Colorado Special Masters Report asserts clerical “Guilt by Association”
With the unqualified blessings of four Colorado bishops and following the same biased template laid out by the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, former U.S. attorney Robert Troyer on October 24 released the Special Masters Report (the Report) on clergy child sexual abuse in all three Colorado dioceses. I will here limit my observations to my own Archdiocese of Denver but those observations could well apply in principle to the two sufragen dioceses. The report spans a 70 year period from around 1949 to the present found 123 cases of abuse, including alleged abuses, in the archdiocese ─ a distinction clearly overlooked by the Report.
Clerical abuse is a reprehensible disorder which ought never to be tolerated. Nevertheless the current “Me Too” hysteria only seems to be muddying the waters. What we now increasingly see is a rash of unverified allegations from decades long past being blithely fobbed off as established facts. Just so, the evidentiary standards adopted in this Report appear to be rather slim ─ i.e., whether “from our investigation it is more likely than not that a child sex abuse incident occurred.” Who determines what is “likely” and what is not? This is a purely subjective standard which demands no substantial evidence of wrongdoing.
This ignores the possibility of things like “transference” or mis-identification, not unreasonable considerations after a 40 or 50 year span of time. Childhood memories can be surprisingly real yet deceptive, as we have all undoubtedly experienced from time to time. Nor does the Report draw any clear line between misconduct and abuse. Its default preference is to label any allegation of questionable conduct as a verifiable “abuse.”
The Report identified 22 clerical perpetrators from archdiocesan archives. Several names immediately stood out as highly unlikely to anyone who has lived his entire life in this archdiocese. One rather incredible accusation was made in 2002 against a highly respected priest who died in 1954 ,yet no witnesses or circumstantial evidence were offered as corroboration. Now, however, a highly respected cleric is being roundly condemned as a “substantiated abuser!” Many of my own family members personally knew this no-nonsense yet beloved monsignor as far back as the 1920s. His kindness and generosity were legendary. Apart from that Msgr. B_ likely fostered more of priestly vocations to this archdiocese than anyone before or since. Is he perhaps the object of some old unsettled grudge? We will never know for sure. But Msgr. B_ was hardly alone in receiving such shabby treatment in a report awash in speculation that never uses the term “alleged abuse” but only refers to allegations of abuse, no matter how thin, as established facts.
The implied conclusion drawn from the document’s imperative style is that any priest named in the Report should be presumed guilty until proven otherwise, thus making any innocent verdict a practical impossibility, especially for someone 65 years deceased. This is precisely what the progressive left attempted to do during last year’s Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the one difference being that Justice Kavanaugh at least had a voice to defend his honor. What voice does a deceased cleric have?
Note that of 22 “exposed” abusers, ten were based upon the testimony of lone accusers. Of those ten, at least seven were accused post mortem. The time lapse between any alleged abuse and its first reporting ranged between 36 and 58 years, the average being 48. But over such long periods of time memories, for even the most sincere person, can fade or shift dramatically. Were any of those plaintiffs simply trying to settle and old score? Over a long distinguished career of perhaps 50 years any high profile priest is bound to make some enemies, and a substantial number of those accused were very high profile clerics in Denver. But where is the principle of “presumption of innocence,” so firmly rooted in our system of jurisprudence but conspicuously absent from this Report? Should that same standard not apply when publicly indicting a deceased priest for some horrendous crime?
One of those priests the Report named as an abuser I happened to know quite well before he passed away. He was a golf loving, chain smoking curmudgeon; definitely not the sort of person who fits the profile of a sexual predator. In 1994 Fr. J_ was confronted with an accusation of sexual abuse which he roundly denied. His accuser could only pinpoint the date of the alleged abuse as “sometime in the late 50s or early 60s,” an amazingly generous seven year window. She also claimed to be eight years old at the time, in other words she couldn’t actually say if she was born in 1949 or 1956 ─ or somewhere in between! A year later, in 1995, the case was closed when his accuser declined to continue the investigation. Notwithstanding such ambiguity Fr. J_ is now and will forever be identified as a “substantiated” sex abuser. Really? A priest is posted on the same wall of shame with bona fide serial sex abusers simply because some “investigator” made a subjective call that this allegation was “more likely than not” reliable.
This same kind of gross injustice appears to have been imposed on at least four or five other popular pastors whose 40 and 50 year careers were spent faithfully serving their Catholic flocks. It seems that their reward in posterity is to have their good names besmirched while thousands of their family, friends, and former parishioners are left cruelly scandalized or filled with nagging doubts because of a single unsupported allegation loosely termed “substantiated.” Ironically, the authors of the Report cynically maintain that such posthumous character assassination is being provided to help heal and bring people together. I honestly doubt that such will be the end result of their zealous digging for dirt.
But what are the actual facts? The Report covers some 70 years of archdiocesan history wherein 123 cases of abuse, or alleged abuse, by 22 priests are recorded during that period. (The total was further padded with several cases which occurred out of state before those accused even served here.) Even so the curve is heavily weighted. Five known perpetrators actually accounted for 99 cases of abuse, more than 80% of all cases enumerated. In fact one notorious abuser was responsible for well over half of the total! Those same five serial abusers acted within a 28 year period from about 1954 to 1982. After that the caseload drops off dramatically to virtually nothing by the turn of the millennium. In fact the archdiocese rightly points out that 89% of the known incidents occurred 40 or more years ago, with none in the past 20.
