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Q&A: Lawyer shares history of clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Denver

The clergy sex abuse scandal revealed in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report has shaken the Church to her core. It’s left many faithful Catholics questioning not only their own faith, but also the leadership of the Church and whether or not such a scandal could occur in their own dioceses.

In an effort to be as transparent as possible, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila launched a webpage last week to speak to the people of northern Colorado about the current crisis and share in comprehensive detail how the Archdiocese of Denver has been and will continue to be diligent in addressing any alleged sexual abuse of a minor by clergy.

Scott Browning, a partner at Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP, has represented the Catholic Church in various cases for 25 years, including, but not limited to, the Archdioceses of Denver, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and St. Louis. In this candid interview, Browning shared some of the finer details of the history of cases that have arisen in Denver over the years, how they were addressed, and shares his professional opinion on where the Archdiocese of Denver, and the Catholic Church as a whole, stands when it comes to protecting children.

Denver Catholic: How long have you been representing the Catholic Church, and what kinds of cases have you worked on? 

Scott Browning: I’ve been representing the Church since 1993, for 25 years now. My work includes many types of legal issues, from real estate and transactional issues to First Amendment issues. During the start of my career my work for the Church was very similar to my work for my corporate clients. In 2005, that significantly changed and I was called upon to defend against clergy abuse claims here in Colorado.

DC: What happened in 2005?

SB: After the Boston scandal broke and the Catholic bishops from across the country gathered in 2002 and developed the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People, there were a large number of cases filed around the country in many dioceses. In late 2005, two national plaintiffs’ law firms filed a series of cases in Colorado and we were soon facing 45 lawsuits and an additional number of unfiled claims. The cases were based on allegations against five priests, all of whom had died.  The cases of alleged abuse occurred from the 1950s to 1982, and almost all of the alleged wrongdoing took place in the 1960s and 70s.

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DC: How were the cases addressed? 

SB: The archdiocese focused on the victims and worked to heal them without litigation, if at all possible. In a then-unique program, the archdiocese created an independent Outreach Panel to consider all claims and offer the victims help, including money for therapy and other needs. The panel was comprised of distinguished professionals – a retired judge, a rehabilitation specialist and a police chief. Victims, and their attorneys if they wanted, could meet with the panel to describe their abuse and the resulting impact, and the panel would then recommend a monetary award to help the victim. The archdiocese’s attorneys did not participate in those meetings or the panel’s deliberations. This program was intended from the outset to be an exercise in caring, not part of the plaintiffs’ lawsuits. Victims were also invited to meet with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput for personal pastoral outreach.

DC: What happened after the announcement of the Panel?

SB: We were able to help dozens of victims, and not just through resolving their cases but through the archdiocese’s demonstration of caring. In a remarkable moment, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys told me about how the archbishop had met with victims and their families, the apologies he made, and the sincerity and sadness he demonstrated in those difficult days. Even that attorney found that the process was positive for his clients. It was meaningful for me personally to see how this issue was handled — as part of the Church’s ministry.

DC: Were all the lawsuits resolved?

SB: Through the work of the Outreach Panel and additional private mediations, all of the lawsuits and claims were resolved by 2010. Notably, in a 2008 editorial, the Denver Post described the process developed by the archdiocese as an “honorable way to address abuse,” and noted the steps that the archdiocese had taken since the early 1990s to minimize the chance of abuse occurring in the future.

DC: What has happened in the archdiocese since then?

SB: Since then we have had a few allegations against priests and laity involved with the archdiocese, but those have been immediately reported to law enforcement to be properly handled. Because of this response, and the work that has been and is being done by the archdiocese to protect children, there really is no basis for a civil law suit. It is impossible to eradicate sexual abuse in society. And, in the last few years it has become very public that sexual abuse is a societal problem. Sexual abuse and abuse of power is prevalent in families, in youth-serving organizations, in youth sports, in private and public schools, in every part of life. It is a deep sadness and something that needs to be addressed society-wide. I know that every organization is at risk of having a sick or troubled person try to hurt young people, and every organization’s charge is to be vigilant and if an incident happens, report it immediately.

DC: Why do you think we have had so few cases over the past 30 years?

SB: As a community we had the good fortune to have Archbishop (now Cardinal) J. Francis Stafford leading the archdiocese in 1986 to 1996. We now know this was a very difficult time for bishops all over the country as they struggled with what to do with the problem of abuse in the Church. We have seen examples of bad decisions in the media.  Cardinal Stafford is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He implemented comprehensive sexual misconduct policies and created a “conduct response team” with lay advisors to address lay and priest sex abuse issues in the Archdiocese. This was a decade before that concept became the normal procedure, after the Charter was adopted by the bishops in the United States in 2002.  Cardinal Stafford employed an approach of “zero tolerance.” He met with law enforcement and acknowledged his cooperation and openness from the outset. The Archdiocese had credibility in every step it took along this road. This good work continued with Archbishop Chaput and it now continues with Archbishop Aquila, who was on Cardinal Stafford’s staff in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There has been a demonstrated effort to protect children as the primary mission of these churchmen and their staffs.

DC: You went to Pennsylvania to help Archbishop Chaput in 2011, have worked there regularly, and are familiar with the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.  Can you share any observations about that situation?

SB: The Report came as a great sadness to me. I had hoped we were starting to put this chapter of the Church behind it. To read those details, to know there are those historic victims of this problem, is devastating. It is hard to read, but studying that document is important for me to do, as a parent and as a professional.

My focus as a professional when I study the report is an urgency to know if children are in danger. As I talk to people there is a misperception that the scale of the abuse in the current Church is enormous.  The media broadcasts the sensational headline of 300 priest abusers, but that is not the current situation.  It is notable that there have not been any indictments of priests based on the report. This tells me that the abuse described in the report occurred in the past, otherwise the Pennsylvania Attorney General would have immediately indicted hundreds of priests. As we all know, that did not happen.

As I studied the report it became clear that very few of the abuse incidents detailed in the report occurred after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Charter in 2002. While the incidents in the last 16 years should not be diminished in the slightest — any abuse is abhorrent — it is important to understand that the vast majority of the claims addressed in the report occurred decades ago in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. For instance, the report references a victim who alleges that he was abused in the 1930s, but he first reported the abuse in 2008.

I worked through the hundreds of pages attempting to count and understand how many of the cases involved abuse occurring after 2002. The details in the report are often vague, but it is apparent that approximately 20 of the cases are after 2002. I represent private schools, charter schools and boarding schools.  One statistic that I know from that work is that in Pennsylvania since 2002 there have been hundreds of public school teachers accused of wrongdoing. There were dozens of teachers accused in 2018 alone. From my perspective, the true scale of the problem in the Catholic Church is not being accurately described right now.

I think there is a practical need to focus on what should be the highest priority — determining if children are at risk now. The report does not take on that question. As hard as it is to say, we can’t assume that sexual abuse can be eradicated. I have heard victims’ advocates and social workers in this area explain that one in five women and one in ten men have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. Abusers are in all parts of our lives and there will continue to be incidents, but the key is for institutions to adopt a zero-tolerance policy and enforce it, to report to and cooperate with law enforcement, and to actively create safe environments.

I was not involved in this legal work when the past problems of the Church occurred, but I can tell you from my work over the last two decades that the Church today is not the Church described in those terrible historic accounts in the report. The Church’s action to atone for the past has to be to continue to help victims, and the Church must work to be the best institution at protecting children. What I do know from working in dioceses nationwide, working with religious, working with secular schools and many secular youth-serving organizations, is that the Church is now a leader in its work to protect children.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.

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