Archbishop Aquila: Update on completion of independent review and reparations process

To the faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver, 

In the summer of 2018, revelations about former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report initiated another extensive look at the history of sexual abuse of minors in the U.S. Catholic Church. 

For many faithful Catholics, I know how disheartening this was because there was a feeling that this issue had been addressed, so despite no current cases, why was it back in the news?  

The reality is that even though we have spent decades taking steps to make sure our children are protected and that survivors are cared for, the healing process remains on-going and the work continues.  

Today, as we wrap up an almost two-year independent review and reparations process, I want to provide my thoughts and reflections on what we have learned, and where we go from here.  

When we engaged in conversations with Attorneys General Cynthia Coffman and then Phil Weiser about how we could cooperatively examine the Church here in Colorado, I entered our archdiocese into a statewide agreement to achieve the following three goals:  

  1. Offer a transparent accounting of the history of sexual abuse of minors by priests in our parishes including a review of how the archdiocese responded. 
  1. Provide a safe and simple means for survivors to come forward and receive support in their healing.  
  1. Obtain a thorough review and critique of our current prevention and response policies to make sure they are of the highest standards.  

I believe we have accomplished those goals. 

Transparency  

Today’s supplemental report identified five more diocesan priests with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. These allegations were received as part of the independent reparations program that invited survivors from any era to come forward and receive compensation from the Church. Special master Robert Troyer was asked to review these allegations and commissioned to write a supplemental report.  

The priests identified today, with the date of first abuse, are: Fr. Kenneth Funk (1959); Fr. Daniel Kelleher (1962); Fr. James Moreno (1978); Fr. Gregory Smith (1971); Fr. Charles Woodrich (1976). 

The supplemental report also identified additional allegations against eight of the priests named in the initial report for a total of 23 recently substantiated allegations in our Archdiocese. From both reports, our Archdiocese had a total of 150 substantiated incidents committed by 27 diocesan priests.  

But importantly, the additional substantiated allegations continue to fit the same historical pattern from the first report, specifically, that over 85 percent of the incidents occurred more than 40 years ago during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and none of the substantiated incidents occurred in the last 20 years. There are also no substantiated allegations against any current priest in active ministry.  

It remains true that nearly half of the total incidents were committed by one man, Harold White, and 70 percent of the incidents committed by four former priests. (White, Abercrombie, Holloway, Hewitt). 

I offer no excuses for these sins of the past, or the historical failure to respond to allegations against Harold White and others, but the context of when the abuse happened is important. 

While we can’t completely rule out the possibility that there are more recent cases that have not been reported to us, the most recent known incident in our Archdiocese remains 1999. Through extensive media coverage of this process, multiple opportunities for survivors to come forward, and the work of independent investigators, we still have not discovered any substantiated abuse by our diocesan priests occurring in over 20 years.  Further, any person who participated in the reparations program had to first report their allegation to law enforcement. Therefore we are confident that there are no priests in active ministry with known substantiated allegations against them.

As I have said many times before, we must remain vigilant, but this extensive, independent process should remove any cloud of unfair suspicion from our current priests.  

Justice and Healing 

While I cannot speak for every survivor, my hope is that this process has served them in their healing.  

I know that for many, having to relive any aspect of their abuse was extremely painful, but I hope that the listing of names provided a measure of vindication by publicly acknowledging the horrible wrongs that were committed.  

I further hope that the independent reparations program provided meaningful resources and compensation, with a process that was designed to protect the dignity of the survivors by putting them in control. 

The program was completely confidential for those who wished to remain private, non-adversarial with no depositions or extended legal requirements, and run completely independent of the Church.  

I will continue to meet personally with any survivors who desire to do so, and even those these specific programs have ended, we will continue to offer support to anyone who comes forward.  

Protecting Children Today 

Finally, a critical aspect of this process was to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect the children entrusted to our care.  

Beginning with Archbishop Stafford in the early 1990s, and continuing with Archbishop Chaput and myself, we have taken many steps over the last 30 years to make sure our parishes and schools are a safe place for children.  

Through enhanced screening processes, mandatory trainings on reporting and prevention responsibilities, and strict zero-tolerance and code of conduct policies, we have made significant progress, as evidenced by the significant decline in cases.  

But it has been an invaluable experience to receive an independent and thorough review of our current safe-environment policies. The recommendations provided by the Special Master have allowed us to build upon and strengthen our decades of work and make certain we are using every best practice and that we are held to the highest of standards.  Our children deserve nothing less.  

Moving Forward 

The conclusion of this process does not mean our work is done. As Catholics, we must re-affirm our commitment to never becoming complacent, and as a Church, that we will continue to pray for all survivors and their families.

The survivors of abuse who have come forward should also know that their voices have helped make sure that the Archdiocese is a safe place. We have endeavored to make our child protection measures part of the fabric of the Archdiocese and will continue this work to be a leader among all youth-serving organizations.   

We also join the Attorney General in encouraging other youth-serving organizations to consider the review and reparations processes we have used as a model to address similar issues. Sexual abuse is a society-wide issue, and we are ready to share our experience and partner with anyone looking to enhance their own child protection and survivor support efforts.  

May the spotlight on our past, be a light to guide others forward.  

Sincerely yours in Christ, 

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila  

Links: 

Read a Statement from the Colorado Bishops 

Read the Special Master’s Supplemental Report  

Read the Final Report from the Independent Oversight Committee  

Visit Promise.ArchDen.org, to learn more about keeping kids safe from abuse.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”