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Crime and Courts

Victims want more from Colorado’s Catholic church investigation — like who covered up their sex abuse

There are fresh calls for lengthening the statute of limitations to file sex abuse lawsuits in Colorado following the release of a 263-page report into priests who abused children

A courtyard at St. John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, which includes the Denver seminary. (Photo provided by the Archdiocese of Denver)
  • Credibility:

The long-awaited report on child sexual abuse by Colorado priests was a bombshell, exposing 40 priests by name — alive or dead — and details of their alleged misdeeds. 

But to abuse survivors and legal experts, it also had glaring holes and head-scratching limitations that gave the Catholic church unusual say over what had been billed as an independent investigation.

That has survivors urging Colorado lawmakers to expand the civil statute of limitations, so that victims can use lawsuits to uncover information they believe the report left out.

“Anything less is tantamount to complicity with the church’s crimes and cover-up,” Joelle Casteix, a board member of the Zero Abuse Project who lived in Denver and was sexually abused at a Catholic school in California when she was a child, said in a statement.

MORE: At least 166 children have been sexually abused by Catholic priests in Colorado since 1950, new report finds

Unlike in other states, the Colorado investigation completed this week was not a criminal one — no subpoenas, no investigators raiding church files with search warrants, no grand jury. Instead, it was labeled an out-of-court “mediation” and restricted by an agreement struck between the state attorney general’s office and the three Roman Catholic dioceses of Colorado. 

Per the agreement

  • Church leaders got to approve the people appointed to the investigative team, which was independent of the attorney general’s office. This was done “to avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest, bias or unfair prejudice.”
  • Priests from religious orders, including the Jesuits and Franciscans, were not included in the review. This means the investigation left out as many as one-third of the priests in Colorado, including one in Pueblo who was accused of abuse by at least 23 former students at a high school where he worked. The review also excluded priests-to-be still in seminary and lay church leaders.
  • The dioceses in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo were responsible for “producing” their files for investigators. Church officials were asked to copy historic paper records, and the agreement specified that those copies would never come in possession of the attorney general’s office, in order to keep them from becoming public records. The special investigator, former U.S. Attorney for Colorado Bob Troyer, was required to return any copies of files to the dioceses “or destroy such copies.” 
  • The dioceses paid for half of the $300,000 investigation, while anonymous donors covered the other half. The attorney general “was responsible for identifying” the donors and keeping their identities secret. But a spokesman for the attorney general said the donors’ contributions went to the dioceses and “that information is not within our office.” So, even if the donors’ identities were sought through the Colorado Open Records Act, the attorney general “would have no responsive records,” the spokesman said.

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Report doesn’t name church leaders who moved priests

The review lists the names of accused priests, but does not include the names of church leaders who transferred those priests to other parishes or allowed them to continue working despite known abuse. 

And while the church has said there is no one currently serving in active ministry accused of abuse, it has not said whether any of the leaders who covered up allegations of abuse still serve in leadership roles. 

That lack of reckoning is frustrating to the clients of Adam Horowitz, a Florida attorney representing 12 priest abuse victims in Colorado. 

“Those are the people who have gotten off scot-free because they’re not named in the report. No one knows who those people are,” he said. “Money helps clients. But at the end of the day, they don’t have access to the information they want, which is, ‘Who allowed this abuse to happen to me?’”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said the parameters of the agreement, structured when former Attorney General Cynthia Coffman was in office, were meant to provide justice to abuse survivors and protect their confidentiality. 

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks to reporters on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, about a report on priest abuse in Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado law does not provide wide-sweeping authority for the attorney general to convene a grand jury investigation, meaning the governor would have to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct one. And if Colorado had taken that route, the state would not have been able to release a public report exposing priests whose files contained abuse allegations not legally proven, Weiser said. 

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

But others questioned whether the restrictions included in the agreement were intended to protect only the victims.

“I think it’s protecting something else,” Zero Abuse Project CEO Jeff Dion said, referring to the church. “I don’t get that at all.”

Nothing in the agreement with the dioceses prevents Colorado from launching a future grand jury investigation, the attorney general said. He also defended Troyer, who was unavailable for an interview after completing his investigation.

“We signed off on Bob Troyer because we believe he is a person of real integrity, professionalism and intelligence,” Weiser said in an interview, adding that the report confirms that. “If people still are skeptical about whether he was thorough and independent … that is their judgment.”

