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Katia Birge's case of alleged rape by a Catholic lay minister: Does it signal new kind of abuse?

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Update below: SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is criticizing Catholic officials in Denver, including Archbishop Charles Chaput, for their handling of the Katia Birge case.

Birge claims to have been raped by a Denver lay minister in 2008, when she was 25 years old.

Although Birge's case was dismissed in court, SNAP says it's not because she's lying. Instead, the group points to a story recently published in Religion Dispatches magazine that suggests it's because she's an adult.

In "Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church: When Victims are Adults," journalist Kathryn Joyce posits that "demographic shifts and a dwindling priesthood may be creating a new set of scenarios for abuse."

After a decade of explosive sex abuse scandals, most prominently involving minor children, Birge's story doesn't fit the recognized narrative. She was already an adult when it happened, and her alleged attacker is not an ordained member of the clergy.

Both facts point to under-recognized trends in the church that touch on its continuing problem with sex abuse: that adults are often its victims, if rarely its public face, and that shifting staffing decisions in a Catholic church becoming more Hispanic have serious implications for how the church handles abuse.

Birge's case involves a lay minister named Juan Carlos Hernandez, who ran a Hispanic young adult church group called Christo Y Yo. According to Joyce's story, Birge became close to Hernandez, who was ten years older. One night, he drove her to a dark part of town, where she says he raped her in the front seat. He then told her she was a whore.

Birge eventually told her family. They informed the parish priest, who directed them to speak with the archdiocese. Birge says church leaders weren't very responsive, telling her they might have done something if she'd been a child.

Birge brought a lawsuit against Hernandez and the archdiocese, which was dismissed late last year. In her story, Joyce says the church implied in court that what happened between Birge and Hernandez was "just a date gone wrong."

Asked for comment today, archdiocese spokeswoman Jeanette De Melo had this to say:

The District Court for the City and County of Denver twice reviewed the complaint against the Archdiocese of Denver regarding Ms. Birge and Mr. Hernandez. The judge dismissed the case against the Archdiocese, indicating that there are no facts in the complaint that show negligence on the part of the Archdiocese. The court awarded the Archdiocese tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and costs against Ms. Birge. The Archdiocese chose not to collect the awarded fees.

This week, SNAP criticized the archdiocese's stance. In a statement, the group said:

Our hearts ache for this devout wounded woman who has been repeatedly betrayed by Denver's Catholic officials. We applaud her courage in coming forward, trying to prosecute and pushing Colorado's Catholic hierarchy to expose a predator and protect others. At the same time, however, we aren't surprised she suffered such hostility from men who profess to represent Christ.

Update, 2:52 p.m. February 4: Attorney Tom Birge, Katia's father, disputes the statement above from the Archdiocese of Denver and clarifies other points in the following post: "Katia Birge's case of alleged rape by a Catholic lay minister scheduled to go to trial in March."

More from our Politics archive: "Archbishop Charles Chaput works both sides of political fence."

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