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Crime and Courts

Here is why Colorado didn’t convene a grand jury to investigate priest abuse as Pennsylvania did

Colorado’s attorney general doesn’t have the same broad authority as in other states to convene a grand jury to investigate

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)
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With the announcement Tuesday that the Catholic church in Colorado will voluntarily participate in an independent investigation into sexual abuse by its priests comes a big question: Why didn’t the state convene a grand jury to investigate, as Pennsylvania did?

The answer has to do with the limited powers Colorado’s attorney general has to look into criminal offenses.

After a Pennsylvania grand jury released its report alleging hundreds of cases of child sex abuse had been covered up by the church, survivors of sexual abuse as children petitioned in August for an accounting of misconduct here, asking then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to convene a grand jury. And the possibility was explored.

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

But a statewide grand jury can be convened only in “certain, fairly limited circumstances that were not met in this instance,” Coffman told reporters Tuesday at the news conference announcing the independent investigation.

“Typical cases that go to the statewide grand jury are drug trafficking organizations, auto theft rings, financial fraud that occurs in multiple jurisdictions — places where there is evidence across judicial districts, where it makes sense for there to be a central investigation and prosecution,” Coffman said.

There are exceptions, however.

For example, the governor can ask the state’s attorney general to be a special prosecutor, as Gov. Bill Owens did in 2004. He requested that then-Attorney General Ken Salazar investigate a University of Colorado football recruiting scandal that included allegations that players had sexually assaulted women.

“We in the AG’s office do not have authority like they do in Pennsylvania to conduct such a grand jury. But we have a set of dioceses here who came to the table, engaged in conversation to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said in announcing the investigation.

Weiser and church officials said any criminal cases that are uncovered by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, the independent investigator, would be forwarded to district attorneys who would prosecute if appropriate.

Troyer’s investigation aims to produce a public report naming any credibly accused priest and examining how the church responded to and prevented cases of abuse.

Without a grand jury, however, the state lacks legal power to demand information or compel witnesses to testify.

From left: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila speak to reporters at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

However, Weiser said he’s confident the church won’t hold back information.

“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.

Weiser was asked whether he think he needs — or wishes he had — the power of a grand jury.

“We have a process that we’ve now come to,” he said. “I want to see us implement this process, and at the end we can evaluate how it worked and what, if any, lessons should be learned.”

Colorado is among a growing number of states where attorneys general are investigating or independent investigations were launched following the Pennsylvania grand jury report’s release in August, including New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Vermont and Nebraska.

Coffman called Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and prosecutors in other states to learn about best practices before exploring how to investigate the Catholic church in Colorado. Shapiro told USA Today he was contacted by as many as 45 states seeking assistance in their own investigations of the church.


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