Statute of limitations is six years

At issue for many abuse survivors is the inability to sue the priests who sexually abused them years or decades ago. 

The statute of limitations for such lawsuits in Colorado is six years from when a victim turns 18, so age 24. The length of time to sue a diocese for enabling abuse is shorter — two years.

Several states, including California, Delaware and Hawaii, have lengthened statutes of limitation for child sex abuse victims. The Colorado legislature has debated the idea more than once in recent years, but did not pass the legislation, which was opposed by the Colorado Catholic Conference. 

Archdiocese of Denver spokesman Mark Haas said Friday the church was “not in a position to comment on hypothetical legislation.”

“In general, statute of limitations exists for a reason,” he said. “We’d hope that any proposed changes would be considered in a manner that is consistent and fair to everyone.”

MORE: A list of the Colorado priests named in the Catholic church sex abuse report, where they worked and when

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said lawmakers may reconsider the state’s statute of limitations laws in next year’s legislative session.

“I know that there’s probably some interest,” he said, adding that there “probably should be some willingness to address some of those concerns.”

The average age of disclosing childhood sexual abuse is 52, which is far past the time allowed to sue abusers under Colorado law, said Trent Feist, board chairman for WINGS Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit that holds support groups for adults who were sexually abused as children.

“That’s a really short window for someone to come to terms with this,” he said. “Why isn’t it open-ended?”

Without expanding the statute of limitations, the only recourse for most survivors is to seek compensation from an independently administered settlement fund that the dioceses recently set up, Horowitz said. That is what all 12 of his clients are currently doing.

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

But the fund comes with a trade-off. In exchange for receiving compensation from the fund, victims must agree not to sue the church over their abuse.

“It’s very clever and savvy for the church to do that,” said Dion with Zero Abuse, which works to prevent child sex abuse nationwide. “They can settle cases on the cheap.” Also, he said, information about abuse and its coverup is not exposed. “It helps perpetuate the secrets.” 

Victims have until Nov. 30 to come forward in order to be eligible for the settlement program. An independent review team, separate from the team that pored through the church files, will determine what each victim is owed. The dioceses in Colorado will pay the settlements with money designated specifically for that purpose, church officials said.

If the statute of limitations were expanded, it is unclear whether survivors could use Troyer’s report to aid their case. The investigation’s agreement specifically states: “The report and this agreement are the result of a compromise and shall not be admissible as evidence in a court of law for any purpose.”

Horowitz, the victims’ attorney, said it is unclear whether that provision could be used to keep the report from being admitted in civil lawsuits filed against the church by victims.

“I don’t think there’s a definitive answer,” he said.

Christ the King Chapel, on the campus of the Archdiocese of Denver, is the chapel used by seminary students seeking the priesthood. (Photo provided by the Archdiocese of Denver)

Archdiocese creates task force 

The Archdiocese of Denver has initiated a task force to work on the recommendations listed in the report, which include that the diocese hire an independent, expert investigator to handle all abuse allegations going forward, spokesman Haas said. 

The church also is working to focus more on victim care, after the report criticized the dioceses’ process of asking victims to tell their stories to a church panel. 

“We will follow all of Mr. Troyer’s recommendations and are already working to implement changes,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila said in a letter to Catholics. “I plan to personally be involved in that effort and will be in continued contact with Mr. Troyer and the attorney general to make sure our collaboration to protect children is ongoing.” 

MORE: Prospective Catholic priests can expect interrogations about porn, psych evaluations and abuse prevention training

The archdiocese acknowledged that it has not “completely fixed the issue of clergy sexual abuse of minors,” but noted there has not been substantiated abuse by a diocesan priest in the past 20 years. The church takes that “as a positive sign that we are meaningfully addressing the issue,” the archdiocese said in an emailed statement. 

Critics of the church noted that only about 7% of children report sex abuse and that it can take decades for adults to talk about childhood abuse, meaning it’s possible there are current cases that have not yet come to light.

“Before the diocese self-congratulates itself, I think it should wait,” said Horowitz, the attorney representing 12 Colorado victims. 

“I hope no one is looking at this report thinking that the entirety of the clergy abuse problem was laid out in this report. It is a fraction of what occurred.”

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report


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