Photos by Pam Zubeck
St. Mary's Cathedral in Colorado Springs.
Over the last 70 years in Colorado, at least 166 children have been victimized by 43 Roman Catholic priests, with the Catholic Church taking steps to cover up the abuse, moving priests to other parishes where they repeated their crimes, and often failed to report those crimes to authorities as required by law, according to a new report released Oct. 23.
The report further reveals that during those years, at least 127 children were victimized by 22 Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Denver, at least three children were victimized by two Roman Catholic priests in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, and at least 36 children were victimized by 19 Roman Catholic priests in the Diocese of Pueblo.
From the report:
Notably, the data from our review also indicates that historically 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. (This figure does not even include
the 7 alleged abusers for whom the Colorado Dioceses never put any restriction in place during their lifetimes.) Nearly a hundred children were sexually abused in the interim. 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.
No cases have been referred to prosecutors, however, because investigators found only one allegation that could be viable for prosecution within the statute of limitations, and that allegation already has been reported to the authorities.
The 263-page report also said that since June 2002, the Denver Archdiocese failed to report 25 of the 39 recorded allegations of clergy child sex abuse that Colorado law required it to report to law enforcement.
Funded by an anonymous donor, the report stems from a seven-month investigation led by Colorado’s former U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, under an agreement between Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser's Office and the three Catholic dioceses — in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
The report names two serial abusers — Father Leonard Abercrombie and Father Harold Robert White.
The report described White this way:
White was the most prolific known clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history. His sexual abuse of children began before he was ordained in 1960, and it continued for at least 21 years in at least 6 parishes from Denver to Colorado Springs to Sterling to Loveland to Minturn to Aspen. During that time, it is more likely than not he sexually abused at least 63 children. 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 Denver Archdiocese knew from the outset of White’s
career that he was a child sex abuser. When he had sexually abused enough children at a parish that scandal threatened to erupt, the Denver Archdiocese moved him to a new one geographically distant enough that White was not known there. The Denver Archdiocese
repeated this cycle at least 6 times and never once restricted his ministry, or removed him from ministry, or sent him off for genuine psychiatric evaluation and care.
White was removed from the ministry in 1993 and died in 2006. Abercrombie died in 1994.
In outlining each allegation, again and again the victims were not believed and even punished.
In one case, 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.
According to the report, White fondled a 15-year-old boy several times and masturbated himself while doing so one of those times in 1963 and 1964 while assigned to St. Mary's High School in Colorado Springs. The boy reported the abuse, which at that time was the 13th report of White sexually abusing children.
The Denver Archdiocese removed White and sent him to treatment at Via Coeli in New Mexico for five months and then assigned him to St. Anthony Parish in Sterling where he continued to abuse children there and elsewhere.
Another St. Mary's student reported being abused by White and was told by church officials, "You'll be fine." He was then expelled.
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 also created its own Office of Child and Youth Protection and associated programs. For more on this initiative, go to page 170 in the report here
The report is critical of the programs, calling the audits "little more than surveys" that don't assess how effectively the diocese prevents, investigates and documents clergy child sex abuse allegations.
St. Mary's Cathedral interior.
"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 theirfaith, 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. This approach to sexual assault victim interviews is extremely ineffective at determining whether the diocese has an abusive priest from whom its children need to be protected.
The local diocese's investigative board also lacked understanding of law enforcement and wasn't sufficiently independent to assure impartial and objective conclusions would be reached.
"Turning these investigations over to an investigative team composed of qualified personnel who have no other obligations within the diocese will place a greater focus on learning the truth, provide better healing for the victims, reduce the opportunity for undue influence and bias, and enhance the credibility of the diocese’s responses," the report said.
The Colorado Springs Diocese also came under fire for a lack of solid record-keeping.
Read Bishop Michael Sheridan's response
to the Troyer report, in which he says it's a step toward "hearing of abuse survivors."
The Troyer report makes these recommendations for the Springs Diocese:
1. Create an Office of independent Review to handle investigations.
2. Set up an Office of Child and Youth Protection Improvements to track cases consistently.
3. Audit the performance of its child protection and investigation systems every two years.
4. Improve victim assistance.
5. Change the function of the review board from investigating cases to reviewing independent investigations.
6. Improve personnel training to enhance "personnel’s trust, understanding of, and active engagement with law enforcement as an essential partner in the protection of children from sex abuse."
Mark Haas, director of public relations for the Archdiocese of Denver, told the Colorado Sun
the archdiocese is a different place than it was decades ago. “Despicable things happened in our parishes, and at the time there were incredible failures to properly address them,” he said. “We have taken huge steps to address this issue, and the report documents the dramatic decrease in known substantiated allegations.”