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Crime and Courts

Colorado attorney general announces new settlement fund for victims of Catholic priest abuse

The announcement comes ahead of the release of an investigative report into abuses by priests going back decades

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, photographed on Feb. 19, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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Victims of sexual abuse by Colorado priests can now apply for financial reparations from a settlement fund announced Monday, part of a healing process after years of scandal in the Catholic Church.

Those who have already come forward will receive packets with instructions on how to apply for compensation — 65 packets were going out Monday to alleged victims already known to the church. Those who have yet to come forward must register by Nov. 30 for an eligibility review, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. 

The fund, officially called the Colorado Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program, was a joint project by the state attorney general’s office and the Catholic Church. It is independent of church control. Two nationally known victims’ fund administrators will administer the program, with oversight from a committee headed by former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown.

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“This effort will aim to provide a recognition of past wrongdoing, provide needed compensation, and offer an opportunity for healing,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said in announcing the fund.

Administrators of the fund, Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, are handling similar compensation programs for priest abuse victims in New York, New Jersey, California and Pennsylvania. The three dioceses in Colorado — Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — have agreed to abide by the administrators’ compensation determinations. 

Funds for the settlements will come from money raised by the three dioceses in Colorado specifically for this purpose and not from donations given to parishes, ministries or schools, church officials said. Payouts in other states have ranged from $10,000 to $500,000. “There is no cap. People who are eligible should be paid,” Feinberg said.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announces the formation of a fund to compensate victims of abuse by Colorado priests. The fund, administered by Kenneth Feinberg, center, who managed a similar fund for victims of the Aurora theater shooting, will receive oversight from a committee led by former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, right. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

There have been “zero incidents” of child sexual abuse by Colorado priests from the Denver diocese in the past 20 years, and there are “zero priests in ministry with a substantiated allegation” of child sexual abuse, Archbishop Samuel Aquila said in an emailed statement Monday.

“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. “And while money can’t heal wounds, it can acknowledge the evil that was done and help restore peace and dignity to the survivors.” 

Victims do not need to retain a lawyer and there are no fees to participate. Claims will take 90 to 120 days to process. Those making claims will receive a free, independent lawyer to help review the compensation offer. If the offer is accepted, the abuse survivor is agreeing not to sue. Whether the report is made public is up to the claimant.

“This program can’t undo the pain and suffering but it can involve hope for the victims and the healing of our community,” Brown said during a news conference to announce the settlement plans. “The abuse of children by priests is a painful chapter in the Catholic Church’s history.” 

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 settlement plans were announced as the three Catholic dioceses of Colorado have opened their records to an independent investigator in an effort to provide a full accounting of sexual abuse of children by priests as far back as 1950. A final report on that investigation is expected within a few weeks.

The Colorado investigation comes after an explosive grand jury report released in 2018 in Pennsylvania.

In Colorado, an 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 an initiative announced in February by the church and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. The review is not a criminal investigation. 

It also includes a full review of the church’s policies and procedures in responding to and preventing abuse. 

Colorado’s former U.S. Attorney, Bob Troyer, is leading 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 are being used.

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

8 priests with credible accusations taught at Regis High

Allegations of sexual abuse by priests connected to Colorado have trickled out in the past decade or so.

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. 

Then in 2018, 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 served 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 a year ago, 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 said he was repeatedly subject to unwanted sexual contact from the Rev. Kent Drotar, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Drotar was sent to counseling and assigned to another parish after Szutenbach reported the abuse to the archdiocese.

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