that the archdiocese had received a new report of sexual abuse as recently as 2007, the year Szutenbach said he reported his abuse.

Szutenbach said he was repeatedly subject to unwanted sexual contact from the Rev. Kent Drotar, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer article. Drotar was sent to counseling and assigned to another parish after Szutenbach reported the abuse the archdiocese.

In another tie to Colorado, one of the priests implicated in the Pennsylvania grand jury report served in Colorado Springs in the 1980s.

The Colorado church’s ongoing response

The Denver Archdiocese last fall created a website from which Aquila pledged to be “transparent about our handling prevention and response policies in regards to the sexual abuse of minors and misconduct.” The site includes a section titled #trackrecord detailing work the archdiocese has done to prevent sexual abuse.

“The Archdiocese of Denver can never fully make right the sins of the past, but we are committed to always being a part of the healing process,” Aquila wrote in introducing the website. “Also, be assured that I support the involvement of the laity in an independent investigation into the various facets of the wider crisis within the church.”

Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila speaks to reporters at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The archdiocese held Masses last year “for all the sin committed by members of our church.” However, it also contended that abuse has decreased significantly since the 1970s in Colorado and across the rest of the nation, something it said was lost in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. Church leaders reiterated that point on Tuesday.

“I would like to believe as the church asserts that all sexual abuse by priests is in the past, but I doubt, based on the experiences in other states, that’s the case,” Coffman said.

At the news conference Tuesday, Aquila thanked Weiser and Coffman for their work.

“We hope this announcement will motivate anyone who has been harmed to come forward,” he said, adding that all of the Colorado bishops have helped forge the agreement.

“For the Catholics, I really believe this has been a time of tremendous pain,” Aquila said. “I know that healing is possible in Jesus Christ because I have seen it in my conversations with many of the victims.”

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