Report details Catholic priests’ abuse of children over seven decades 

"The worst type of stuff"

click to enlarge The report has been called "just the tip of the iceberg." - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The report has been called "just the tip of the iceberg."

Over the last 70 years in Colorado, 43 Roman Catholic priests victimized at least 166 children, with the Catholic Church taking steps to cover up the abuse, moving priests to other parishes where they repeated their crimes, and often failing to report those crimes to authorities as required by law, according to a report released Oct. 23.

The report, based on a seven-month investigation led by Colorado’s former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, further revealed that during those years, 22 Catholic priests victimized at least 127 children in the Archdiocese of Denver, 19 Roman Catholic priests abused 36 children in the Diocese of Pueblo, and two priests sexually assaulted at least three children in the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

Funded by an anonymous donor, the report was made possible by an agreement between Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office and the state’s three Catholic dioceses.

The Dioceses themselves cooperated, providing access to “secret files” which housed, as one former unnamed Colorado Springs Diocese Bishop put it 20 years ago, documentation “bad enough that we need to hide it, … the worst type of stuff.”

Its release triggered statements from an array of survivor advocates and led to an apology from the Denver Archdiocese and the Colorado Springs Diocese.

“One victim of the horrific crime of child sexual abuse is too many; the Diocese of Colorado Springs must own the consequences of having three,” Bishop Michael Sheridan said in a statement. “One predator priest is too many; the Diocese of Colorado Springs must recognize and repent of two.”

Sheridan also vowed to “fully embrace and implement each and every recommendation” made in the report.

Those recommendations call for an overhaul of how local church officials investigate and document child sexual abuse reports, and how they train personnel to investigate and engage with law enforcement.

click to enlarge The report states sex abusers could still be active in Colorado's Catholic Church. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The report states sex abusers could still be active in Colorado's Catholic Church.

The 263-page report
documented a systematic effort to ignore reports from children and their parents — and even punish those who came forward — all the while protecting the offenders by leaving them in place or shuttling them elsewhere without warning a new parish of the dangers they posed.

The report noted that over two-thirds of those abused suffered attacks in the 1960s and 1970s, that nine were abused in the 1980s and at least 11 in the 1990s. “The most recent clergy child sex abuse — that victims have reported and that Colorado’s Dioceses have recorded in their files — occurred when a Denver priest sexually abused four children in 1998,” the report said. But the report noted the church’s records are unreliable in assuring no sex abusers remain active in the ministry in Colorado.

The protection racket promulgated by the church, the report said, dates to at least 1946 after Father John Stein was sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexually abusing a 6-year-old boy. The archbishop, who knew Stein abused other children, called the assault “an isolated aberration” and implored the district attorney and a judge to allow the church, not the Department of Corrections, to provide “constant surveillance” of Stein, the report said. The judge agreed.

According to the report, “on average it took 19.5 years before a Colorado Diocese concretely restricted an abusive priest’s authority after receiving an allegation that he was sexually abusing children.” Moreover, the Colorado Dioceses failed to impose any restrictions on seven alleged abusers in their lifetimes.

“Nearly a hundred children were sexually abused in the interim,” the report said. “However, from the data available to us, it appears in the last 10 years the Colorado Dioceses have immediately suspended the powers of any accused priest pending further investigation.”

Investigators found only one allegation that could be viable for prosecution within the statute of limitations, and that allegation already had been reported to the authorities.

But the report noted that since June 2002, the Denver Archdiocese failed to tell law enforcement about 25 of the 39 recorded allegations of clergy child sex abuse, as required by Colorado law.

The report named two serial abusers, both of whom have died — Father Leonard Abercrombie and Father Harold Robert White, who the report described as “the most prolific known clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” having abused at least 63 children.

White began abusing children before he was ordained in 1960 and continued for at least 21 years in at least six parishes in Denver, Colorado Springs, Sterling, Loveland, Minturn and Aspen.

“This one priest’s career and the Denver Archdiocese’s management of it present a microcosm of virtually all the failures we found elsewhere in our review of the Colorado Dioceses’ child sex abuse history,” the report said.

The Denver Archdiocese knew at the outset of White’s career that he abused children but did nothing. “When he had sexually abused enough children at a parish that scandal threatened to erupt,” the report said, “the Denver Archdiocese moved him to a new one geographically distant enough that White was not known there.”

