Diocese Officials Finds Molestation Charge Credible
Monsignor Mark Plewka Offered Alleged Victim Apology, Counseling
By Patrick Malone
November 12, 2006
A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo has acknowledged that a Denver man's claim that he was molested by a priest in the 1970s is credible.
"I believe that what he said happened to him happened to him," said Monsignor Mark Plewka.
Plewka was referring to allegations by 45-year-old Matt Cortez that he had been sexually abused by Andrew Burke while Burke was a priest at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Pueblo.
"When I met with Mr. Cortez, an apology was offered," Plewka said.
Cortez's nephew, now in his early 30s and living in Denver, also has accused Burke of molesting him in the years after Burke left the priesthood.
Similar allegations were leveled against Burke in a lawsuit against the diocese filed in Pueblo district court last year by a former altar boy at the church, now 46 and in prison. He alleges that during the early 1970s, Burke had him strip and blindfolded him, then placed a frozen cloth on his chest and masturbated over him.
After media inquiries about the prisoner's allegations, