Reconciling the sins of the past

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Father Randy Dollins is the Vicar General and Vicar for Clergy for the Archdiocese of Denver.  In this column, he shares some reflections on the Church in Colorado moving forward, while dealing with its difficult past.

The World Series is one of the year’s most exciting sporting events. I think one of the most difficult roles in the world of sports is that of the relief pitcher, who almost always is entering into the game in difficult situations. None worse than inheriting bases loaded with no outs. The difficulty he must face is not one of his own making, and yet he must now bring his talents to bear and help his team get through the inning and move forward.

In a much more serious way, all of us who make up the Body of Christ, the Church of Colorado, have inherited a difficult situation that is not of our own making. We are part of a Church that has some ugly issues in its past — as shown by the release of the Independent Review Report.

As we face the inevitable challenges that come from the media, our friends and family, and even our own inner doubts, it is important that we not lose sight of the hope that Jesus gives us. St. Paul tell us in his Letter to the Ephesians: “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” (Ephesians 1:18)

Here, St. Paul is praying that the reader will grasp the great promise of the future, because when we have clarity about our future, it changes the way we understand our present reality, especially our view of hardships and challenges.

Think about it this way: if I were to press you into service to carry a large 50 lbs. box for 10 miles, you would not be happy. If I promised to pay you one dollar per mile, this might even make you more upset, as the compensation would be insulting compared to the effort you would have to put forth. But what if I were to pay you $1 million per mile? I bet that you would no longer be upset with me, that you would be thanking me for entrusting the task to you.

We have been invited, through the redemption won for us on the cross, to a future full of hope, which includes eternal life in heaven in the midst of the assembly of the holy ones in right praise and right relationship with God. This destiny of ours is far more important and impressive than getting paid $10 million. We need to pray for increased clarity about who we are and where we are headed so that we do not lose hope in these challenging times, because we are the beloved children of a faithful Father. With our hope rightly understood, the present difficulties are less likely to defeat us.

As we face this challenging time in the history of our local Church, let’s keep the following things in mind:

• Colorado, unlike other states, has found a way for the Church and the civil authorities to come together, in a cooperative and amicable manner, to address the concerns of all citizens. Both the Review Report and the Reparations Program are a step forward in transparency and accountability.

• Everything that is good, holy, and noble in our Catholic faith is still present and is worth protecting.

• The sacraments remain valid despite the unworthiness of those at whose hands they were offered; despite the sin of the ministers, the grace that they mediate remains.

• None of us is Catholic because we think the leaders of the Church are flawless, but rather, because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that his victory becomes our victory.

• Sexual abuse of minors is a major problem in our society today; but it is a historical problem in the Church with its clergy, employees, and volunteers. While making no excuses for the past, and never claiming to be perfect in the present, the Church is in a position to share its experience of how to effectively address abuse.

Finally, let us take to heart the words of Jesus from his discourse during the Last Supper: 

“In the world you will have trouble; but take courage: I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

COMING UP: Independent Review Report: A message from Archbishop Aquila

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We must face the past and learn from it, and we must know if our children are safe today. Thanks to our ongoing vigilance, they are.

A year ago, I made a promise that the Archdiocese of Denver would not hide from the past and must face the historical sexual abuse of minors by its diocesan priests. In February I wrote to you, advising you that we were working with the Attorney General’s office to invite an independent third-party investigator, former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer, to conduct an independent review of all three dioceses in Colorado. The scope of that work is documented in a written agreement, which is published on our website and the Attorney General’s website, and anyone who reads that document will understand it was a sweeping investigation.

I want to thank Attorney General Phil Weiser, and Mr. Troyer for their efforts to work with us to protect children. This was not an easy task for anyone involved.

THE REPORT

Mr. Troyer’s review is now complete, and his written report covers 70 years of files and allegations of sexual abuse of minors dating back to 1950. Mr. Troyer interviewed survivors, priests, experts, victim advocates, safe environment staff, and others as part of his investigation and fact-finding efforts. He met with experts in the field of child abuse prevention. In addition, the Attorney General’s office set up a phone line and encouraged survivors to come forward. New survivors came forward. We should all be comforted that this investigation spanned seven decades, has been thorough and is transparent.

I promised without reservation that I would openly share his report and adopt his recommendations.

I honor that promise today.

THE SURVIVORS

I want to start by addressing the courage of the survivors who have shared the stories of their abuse. As a result of the Attorney General and Church’s shared efforts to have this issue investigated and a report published, several survivors have come forward for the first time and more are likely to come forward in the days ahead. We recognize how difficult it is for survivors of abuse to share their stories, and we thank all of you for your courage.

If any survivor wishes to meet with me personally, my door is open. I have met with many survivors, and from these heart-wrenching personal interactions, 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. 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.