Put into a larger context, this horrific pattern of abuse was not simply occurring in some “Catholic” vacuum chamber as the Report seems to imply but right in the midst of that hyper-sexualized culture called the Sexual Revolution. Bishops were hardly alone during that time period in trying to adjust on the fly to the new hedonistic crisis. School principals, college presidents, administrators, and professional psychologists were all desperately trying to figure out how to contain the self indulgent beast then being widely unleashed on campuses, in schools, and even sports via the drug culture, widespread pornography, the media, and widespread family breakdown.
The truth is that there were a handful of truly evil actors wearing Roman collars who will forever be a disgrace to this archdiocese. The nauseating reality is that six of these men were true serial abusers, with three or more credible allegations of child sexual abuse to their discredit. I have true compassion and empathy for their victims and all others who were truly victimized by any cleric, and we should pray daily for those who suffered from abuse as well as the ones who caused that suffering. But is it right for the innocent, or even those priests whose guilt or innocence remains questionable, to be categorically condemned alongside confirmed predators in a court of public opinion?
This Report all too freely indulges in “guilt by association.” For most of those named corroborating evidence is at best shadowy to nonexistent yet all 22 men are lumped together in a Report which makes no attempt to distinguish alleged abuse from actual proven or confessed abuse. Guilty until proven innocent. In that sense the Report itself represents a whole different kind of abuse. Even where means and opportunity for abuse may have been present, this Report never seriously considers whether there was a motive involved, either for alleged abuse or for an accusation to be made. Yet those of us who watch crime shows surely understand that motive is always a huge factor in getting to the bottom of things.
Incredibly, Colorado’s four acting bishops signed off on this “one size fits all” approach last February when they agreed with the attorney general that they would be given no chance to edit, redact, oversee, or control the final report. The investigators were thereby free to fashion their Report as a cudgel to beat Colorado’s Catholic dioceses over the head and to shame and discredit the Catholic Church with impunity. There should have been little doubt that this would happen if for no other reason than the Church continues to resist the secular cultural norms regarding life, family, and marriage. The current progressive political culture in Colorado virtually ensured that the February agreement amounted to a pact with the devil. Predictably, the Denver Post wasted no time in trumpeting its more salacious allegations in front page headlines, while printing sneering comments like “we had to rely on the integrity of people who have a motive to hide bad facts,” and “Really, they’re just scratching the surface.”
We were told last February that this was to be a collaborative, good faith effort to present the truth and clear the air once and for all regarding clergy sexual abuse in the state. Instead the wolves are now demanding more grist for their “blame and shame mill.” It seems that rather than provide healing this Report only opens up new fault lines, even within the Catholic community. If nothing else its shotgun approach to disclosures and the gleeful public shamings these produce are bound to have demoralizing effects on everyday Catholics.
The whole process resembles a mugging, but this is no ordinary street mugging. In their eagerness to “turn the other cheek” our episcopal leaders, in their naïve yet well intentioned desire to clear the air, merely handed muggers the very gun now being used to mug them. Robert Troyer, the leader of this unsavory inquisition, demonstrates his “objectivity” through peppered innuendo throughout the Report such as, “this is consistent with the self-serving passivity we have seen in other cases,” (of alleged abuse). He criticizes the Archdiocesan Conduct Response Team, whose job it is to interview victims and independently ferret out the facts of any case, as constituting an “intimating environment” (sic). (Presumably he meant an intimidating environment.) But isn’t that exactly what every jury is supposed to do, find the truth? The very function of this team is to act as an informal jury.
Apart from such amusing editorial glitches, the Report has little to offer in the way of levity. Its generally negative tone is dismissive, skeptical, and highly critical even in those areas where the archdiocese has shown dramatic improvement in removing abusive clergy. There have been no new substantiated cases of abuse reported over the past 20 years, for example, yet the Report sniffs that this may only be because of a lag in reporting or inadequate record keeping. In other words the Church needs the constant oversight of the state in order to keep its own house in order according to the Report.
This mentality feeds directly into and justifies the very concerns I raised eight months ago. So once again I ask:
a) Has the opening of diocesan personnel files, absent any “probable cause,” constituted a grave betrayal of confidentiality, both for living and deceased members of the clergy and their relations?
b) Might the dangerous precedent set by this action encourage state authorities in the future to demand the breaking of the confessional seal?
c) Are not the families, friends, and former parishioners of accused clergy the ones most likely to suffer trauma, scandal, and harm?
d) Finally, does the just redress to victims necessarily require the scandalizing of countless uninvolved people?
Christ himself addressed those accusing a woman caught in adultery, nor was her’s some “alleged” infraction but a factual transgression. “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” (Jn 8:7) We all need to exercise a holy prudence in our judgments and in our words when tempted to expose the sins of others. Scandal and detraction are sins that ripple ever outward, sweeping more and more people into its sticky web. I can only hope this painful experience will serve as a lesson for Church leaders in exercising greater caution and prudence when entering into future agreements or dealings of any kind with the state. We must not let our natural sympathy for victims outweigh the sacred duty to others, living or deceased, to preserve their character and good names against the demands of some howling mob. These are times when Church leaders must re-learn the holy virtue of fortitude. Otherwise the Church will be branded, reviled, and forced to endure far greater sufferings.
Francis J. Pierson a.m.d.g.