Aquila: Report on Colorado sexual abuse calls Church to vigilance and holiness

AquilaCNA Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver gives a catechesis session during World Youth Day in Rio July 25, 2013. | Estefania Aguirre/CNA

After the release of a report on sexual abuse in Colorado's Catholic dioceses, the Archbishop of Denver said that the Church should learn from its past, and that spiritual renewal is an essential part of ensuring a safe environment in the Church.

Issued Oct. 23, the report examined the archives and personnel files of Colorado's dioceses dating back 70 years. It found that 43 diocesan priests since 1950 have been credibly accused of sexually abusing at least 166 children in the state.  

The report was issued after a seven-month investigation conducted by a former U.S. Attorney, Bob Troyer. Colorado's bishops and the state's attorney general decided mutually to support the investigation, which was funded by an anonymous donor.

While nearly 70% of victims were abused in the 1960s and 1970s, the most recent acts of clerical sexual abuse documented in the report took place in 1998, when a now incarcerated and laicized Denver priest sexually abused a teenage boy.

Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila told CNA Oct. 23 that after the scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick emerged in June 2018, Colorado's bishops wanted an independent investigation of their own files. The archbishop said they reached an agreement with the attorney general's office on the investigation because they wanted to understand the "historic nature of sexual abuse within the state of Colorado among diocesan priests."

"None of us knew what we were going to find out," Aquila told CNA.

Aquila told CNA that he was devastated to read the report, especially because, he said, his "first concern" is to provide care for the victims of clerical sexual abuse.

The report documented cases in which sexual abuse committed by priests was ignored, in some cases, during the 1960s and 1970s, as priest abusers were moved from parish to parish by Church leaders.

Aquila said he was disappointed and angry to see the Church's failure to respond to some allegations.

"The Church really did not respond well to these cases," he told CNA.

"It's a genuine concern that that not be repeated."

"If a minor is sexually abused that priest needs to face justice. He needs to be reported to civil authorities and brought to trial and laicized. And we are bound to follow that policy, and I think we have been for the last 20 years," he added.

Aquila said the report, which offered recommendations to Colorado's dioceses about how best to respond to allegations, will be helpful for his archdiocese.

The report paints a damning picture of the past.

"It was clear from our file review that especially before the early 1990s the Colorado Dioceses (like others) often intentionally did not document child sex abuse allegations or referred to them in such euphemistic terms that they were completely obscured. In some instances, Church officials in the 1980s purged such documentation from priest files," the report said.

"Our review 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."

The report cited examples in which Colorado dioceses documented allegations of coercive and serial sexual abuse of children, including rape, with terms like "boundary violation," and "boy troubles."

More in US

The report also said that Colorado dioceses were historically negligent in reporting allegations to police. It lamented that "all the way up to at least the early 1990s...professionals asserting high moral authority chose to protect their institution and their colleagues over children."

In a letter to priests issued Oct. 22, Aquila wrote that after reading the report, "my feelings have ranged from deep sadness for the victims, to anger at the perpetrators, to compassion and solidarity for the victims, and profound sorrow for the Church and her clergy to have to experience this. It has led me to understand in a deeper way the reality of sin and evil, which can affect any one of us at any time."

In a letter to Denver Catholics, Aquila praised "the courage of the survivors who have shared the stories of their abuse."

"I know there are no words that I can say that will take away the pain. However, I want to be clear that on behalf of myself and the Church, I apologize for the pain and hurt that this abuse has caused, and for anytime the Church's leaders failed to prevent it from happening. I am sorry about this horrible history-but it is my promise to continue doing everything I can so it never happens again. My sincere hope is that this report provides some small measure of justice and healing," the archbishop said, while offering to meet with any survivor who wishes to see him.

Aquila told CNA he hopes some measure of healing will also come from the Colorado Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program, an initiative that allows the survivors of clerical sexual abuse to seek financial compensation through an independent body empowered to determine the amount of money a diocese should remit to an abuse victim. Similar programs have been established in California and other states.

The archbishop also emphasized to CNA his conviction that the Archdiocese of Denver has, since the 1990s, been proactive about its approach to preventing and addressing sexual abuse. He said his most recent predecessors, Cardinal James Stafford and Archbishop Charles Chaput, had taken abuse seriously, and developed strict policies on the Church's response to abuse.

The report acknowledged that "Colorado Dioceses' practices are better than they were," while adding that "they must continue to evolve."

(Story continues below)

Noting that that two alleged incidents of 'grooming' took place in recent years, but no alleged incidents of sexual abuse, the report said that "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 offered several recommendations to Colorado's dioceses, including making changes to the composition and practices of "conduct response teams," or "diocesan review boards," and to their methods.

Those boards are responsible for reviewing claims of abuse or misconduct, usually after police have done so, to assist in canonical investigations and to make recommendations about the suitability of priests for ministry.

