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The inside of a church with pews.
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)

Former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman says she would have preferred a criminal investigation of child sex abuse in the state’s three Catholic dioceses and that she talked to former Gov. John Hickenlooper about the prospect of launching one.

But as Coffman worked to find a way last year to account for priests’ behavior, she realized the most realistic route was an independent review with the cooperation of the church. She couldn’t initiate a criminal investigation herself — only the governor could have done that through executive action.

“My preference would have been to have investigative authority through an executive order,” she told The Colorado Sun. “But I recognized the realities created by time and pending elections and changes in administration and the need to move forward with an investigation.”

Coffman, a Republican who left office in January after opting not to seek a second term, initiated the process that led to the recently completed independent investigation into child sex abuse in the state’s three Catholic dioceses. The review found that at least 166 children were sexually abused by at least 40 priests in Colorado since 1950 and that the church had a culture of “reluctance to admit wrongdoing” and “self-protection.”

Former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. (Handout)

Coffman is now urging the legislature to give the Colorado’s attorney general expanded power to launch criminal investigations. Currently, the attorney general needs the OK of the governor to open a grand jury probe in most situations, though that power is rarely sought or given.

Coffman also said that given the findings of the independent investigation, a statewide grand jury investigation should be launched.

“I think there are a number of indicators that there is a broader conspiracy to hide the truth of what happened to these and other victims,” she said.

Current Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is not pursuing a grand jury investigation, at least not now. “It’s an unlikely scenario that we could have a grand jury,” the Democrat said. 

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

How the investigation began

Coffman began looking into the possibility of investigating child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Colorado in August 2018 after the release of a grand jury report from an investigation of the church in Pennsyvlania. She was also contacted by abuse survivors about looking into the church in Colorado. 

With just a few months left in office, she says she realized she needed to act quickly. 

“We realized that with the significant limitations on the attorney general’s authority to conduct either a civil or criminal investigation in all likelihood to get this done we were going to have to be very creative in the way that we structured an investigation,” Coffman said.

The statewide grand jury can be convened by the attorney general only in very limited legal circumstances — for example to investigate things like white-collar crime and worker-compensation fraud. The governor can issue an executive order allowing the attorney general to launch an investigation that, depending on the results, can then be moved to the statewide grand jury to consider charges.

Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila prays before the Blessed Sacrament during the Consecration of the Archdiocese of Denver to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on October 13, 2017, in Denver. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Coffman says she spoke with then-Gov. Hickenlooper about the possibility of the governor authorizing an investigation that would have given her office subpoena power through the statewide grand jury. However, she never formally requested that Hickenlooper sign off on launching an investigation.

“I had two converations with the governor about the Catholic church,” she said. “We discussed a few options. For a variety of reasons, and in part as a result of those conversations, my office and I did not request a letter authorizing an investigation.”

Hickenlooper declined an interview request from The Sun, but his 2020 U.S. Senate campaign released a written statement saying that the report on Catholic priest abuse in Colorado is “devastating.”

“As the AG herself has said, she did not make that recommendation to the governor,” Melissa Miller, a Hickenlooper spokeswoman, said in the statement. 

Hickenlooper, however, endorsed efforts to continue digging into the church. “It’s clear that further investigation is needed so we can hold accountable both perpetrators and those who covered for them,” Miller said.

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

About that same time as Coffman was exploring her options, she and the church began discussing the possibility of a voluntary, independent investigation into the church using the records of the Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo dioceses.

Some victims and their advocates have criticized the investigation for not including a review of actions by seminarians and religious order priests, which they argue would have uncovered significantly more abuse. They also slammed the investigation for not holding to account members of the church who helped cover up behavior of abusive priests. 

“Those are the people who have gotten off scot-free because they’re not named in the report,” Adam Horowitz, a Florida attorney representing 12 priest abuse victims in Colorado, said last week.

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

One of the agreed-upon parameters was that the investigation would not include other religious order priests or seminarians. 

“We were told that the individual diocese did not have the records applicable for those other groups, that they maintained only records on dioscesan priests,” Coffman said.

(In December, Jesuits began releasing the names of priests who were credibly accused of sexual abuse, including 13 who had worked in Colorado.)

She says the investigation also did not include an accounting of church personnel who were allegedly responsible for concealing abuse because when the review began there was not clear evidence. 

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, left, 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)

“I certainly knew that this was something that had been shown in other states and I had anecdotal evidence that it had happened in Colorado,” she said. “But I felt that I needed more proof and concrete proof that it had happened in Colorado before pursuing a broader investigation.”

Coffman also said the report was really meant to be a first step. 

“I see it as a building block,” she said. “This is the foundation upon which further investigation can be built.”

