One hundred sixty-six children.
That is the tally of likely abuse victims at the hands of Roman Catholic clergy in Colorado, a special master’s report released Wednesday by state Attorney General Phil Weiser's office found.
“Our review confirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s long history of silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” the report's authors wrote.
In February, Colorado's former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer was appointed special master of the investigation into alleged clergy abuse. Troyer led a group of investigators in reviewing 500 priest files and interviewing 70 witnesses, clergy, victims, family members, and other church personnel.
In total, 43 priests were implicated in the report. In the Denver Archdiocese, 22 priests allegedly sexually abused at least 127 children from 1950 to the present. The report went on to account for 36 victims by 19 priests in the Pueblo Diocese and three victims by two priests in the Colorado Springs Diocese.
Authors referred no charges to prosecutors, although they did report to law enforcement one case that potentially falls within the statute of limitations.
While two-thirds of the alleged abuse occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, the most recent documented victimization in Colorado happened in 1998. On average, it took nearly 20 years for Catholic leaders to restrict a priest’s authority after learning about allegations against him, according to the report.
It is impossible to say that clergy sex abuse has stopped or that there are no priests still actively molesting children, the report cautions.
“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 authors warned.
An inherently flawed and biased structure was set up to hear victims' complaints, according to the report.
The Denver Archdiocese, and Colorado Springs and Pueblo dioceses, each had a victim assistance coordinator and a panel to review allegations for credibility.
The report found that in all three organizations, the procedures were inadequate.
“This approach to a sexual assault victim interview cuts against long-standing and universally accepted methods for interviewing victims of any type of crime, let alone victims of sexual assault,” the authors concluded, describing Denver’s process of inviting victims into the archdiocese to face a panel interview from inexperienced investigators.
Asking victims to provide clear statements in a setting filled with Catholic symbols was “unrealistic.”
“Humiliating” was how one victim described it.
The report advocated for establishing an independent investigator in each diocese.
“If there are people out there or people who know people who are victims, please reach out to our office,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said at a press conference Wednesday.
“A system where victims are left feeling like they are kind of advocating for themselves in a potentially intimidating environment isn’t conducive to them being heard and taken seriously.”
In a video message on the Denver Archdiocese's website, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila announced that he would adopt Troyer's recommendations and apologized to the victims.
"One of the important goals of this independent review was to determine whether our children are safe and whether there are diocesan priests in ministry with substantiated allegations of abuse," he said. "From his investigation, Mr. Troyer identified no diocesan priests in active ministry with substantiated claims of abuse."
While multiple incidents of abuse occurred in Colorado Springs, the report noted only three victims at the hands of priests employed by the Colorado Springs Diocese.
"One victim of the horrific crime of child sexual abuse is too many; the Diocese of Colorado Springs must own the consequences of having three. One predator priest is too many; the Diocese of Colorado Springs must recognize and repent of two," Bishop Michael Sheridan wrote in a statement.
Sheridan said the Colorado Springs Diocese would "fully embrace and implement each and every recommendation" in the report.
The Pueblo Diocese did not comment specifically on Troyer's recommendations, but said in a statement that "we are committed to continuing to improve our response to anyone who comes forward to report sexual abuse as a minor."
“Microcosm” of failures
The report enumerated the stories of each of the 43 Colorado priests’ victims, sometimes in explicit detail.
By far, the man with the longest trail of alleged victims was Father Harold Robert White, who allegedly abused 63 children during his 21 year career in parishes from Denver to Colorado Springs, as well as on the Eastern Plains and Western Slope.
White was “a microcosm of virtually all the failures we found elsewhere in our review of the Colorado Dioceses’ child sex abuse history,” the authors wrote.
The Denver Archdiocese knew about White’s alleged criminal behavior. It removed him to another parish — six times — to avoid a scandal. It failed to restrict his ministry. It never investigated and never reported to police. It was dishonest with White’s victims about what it knew, according to the report.
In the account of Victim No. 18, White allegedly fondled a sixth-grade alter server on four occasions. During the final incident, the boy defended himself, punching White. The boy’s school expelled him, according to the report.
While the archdiocese did not have knowledge at the time of the full extent of White’s behavior, it also did not begin to seriously engage with law enforcement on the victims it did know about until years later.
“The Denver Archdiocese's response to Victim No. 55's report of his sexual abuse by White was deceitful, dishonest, harmful to Victim No. 55, harmful to White's future victims, and designed only to protect the Denver archdiocese itself regardless of impact on this and future victims,” the report concluded about a 1977 molestation.
The Denver Archdiocese removed White from the ministry in 1993 and laicized him in 2004.
A turn for the better
Due to changes in law, clergy are only required to report suspected abuse of minors from 1969 to 1975 and from 2002 onward.
Colorado’s three dioceses had nearly 100 opportunities to report abuse to law enforcement since 1950, and voluntarily did so on fewer than 10 occasions, the report stated.
From 1969 to 1975, the Denver Archdiocese failed to report the two instances of abuse that the law required. The Archdiocese also did not refer 25 of 39 allegations since 2002 that required mandated law enforcement reporting.
It was the conclusion of the report’s authors that the Denver Archdiocese “neither uniformly understood its mandatory reporting obligations nor uniformly followed a protocol to comply with them.”
Since 2009, however, the archdiocese has complied with the mandated reporter requirement entirely and has even reported abuse cases that do not fall under the requirement, the report stated.
In 2019 alone, more people reported abuse cases in Pueblo and Denver than had reported in the previous five years total.
A compensation fund for victims of abuse is currently accepting claims, and the Catholic Church has given lawyers Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros the authority to award the church’s money without interference to survivors.
Weiser said Wednesday that he felt the church is looking into changing its investigatory procedures, and that he expects the report to receive updates as more people come forward.
“We want your story to be told. We know that this probably is the most painful thing that’s ever happened to you in your life,” he said. "By having a full accounting, we can best learn from and address this wrongdoing.”