That cycle was repeated and the Denver Archdiocese refused to restrict his ministry, remove him or provide him with meaningful psychiatric treatment, investigators found.

Eventually, White was removed from the ministry in 1993 and died in 2006. Abercrombie died in 1994.

In outlining each allegation, the report documents the church’s habit of dismissing victims’ stories and even punishing victims for coming forward.

In a case from 1960, a young boy told his parish school principal that White had fondled him and was “doing queer things to him.” In response, the report says, “The principal grabbed the boy, slammed his head against a blackboard, and told him never to talk about the subject again.”

Even after White admitted to some behaviors, the church kept him in positions where he interacted with children for years.

White fondled a 15-year-old boy several times and masturbated while doing so in 1963 and 1964 while assigned to St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs, the report said. The boy reported the abuse — the 13th child to come forward about White at that time. Finally, the Denver Archdiocese sent White to so-called treatment at the now-closed Via Coeli in New Mexico for five months, but the report noted there’s no evidence he received any psychological counseling. Instead, he was later assigned to St. Anthony Parish in Sterling, where he continued to abuse children there and elsewhere.

Another St. Mary’s student reported White's sexual abuse and was told by church officials, “You’ll be fine.” He was then expelled.

Father William Martinez abused two boys during the 1980s while assigned to the Springs Diocese, the report said. One filed a lawsuit, which was settled in the 1990s. The other abuse took place in a Leadville parish that fell under the Springs Diocese. Neither was fully investigated or reported to police, the report said.

In 2002 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and required all dioceses to take steps to protect children from sexual abuse.

The Colorado Springs Diocese created its own Office of Child and Youth Protection and associated programs. But the report slams that effort, calling the audits “little more than surveys” that don’t assess how effectively the diocese prevents, investigates and documents clergy child sex abuse allegations.

“An effective audit in this area would examine whether the diocese’s processes produce honest and valid determinations that child sex abuse allegations are substantiated or not,” the report says. “The current audits do not even attempt that.”

The report also says the Springs Diocese’s investigative methods fall short, stemming from a lack of experience on the part of investigative team members.

“Specifically, investigative team members have intimidated victims during interviews by questioning their faith, asked them nothing but leading questions designed to confirm a predetermined conclusion rather than find facts, expressed bias in favor of the diocese, expressed that their goal is to defend the priest and protect the diocese rather than find facts or care for the victim, and threatened victims with dire consequences if they falsely accuse a priest of child sex abuse,” the report said.

The report’s recommendations for the Colorado Springs Diocese:

• Create an Office of Independent Review to handle investigations.
• Set up an Office of Child and Youth Protection Improvements to track cases consistently.
• Audit the performance of child protection and investigation systems every two years.
• Improve victim assistance.
• Change the function of the review board from investigating cases to reviewing independent investigations.
• Improve personnel training, including impressing upon staff that “law enforcement [is] an essential partner in the protection of children from sex abuse.”

Said Sheridan, “As difficult as this report is to read, it is an important step for the healing of abuse survivors. It is also an important reminder that we must never become complacent in defending our children... . I have every confidence that ... these recommendations will become a reality.”

Archdiocese of Denver spokesperson Mark Haas told The Colorado Sun, “Despicable things happened in our parishes... . We have taken huge steps to address this issue, and the report documents the dramatic decrease in known substantiated allegations.”

Regardless, the Troyer report unleashed reactions across the country.

Zero Abuse Project, a survivor advocacy agency, called the report “an important first step toward what survivors of abuse need.”

“The rampant abuse happening in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and other institutions is outrageous and intolerable,” CEO Jeff Dion said. “The very organizations entrusted to protect our children have, for decades, found it easy and advantageous to brush child sex abuse under the rug, silence survivors and protect pedophiles in an effort to preserve their reputation and evade accountability.”

WINGS Foundation, an advocacy group for victims, accused the Catholic Church of using a “playbook to perpetuate lies and myths about child sexual abuse, perpetrators and victims to protect their institution’s reputation and significant financial assets around the country.”

Michael Carpino with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), alleged the Colorado report is “just the tip of the iceberg,” and urged a deeper look to “uncover cases the Church could be hiding.”

The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado implored the church’s leadership “to take full responsibility for the systemic failures that have brought so much pain... .”


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