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  No Shroud of Silence/ Colorado Springs Churches Have Not Been Immune to Sex Abuse Charges,but Diocese Policy Requires Offenses Be Reported to Law Enforcement

By Eric Gorski
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
March 24, 2002

The Roman Catholic Church is under unprecedented scrutiny as prosecutors and the public question how church officials nationwide have handled allegations of priests sexually abusing children.

The church in Colorado Springs faced the dilemma in the early 1980s, a problem not made public at the time and which few people know about today.

Bishop Richard Hanifen said in a recent interview with The Gazette that a priest was removed from a parish after an in-house investigation found a teen-age boy's abuse claim was "affirmed sufficiently."

Back then, Colorado Springs parishes were part of the Archdiocese of Denver. Hanifen, who at the time was an auxiliary bishop with the archdiocese, said the priest was not reassigned to another parish. Other dioceses have faced criticism recently for quietly relocating accused priests.

In the case 20 years ago, police were never called, Hanifen said.

Since then, the Colorado Springs diocese adopted a rule that law enforcement must be contacted if priests, teachers, staff or volunteers know or reasonably suspect a sex-abuse allegation involving a minor is true. The policy, in place for several years, is stricter than a state law exempting clergy from reporting suspected abuse.

More changes may be on the way as the Colorado Springs diocese, like others around the country, responds to one of the worst scandals to hit the Catholic Church in the United States.

The disclosure in January that the Boston archdiocese knew for years that a priest was accused of molesting more than 130 young boys set off developments that have piled up by the day.

Several priests and a bishop have been removed from posts, top officials have issued public apologies and dioceses have taken steps ranging from revisiting policies to turning over personnel files of accused clergy to prosecutors.

The Colorado Springs diocese, which was formed in 1984 and includes 125,000 Catholics in 10 Colorado counties, is not planning sweeping changes. The diocese is nearing completion of a long- planned revision to its 11-year-old sexual abuse policy in an attempt to clarify the sometimes-confusing reporting process.

Diocese officials say they've taken adequate steps when confronted with abuse claims in the past and are committed to letting the right people know when future cases arise.

The first case of pedophilia in the priesthood to gain national attention emerged from Louisiana bayou country in 1983. A well-liked priest in his late 30s was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing dozens of youths.

About the same time, the Colorado Springs case surfaced. Hanifen wouldn't identify the priest or the parish or go into further detail about what happened.

He said the priest was removed from his post immediately after the allegation was substantiated.

Hanifen said he's confident the priest did not find a position elsewhere because he would not be able to get an assignment without his previous diocese being consulted.

A second Springs case was public knowledge. On March 19, 1992, 40- year-old Benedictine priest Richard Chung was told by officials at St. Mary's High School the diocese was investigating a child sexual abuse claim against him.

A day later, Chung committed suicide by funneling exhaust fumes into his car in the parking garage of his apartment complex. A native of Honolulu, Chung taught at the high school for four years, headed the school's religion department and celebrated Mass at Holy Trinity and Divine Redeemer parishes.

After Chung's death, Colorado Springs police began investigating the abuse allegation, which involved a boy. Police found "probable cause of inappropriate touching" that likely would have resulted in criminal charges.

Because Chung was dead, the matter was dropped. No other victims were involved, police found.

A search of court records by The Gazette found no civil lawsuits naming the diocese in child sex abuse cases, and law enforcement officials could recall no criminal cases in the diocese's history.

Allegations of clerical misconduct in the 1980s, many of which proved untrue, prompted dioceses nationwide to adopt policies governing how to handle such claims. The Colorado Springs diocese adopted a policy in 1991, joining the Denver archdiocese as among the first to do so.

The Springs policy, which by 1995 already had undergone three revisions, states sexual misconduct by diocese employees or volunteers is contrary to Christian principles and clearly forbidden.

An amendment to the policy last year sought to further clarify when alleged abuse should be reported to the diocese and when it should be reported to law enforcement.

Colorado law requires school employees and social workers to tell police or county child-abuse investigators about known or suspected abuse. The state law doesn't apply to clergy.

The Colorado Springs diocese extends the reporting requirement to clergy, though priests are required to contact only diocese officials, who would then contact authorities, said Terri Sortor, the diocese's human resources manager.

The policy notes a priest must not report anything a parishioner shares during confession.

The internal reporting standards were toughened as part of last year's amendment. It's now the "moral and legal duty" for employees to report to diocese officials concerns abuse may have occurred.

"Even if you hear about it in lunchroom conversation, you have to report it," Sortor said.

On the policy revision now under consideration, the diocese is working with the Colorado Springs Police Department, the El Paso County Department of Human Services and the nonprofit Children's Advocacy Center. The center runs a training program for churches and other religious bodies to help prevent abuse and ensure allegations are reported.

The diocese is seeking more direction on when it should involve authorities, Sortor said. Some cases are obviously worthy of police attention, but others are harder to judge, she said.

"If we have a child in school tell her mom, 'My teacher Mr. So- and-So makes me feel icky,' those are the ones we don't really know how far to take," Sortor said. "Our problem has been what to do with those gray-area cases."

Maureen Vandemark, who helps run the church training program for the Children's Advocacy Center, said such questions are common.

"If a child is making a statement, you have to act on the belief that it's a valid disclosure," Vandemark said. "Let the investigating body sort it out. It doesn't have to be the burden of the reporting party to decide whether a report is valid."

Some dioceses have given prosecutors the personnel files of accused priests. Sister Peg Maloney, Colorado Springs diocese spokeswoman, said the diocese would not do so for confidentiality reasons.

She said the diocese would, however, share information about a complaint. She said there is no one working at the diocese who is being investigated or has had a credible claim of sexual abuse made against him or her.

Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jeanne Smith said her office has gotten good cooperation from churches and other religious organizations in Colorado Springs in investigating abuse claims.

This is the most important time of the year for Catholics and for all Christians. Today is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. A week from today is Easter, commemorating the belief in Jesus Christ's resurrection.

On Tuesday night, Bishop Hanifen will take the pulpit at St. Mary's Cathedral for the Chrism Mass, during which holy oils to be used at parishes in the next year will be blessed.

During his homily, Hanifen will encourage priests to claim the grace of the priesthood, Maloney said. He also will ask the faithful to pray for anyone victimized by clergy.

The Mass will include the ordination of a new deacon.

PUBLIC APPEAL

In response to the child-molestation scandal that has shaken the nation's Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Archdiocese of Denver has offered an apology to all victims and is promising not to let any abusers work in the church.

In a five-page letter to be read in the archdiocese's nearly 150 parishes today , Chaput calls on church leaders to recognize sexual abuse by a priest is a grave sin and that all leaders "have an equally grave duty" to report sexual abuse allegations "quickly and fairly."

 
 

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