It is my promise to continue doing everything I can so it never happens again.” – Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

As we all read about the abuse of the past, it is easy to become angry at the abusers and those who protected them, and deeply saddened at the damage these perpetrators inflicted on children. Indeed, two priests, Robert White and Leonard Abercrombie, account for over 60% of all the victims in the report. These two men devastated dozens of victims and their families. Fourteen years ago, in 2006, the Archdiocese of Denver established a program for victims of priests to come forward, and more than 50 victims came forward and received financial compensation. More have come forward since then. I commit to you through the independent compensation program jointly opened two weeks ago — by all three dioceses in Colorado — that we are here to help you if you were abused by one of these two priests or any other diocesan priest.

VIGILANCE

One of the important goals of this independent review was to determine whether our children are safe — whether there are diocesan priests in ministry with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. From his review, Mr. Troyer identified no diocesan priests in active ministry in the Archdiocese with substantiated claims of sexual abuse of a minor. His report also found no substantiated reports of sexual abuse of minors by diocesan priests in the Archdiocese within the past 20 years. Consistent with every study of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church — over 85% of the reported cases examined by Mr. Troyer are from the 1970’s or earlier. The last substantiated incident of abuse across all three dioceses was 1998 (and that priest is in prison and the case was handled properly by the Archdiocese). The horror of this abuse is something we must learn from, and for me it culminates in a single word. VIGILANCE.

Before I turn to the need for vigilance, please, I urge you, for the innocent priests who serve you and this community every day and who have suffered this scandal, for the parents in our schools, for all of those in our parishes and programs, for our volunteers and for every good-intentioned person in Colorado, maintain focus on the fact that the review identifies no substantiated allegations of abuse in the last 20 years and found no diocesan priest in active ministry with a substantiated claim of abuse. We are truly blessed with the priests in our Archdiocese! As I have read the report and revisit the historical abuse from decades ago, I have kept this progress in the front of my mind.

Now 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.

PREVENTION

The Archdiocese believes strongly in the prevention and reporting polices we’ve implemented and strengthened since 1991, but we welcomed an independent review to identify any weaknesses or gaps that could be addressed. Since the Dallas Charter of 2002, we have trained 84,000 priests, deacons, employees and volunteers on how to identify signs of abuse or neglect and on their obligations as mandatory reporters. Every year, approximately 22,000 children are trained how to identify inappropriate conduct by adults and how they can report it. We require all priests to sign a sexual misconduct policy and attend training. It is efforts like these that make me grateful to our Office of Child and Youth Protection and the more than one hundred thousand lay Catholics that make our environments safe.

Importantly, Mr. Troyer found our safe environment training programs to be effective. But, given his experience and work on this project, he recommended that our investigation of reported abuse should be done by independent trained investigators and the process needs to be more victim-centered. We are committed to continuing to improve our response to anyone who comes forward to report sexual abuse as a minor, and specifically those that come forward when they are adults and their abusers were removed from ministry or died a long time ago. We know we have been able to help many people, but we will listen and learn from those who came forward and felt they weren’t treated appropriately. Indeed, we will follow all of Mr. Troyer’s recommendations and are already working to implement changes. I plan to personally be involved in that effort and will be in continued contact with Mr. Troyer and the Attorney General to make sure our collaboration to protect children is ongoing.

REASSERTING THE PROMISE

To close, I will remind you that a year ago, as your Archbishop, I made a series of public promises to ensure the sins of the past are not repeated. Today I stand by those promises and reassert my commitment to them further:

• Allegations of sexual abuse of a minor will continue to always be properly reported to local authorities.
• I will continue to immediately remove a member of the clergy or any other church worker from active ministry during an investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor.
• I will continue to take very seriously all reported incidents of misconduct by members of the clergy or other Church workers, and we will investigate even non-criminal misconduct with great diligence.
• I will continue to never transfer a member of the clergy who is under investigation.
• I will continue to remove from ministry permanently and without the ability to be transferred to any other Catholic institution, any member of the clergy who is found to have had sexual misconduct with a minor.
• I will continue to hold us accountable for addressing misconduct whenever we are made aware of it.
• I demand and will continue to enforce a strict and diligent screening process for all seminary applicants.

Sexual abuse is a societal problem and there is no single answer or single action to eliminate all sexual abuse, but we will not rest in our efforts to protect children. We will use our resources and community partnerships to be a leader in this area, and we will strive to improve. For a full list of my promises to you, and for additional information about the report, please visit archden.org/promise.

Please join me in praying for all survivors, their families, and our communities, and for our ongoing efforts to bring healing and reconciliation to the survivors of sexual abuse.

In Christ,

 

 

Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila, S.T.L.
Archbishop of Denver