For thirty years, the Catholic Church has been rocked by a steady roar of sexual abuse revelations. Some of its priests have been serially sexually abusing its children. Many of its bishops have been “covering up” these crimes. The massiveness of these crimes — they occurred in significant numbers in every corner of the Catholic world — has dulled our senses to the personal pain of each story. (To get over the numbness, watch the recent Polish documentary, Tell No One.) This is a universal story that continues in many forms. A few weeks ago, Colorado announced a new chapter.
Colorado’s Roman Catholic bishops, the Colorado Attorney General and a former Colorado U.S. Attorney recently informed us that they were going to cooperate in the preparation of a report concerning the sexual abuse of children by Colorado diocesan Catholic priests. This joint report promises to disclose the results of a review by former U.S Attorney Robert Troyer of records of alleged abuse of minors by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church in Colorado since 1950.
The “independent review” apparently will be made of file records maintained by the three dioceses. The report will identify “substantiated allegations of abuse [of minors]” set out in these church records, and also review “the Dioceses’ current policies and procedures for preventing abuse and responding to allegations of abuse."
As publicly announced by Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, the review and report will be performed by Troyer. This is based upon an agreement between the three Colorado Catholic diocesan bishops (Aquila, Sheridan, Berg), Attorney General Phil Weiser, and Troyer. Troyer’s $300,000 “Special Master” services are being paid for by the three Catholic dioceses ($150,000) and anonymous donors solicited by former attorney general Cynthia Coffman ($150,000). These are “donors” who refuse to be identified.
When you look at all the facts, it is doubtful that the bishops, the attorney general and Mr. Troyer can produce a valid report.
First, the Catholic bishops and the Colorado attorney general have fundamental differences regarding the report’s purpose. Within the past few months, ex-Pope Benedict XVI published an article addressing the sex abuse “crisis” in the Catholic Church. Benedict’s supporters, including Archbishop Aquila, gave the article wide and enthusiastic distribution. Benedict sees the evil, the “bedrock” sin of the sexual abuse of children by clergy, as a sacrilege, a “befouling” of the perpetrator priests’ vows — a sin against the Catholic faith. Benedict’s personal theology, and that of his followers, primarily experience these horrors in the self-referential analysis of how the misconduct injures their Church.
Weiser, Troyer and most of the rest of society primarily see the wrongness, the sickening evil of this sexual abuse of children, in the gross injustice to the child, the outrageous violation of human dignity inflicted upon a child, the deeply injured child. To quote Cathleen Kaveney's "What Benedict's Letter on Abuse Gets Wrong," "Benedict’s approach has dangerous consequences. If the real victim of clerical sex abuse of children is the Faith, then the overriding task is to protect the institution of the church... . If the worst consequence of the crisis is the widespread loss of faith in the church’s credibility, then it is better to handle specific instances quietly—so as not to scandalize the faithful."
The Colorado bishops and the Colorado Attorney General are at cross purposes here. And when the parties to this type of agreement have a fundamental difference regarding the purpose of such an agreement, it signals major trouble in the operation of the agreement. This directly leads to the second concern.
The validity of the church review and report is totally dependent upon the completeness and accuracy of the church “records” that are reviewed. History tell us that completeness and accuracy is absent.
For almost all of the period of time under review, the policies of almost all Roman Catholic dioceses was to deny and “cover up” allegations of sexual abuse conduct by its clergy. There was no church protocol compelling church record-makers or record-keepers to prepare and maintain reports of clerical sex abuse of minors, or to maintain such reports in official files. There is no Roman Catholic Church practice of careful and complete maintenance and organization of such records and files that make it practical to recover file information concerning those accused of violations. There is no positive motivation within the Church system for the entry and maintenance of records relating to the abuse of minors by local clergy. Indeed, diocesan maintenance of complete and accurate records of sexual abuse claims against its priests would primarily implicate diocesan officials, especially bishops, in criminal conspiracies, in “cover ups.”
Over the past three years, I have been involved in two different matters that required a review of Archdiocese of Denver records and files. One involved the past conduct of a priest who was alleged to have caused a parishioner to fear for her physical safety. The other involved information concerning the history of a parish that Archbishop Aquila had decided to “close.” In both matters, Archdiocesan files were either incomplete, inaccessible, misrepresented, or some combination of all three. Requests that church records regarding the abusive priest be searched regarding his prior history were deflected by the Archdiocese, and his conduct was characterized by Archdiocesan authorities dismissively as “unprofessional” and “inappropriate.” We have no idea what is in the priest’s Archdiocesan “file” or “files.”
With regard to the “church closing” conflict, a letter on behalf of parishioners demanding that church authorities preserve all evidence was met with a letter from an Archdiocesan attorney strongly denying any basis for our preservation of records request.
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Finally, Denver’s bishops’ penchant to fund dicey undertakings with “secret donor” funding burdens the agreement. Aquila’s use of “secret” money in his operations is maddening: $1.6 million to build his personal residence with secret donor funding; $50,000 full-page Sunday newspaper ads, secretly funded, in which Aquila supports Romney and attacks Obama, the weekend before 2012 elections. He also informed Denver Catholics to vote for Trump. Now we have $150,000 of secret money raised by former state attorney general Coffman to fund a Special Master’s review of diocesan files. Who are these secret donors? What motivates them?
The assumption that a review of Colorado diocesan-produced church “files” or “records,” personnel or otherwise, will present a meaningful record of abuse of minors by Colorado Roman Catholic diocesan clergy, or cover up operations by bishops, is simply baseless. I personally do not see how a meaningful identification of victims and perpetrators can occur without extending the statute of limitations for victims to file legal claims in our courts.
It’s not too late in Colorado. Or maybe it is.
Terry Kelly is a lawyer in Denver.
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