The report said that when such boards interview victims, their approach can seem intimidating. It also urged that an independent investigator be charged with reviewing allegations of abuse during the Church's internal investigation process, which ordinarily comes after police investigations.

"We are going to take their recommendations," Aquila told CNA, noting especially the recommendation that the  "investigatory component be turned over to someone who is independent." The archbishop said his diocese has already begun that process.

The report also suggested that Denver's review board not be composed specifically of Catholics, which, it said, are likely to have an institutional bias in favor of protecting the Church.

Aquila challenged that supposition, telling CNA that Catholics have been most emphatically angry about child abuse in the Church, and eager to see it excised.

Nevertheless, he said that archdiocesan leaders will discuss how best to implement the report's recommendations.

But Aquila told CNA that in his view, the culture of the Church has changed considerably in recent decades, which makes clerical sexual abuse far less likely than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when it peaked in Colorado.

"With all of the screening that we do today, for men entering seminaries, and even ongoing screening that we do while they are in the seminary… we are really forming priests who are healthy, who can live chaste celibate lives, and also helping people to see that they can live virtuously, and that we are called to live virtuously," he said.

 "The formation of today is much different than it was 30, 40, 50 years ago," the archbishop added.

"There was a certain rigidity back in those years that never really looked at the true call to holiness...There was no intimacy with Jesus Christ, no personal relationship with Jesus, and when you read the lives of the saints you see how evident that personal relationship was in their lives."

In the 1960s and 1970s, Aquila said, "many within the Church had a very superficial understanding of the power and authority of Christ ... There was a real malformation of the human person, and of the men becoming priests."

"They did not hear clearly the call to holiness and intimacy with Christ, and trust in his promises."

Aquila said that along with ensuring psychological health, encouraging spiritual health among priests is critical to eradicating sexual abuse in the Church.

"I am totally convinced of the teaching of John Paul II on the theology of the body, and I really believe that that has helped the Church to understand the true meaning of the dignity of the human body and the understanding of human sexuality," he said.

"When I look at the priests who have committed abuse, my first question is 'how could a man who has been called to serve Christ, and to be Christ in the midst of his people, ever do this kind of an act?'"

Acknowledging the effects of clericalism and the problem of the abuse of power, Aquila said he believes it important to ask a more fundamental question regarding abusive priests:

"'Did you take your call seriously? And did you know your identity as a beloved son of the Father?' Because if I know my true identity as a beloved son of the Father, I would never, ever do something like that."

He said that priestly formation must have an "emphasis on faith, which was totally superficial when we were being formed … It's through the gift of faith, and living that, and receiving that, that I will live a moral life. And be happy," the archbishop said.

Regarding priestly formation, "What you really want to root everything in is the dignity of the human person," Aquila said.

"God makes us to be in relationship with others and with him. But the first and primary relationship has to be with Jesus Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. They must always come first. The very food of the priest is the food that Jesus lived, to do the will of the Father."

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Colorado's attorney general Paul Weiser said the report documents a "dark and painful history."

"It's unimaginable, and the most painful part for me is we have had stories told of victims coming forward and they weren't supported. We can't make up for that. What we can do is build a culture that, going forward, when people come forward and tell their stories they are supported," Weiser added.

Aquila agreed. Acknowledging the wrongdoing of the past is important, he said, as is seeking forgiveness.

"We must learn from the suffering of the victims and never assume that we could not face another perpetrator in our midst. Just in the last few years it has become even more apparent that perpetrators infect every organization, the Boy Scouts, the public schools, the Olympics, news organizations, colleges-these abusers can manifest in every part of our lives if we are not alert and responsive. We, more than any organization in this Country, know we must be vigilant," he wrote to Catholics Oct. 23.

In an Oct. 23 statement, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan wrote that "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."

"Mr. Troyer's investigation found that the latest of these incidents occurred around 1986. With Archbishop Aquila and Bishop Berg, I commit on behalf of this Diocese to fully embrace and implement each and every recommendation made by" the report.

Pueblo Bishop Stephen Berg's statement said "I want to assure everyone that since the early 1990s, one decade before the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was introduced, the Diocese of Pueblo has promoted healing and put into place procedures meant to ensure a safe environment for our children. We have mandated a zero tolerance policy, removing any priest or minister for any act of sexual misconduct with a minor. We immediately report any suspected child abuse to law enforcement and cooperate fully with them."

Berg continued: "If we are to truly reform the Church we must begin again and always with our unique and primary mission as Catholics to proclaim Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As we now enter into the holy season of Christmas, let us all carefully consider the precious gifts which God has given each of us: our lives, our families, our children, our neighbors, our Church and our Faith. Let us be thankful for all who have worked over years to protect and heal the Little Ones among us. In purposeful outreach to those innocent victims who have been grievously harmed, let us pray for our Church leadership to firmly take the next steps to end all facets of this tragedy."

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.