Colorado Attorney General’s Report Provides Troubling Look at Bishops’ Mishandling of Clergy Sexual Abuse

(Denver, CO) – Today, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser released a much-anticipated Report detailing names of and allegations against Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children in Colorado since 1950. The Report is a disturbing summary of how the three Colorado dioceses protected themselves and their priests instead of children by failing to remove abusive priests, transferring abusive priests, using secret code language about sexual abuse, failing to report abuse to law enforcement and implementing deficient and questionable recordkeeping practices.

“Concluding from this Report that clergy child sex abuse is ‘solved’ is inaccurate and will only lead to complacency, which will in turn put more children at risk of sexual abuse,” the Report states.

We could not agree more.

“This is an indictment of the Bishops’ failures in child protection and a wake-up call to decision-makers that things need to change,” said attorney Jeff Anderson of Jeff Anderson & Associates, who represents child sexual abuse survivors in Colorado and throughout the United States. “The Bishops should publicly release all documents on abuse and names of abusers immediately. Transparency and accountability are the keys to protecting kids and helping survivors.”

The Report’s troubling findings include:

  • Failure to Report to Law Enforcement: “Out of almost 100 opportunities to do so since 1950, the Colorado Dioceses voluntarily reported clergy child sex abuse to law enforcement fewer than 10 times,” the Report states. “It is impossible to believe that Church personnel did not know even in 1950 that sexually abusing a person is a serious crime. It is almost as hard to believe—but proven by the documents we reviewed from all the way up to at least the early 1990s — that professionals asserting high moral authority chose to protect their institution and their colleagues over children. We also found evidence from as late as the 1980s that this culture of Church self-protection was reinforced by punishment imposed on Church personnel who did report child sex abuse. The Colorado Dioceses’ advances in training to reduce abuse in the first place, and their procedures for responding to abuse when it does occur, still have not eliminated this persistent problem.”
  • Failure to Act Put Kids in Peril: It took an average of 19.5 years before Colorado Dioceses restricted a priest’s authority after receiving an allegation that he sexually abused a child, and “Nearly a hundred children were sexually abused in the interim.”
  • Transferring Abusers: The Report concluded that “the record we compiled below is flush with examples of the Colorado Dioceses transferring child sex abusers just ahead of the child sex abuse scandals which often generate abuse reports and documentation.”
  • Abuse Occurred After Bishops Knew: 97 victims (well over 50 percent of the 166) were sexually abused after the Bishops knew that the perpetrators had sexually abused children previously.
  • Secret Code Language: The Report confirmed “the Roman Catholic Church’s long history of silence, self-protection, and secrecy empowered by euphemism. In the past, the Colorado Dioceses have deployed elusive, opaque language to shroud reports and their knowledge of clergy child sex abuse.”

Colorado Compensation Programs
Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Denver, and the Dioceses of Colorado Springs and Pueblo opened compensation programs for survivors of child sexual abuse committed by priests. Based in part on today’s troubling Report findings, we believe there is a better way to protect children and help courageous survivors.

The compensation programs only offer compensation; they do not require full transparency regarding clergy abuse and how these dioceses protected perpetrator priests, as litigation likely would. Nor do they require the dioceses to implement child protection protocols, as litigation likely would. In addition, survivors of child sexual abuse by members of religious orders, priests from other dioceses or lay persons are not eligible to participate in the programs. And survivors who accept compensation through the programs waive their right to file a lawsuit against the dioceses in the future.

Where to Go From Here
We believe that the fairer and better path to child protection and survivor healing is statute of limitations reform. This includes eliminating civil and criminal statutes of limitations for sexual abuse, and providing a “window” period during which survivors of child sexual abuse whose claims are currently barred by a statute of limitations could bring abuse lawsuits against perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them—no matter when the abuse occurred.

“Because abuse is often not known until years after it occurred and the flaws we identified impede full reporting, clergy child sex abuse in Colorado may still be occurring,” the Report concludes. “The fact that we found no substantiated clergy child sex abuse incidents in the files after 1998 does not mean there was no abuse between 1998 and the present; it may only mean such abuse has not been reported yet. If the dioceses do not address the flaws we have identified in their response systems, victims will fail to report, the ones who do may be re-victimized, and their abusers will remain in active ministry and not be brought to justice.”

Statute of limitations reform enabling survivors to come forward requires powerful institutions that usually resist reform legislation, such as the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America, to get on board and tell lawmakers that child protection is more important than protecting perpetrators and institutions.

It can be done. California, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, Minnesota and Hawaii recently implemented statute of limitations reform aimed at child protection and healing for survivors. We urge the Archbishop and Bishops in Colorado to take the next steps and support reform, or at least not stand in the way.