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Some question if Colorado probe of Catholic Church will uncover full scope of priests' abuse

Posted at 6:53 PM, Sep 23, 2019

DENVER – As investigations in other states produce arrests and unearth abuse allegations within the Catholic Church, some people in Colorado are questioning if negotiations before the state’s review began will protect the church’s reputation and prevent the disclosure of decades worth of closely held secrets.

Three survivors of abuse at the hands of priests – in New Mexico, Kansas and Massachusetts – are now longtime Colorado residents and have renounced their membership with the church as they closely monitor the state’s investigation into archdioceses here.

Those who spoke to Contact7 Investigates told stories of abuse as a 12-year-old altar boy at the hands of a New Mexico priest, as a young girl being “passed around” by priests in Kansas and as a middle school altar boy in Massachusetts who was fondled by his priest at age 13.

In February, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Archbishop Samuel Aquila announced that former U.S. Attorney for Colorado Robert Troyer would lead an independent review into the sexual abuse of minors in the three Colorado dioceses. They also announced the creation of an independent compensation fund for victims of the abuse – a combined effort between the AG’s office and the church.

However, the review is not a criminal investigation: The attorney general’s office has provided resources to local district attorneys to investigate any new criminal conduct that is uncovered.

Half of the review by Troyer is funded by the three dioceses and the other half is privately funded by donors picked by Weiser’s office.

But that differs from the investigations in some other states. Pennsylvania’s attorney general used the power of a two-year grand jury investigation, which uncovered “widespread sexual abuse of children in six dioceses” involving 300 priests and 1,000 victims, which the attorney general called a “systemic cover up” involving the Pennsylvania dioceses and the Vatican.

Investigations followed in almost two-dozen states, including New York, Michigan and Texas. In Houston, the archdiocese named more than 40 priests who were credibly accused.

“I am not here to gain the cooperation of the Catholic Church,” Montgomery County (Texas) District Attorney Brett Ligon said at the time. “We are here to gain records for the successful investigation and prosecution of a criminal defendant.”

Therein lies the significant difference. Colorado’s investigation involves zero grand juries or search warrants, which former priest and longtime critic of the church Tom Doyle says is “a joke.”

“I think it’s a farce,” Doyle said. “It’s a farce because it’s cooked up mainly to benefit and cover for the institutional church.”

Former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman started the negotiations with the church and its attorneys during her final months of her administration. She told Contact7 Investigates that she didn’t get everything from the church she wanted during the negotiations and called that result “disappointing.”

“There were some painful compromises we had to make to get an agreement,” she said in an interview.

She prioritized a robust social campaign to publicize a hotline for victims after a similar one in Pennsylvania produced more than 1,900 calls.

But since Colorado’s hotline was first publicized in February, the hotline has produced only 33 calls. Finding it requires navigating the attorney general’s office’s website.

Coffman, who unsuccessfully ran for the state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination last year, said she would have liked to have seen “a more robust effort” to publicize the hotline. She also has questions about the final language of the public agreement.

“It said to me that the church had put its spin on the terminology of the agreement,” Coffman said – noting that the agreement did not specifically contain the words “secret files.”

“Secret files” are known within the church as Canon 489 §1. They are ultra-sensitive, secret documents that include sexual crimes committed by clergy members. Colorado’s dioceses agreed to turn over the files for the investigation, but the term was removed from the public agreement.

“Sanitizing it only makes the church look worse,” said Doyle, the former priest. “So, they’re concerned about their image. They’re not doing themselves a favor by playing these games.”

Weiser says the state’s legislature has created legal limitations to his office’s judicial authority, but says he is using that authority as effectively as he can to produce accountability from the review of the church.

“We know there have been cases of abuse in Colorado,” he said. “This is a chance to name names and to have a full accounting.”

The Archdiocese of Denver declined requests from Contact7 Investigates to interview Aquila, the archbishop. But the archdiocese sent over a lengthy statement saying it has turned over all the secret files to investigators and reiterates that the church voluntarily entered into the agreement for the purpose of providing both justice and healing.

“The final report will provide a detailed list and summary of all substantiated allegations from our files, and will also include an evaluation of the dioceses’ current policies and procedures to prevent and report abuse,” the statement said. “This is important to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep our children safe.”

As for Coffman, she hopes the investigation unearths any missing cases and serves as an impetus for more victims to come forward.

“I want to know what we don’t know. I think that is as important as knowing what is in their files – what is missing and where do we need to look next?” she said. “I don’t consider this an ending point; I consider this a beginning on behalf of the victims.”

The review is expected to wrap up by the end of the October, according to people close to it.

Anyone who believes they or someone they know might have been victimized by clergy members in Colorado is asked to contact the Attorney General’s Office’s hotline at 720-508-6003 and the Contact7 Investigates line at 303-832-0172. You can email Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski by clicking here.