Colorado's Catholic leaders announced last week an agreement that allows a former federal prosecutor to review files of sex abuse allegations involving minors, going back 70 years to 1950.
Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, on behalf of the state's three dioceses, issued the announcement in conjunction with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.
Former Attorney General Cynthia Coffman initiated a process, which led to last week's announcement, after a Pennsylvania grand jury found credible evidence of more than 300 priests abusing victims over 70 years.
"We are fortunate our three (Catholic) leaders said 'We want to commit to transparency' ... They know there is a cloud over their church," Weiser said in a visit with The Gazette's editorial board last week that included church lawyers and the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.
"This is a model of collaborative problem solving that truly makes Colorado special," Weiser said. "Other states and state AGs are asking, 'How did you forge this framework?'"
The church and private donations will pay for the investigation, led by former Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. It culminates in a report next fall that will name abusers and cover-ups the process may discover. A church fund will compensate victims with credible claims, regardless of statutes of limitations.
Accolades are due church leaders, Weiser, Coffman and others leading the process. As Weiser states, sexual abuse of minors is a "pressing societal issue." We must do all possible to expose and punish abusers, while comforting and supporting survivors.
In our meeting, Weiser consistently described the new process as a "model" other institutions might replicate.
Let's hope so.
The Catholic Church has an abysmal history of mismanaging knowledge of sex predators. Fortunately, today's American Catholic institutions are safe harbors when compared with most other environments that combine adults with kids.
Since American bishops held a historic 2002 summit in Dallas, nearly all American Catholic institutions have implemented state-of-the-practice security measures. In most dioceses, adults must pass background checks and fulfill coursework about detecting child abusers and victims before working with children. Schools closely monitor visitors, including parents they know. The church screens prospective deacons, priests and teachers like never before.
Though the investigation could find otherwise, Archbishop Aquila assures the public he knows of no credible sex abuse allegations involving children and Colorado priests since 2002.
The same cannot be said of adults working in most other institutions that serve kids.
Anyone who watches local news knows anecdotally about the alarming rate of sex abuse involving children in public schools.
A Denver Post investigation in June documented widespread flouting of a state law that requires educators to report suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor. The report began with details of Richard "Rick" Johnson, a former Rocky Heights Middle School teacher in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Teachers, the principal and students suspected him of having sex with young girls for more than a year.
"Not until parents went to police was Johnson investigated, charged and convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl he began showering with affection the year before" the Post reports.
"The mandatory reporting law is seldom enforced and often results in leniency for violators," the Post continues, backing up the claim with data and lurid tales of schools ignoring knowledge of abuse.
Congress mandated a 2004 study of sexual abuse in public schools, leading the top researcher to declare "the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests."
A 2007 AP investigation concludes that "Students in America's schools are groped. They're raped. They're pursued, seduced and think they're in love." The investigation documented institutionalized resistance by teachers, administrators and the National Education Association to report abuse.
A 2017 Associated Press investigation found more than 17,000 "official" reports of sex assaults in K-12 schools between 2011 and 2015, though "attacks are greatly under-reported."
"Administrators and educators," the AP reports, "engaged in cover-ups to hide evidence of a possible crime and protect their schools' image."
All varieties of institutions serving young people attract predators, and few respond responsibly. As the Catholic Church in America has learned the hard way, protecting children requires extraordinary measures at a high cost. It involves brutal honestly, sophisticated security, education, full transparency, cooperation with civil and criminal authorities and a relentless pursuit of truth.
Let us hope Colorado's attorney general, bishops, investigators and sex abuse survivors can make the new investigation a constructive model for others to follow. All children matter, Catholic and otherwise. Each warrants protection from sexual abuse — just as survivors deserve justice.
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