Calls for a grand jury review

Both Gov. Jared Polis and Weiser did not rule out the possibility of a future grand jury investigation when asked about the prospect by The Sun. The pair signaled, however, that it’s too early to have those kinds of discussions.

“This is an extremely troubling report,” Polis’ spokesman, Conor Cahill, said in a written statement. “… As this process is still ongoing, the governor will continue to be in close contact with the AG on this matter.”

A spokesman for Weiser said the attorney general is focused on finalizing the work around the report, including finding victims that haven’t come forward and documenting their stories. Weiser, however, has made clear that he plans to continue investigating the church in some capacity.

“This is not going to be just a single chapter,” he said. “This is a series of important efforts that we are undertaking.”

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

When asked about the possibility of a grand jury investigation, an Archdiocese of Denver spokesman called the eight-month review by Colorado’s former U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, the “most exhaustive report ever compiled in Colorado on the issue of clergy abuse.” 

Troyer “was clear that he felt nothing was inappropriately withheld from his investigation,” said Mark Haas, director of public relations for the archdiocese. In his report, Troyer said he found that the Colorado dioceses did not withhold documents based on claims of “canon law privileges” or hide them in secret archives, adding that he had in fact reviewed what is known as the “secret archive.”

The church also points out that the burden of proof for substantiating an allegation included in Troyer’s report was less than the criminal standard, meaning the public might have learned more about priest abuse in this report than it would have through a grand jury investigation. 

Further, Troyer did not refer any allegations of sex abuse by a priest to a district attorney’s office for prosecution as the result of his review, Haas said.

“The independent review and resulting report issued by Mr. Troyer were not part of any criminal investigation and were not prompted by any known or suspected criminal conduct by the archdiocese,” Haas said. “The report did not change that in any way.” 

Troyer’s investigation included more than 500 priest files and 70 interviews. It found that the Denver Archdiocese had “not failed to comply with the law since 2009” and had made several voluntary reports to law enforcement.  

“Archbishop Samuel Aquila and the Archdiocese of Denver have been clear that if anyone knows of any unreported abuse, we are encouraging them to come forward to report it to law enforcement and seek support,” Haas wrote in an emailed response to questions from The Colorado Sun. 

Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila. (Photo provided by Brandon Young, Archdiocese of Denver)

Some victims who have called for a grand jury investigation say they want to know who was responsible for covering up their abuse or transferring priests who were accused of abusing children to new parishes. In response to those calls, the Archdiocese of Denver said Archbishop Aquila was appointed in 2012 and the archdiocese’s senior leadership is new since then. 

The archdiocese has said there is no one currently serving in active ministry accused of abuse, but it had not said whether any of the leaders who covered up allegations remain in leadership roles. On Thursday, however, Haas said that no one “in the church’s current leadership has played any role in covering up the sexual abuse of a minor.”

Troyer’s report said that in the past 10 years, Colorado dioceses “have immediately suspended the powers of any accused priest pending further investigation.” 

Victims advocates and their attorneys, however, point out that only about 7% of children report sex abuse, and the average age of coming forward about childhood sex abuse is 52. 

The prospect of legislative change

Coffman says she has spoken “very informally” with some lawmakers about a measure expanding the attorney general’s power to launch a criminal investigation.

“I’m hopeful that in the upcoming session this is something that the legislature considers,” she said.

A spokesman for Weiser said the attorney general couldn’t comment on legislation he hasn’t seen. 

“I think there’s a range of legislative approaches,” Weiser told reporters last week. ”Right now, our focus is to make sure that this process works.”

Coffman also thinks the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits in child sex abuse cases should be expanded as well. Right now, victims have six years from when they turn 18 to file a civil legal action and just two years to sue a diocese for enabling their abuse. 

Lawmakers meet in the Colorado House of Representatives on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“Limiting the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases is, frankly, a way of perpretrators limiting their accountability,” she said. “The short window for filing a claim or pursuing a case is there to benefit the people in power and those are the very people who committed the offenses or are covering for the people who committed the offenses.”

Since the report’s release, the attorney general’s office has received several reports of abuse through its reporting line, including at least one alleging abuse by a priest not mentioned in Troyer’s report. 

A 75-year-old Pueblo woman said in an interview with The Colorado Sun that she told the state office that she was molested by a priest in the 1950s when she lived at Sacred Heart Orphanage in Pueblo. The woman, who did not want her name released publicly, said she was abused by a monsignor priest who would put his hand under her dress while holding her tightly on his lap, pretending in front of the orphanage’s nuns that he was tickling her. The abuse went on for years, she said.

“I know today they can investigate and hold those people responsible, but in my case, they are probably all dead,” including that priest, she said. “There have to be other kids at the orphanage that experienced other things. Maybe they are dead. Maybe they never talked. We were taught to obey and be quiet.”

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....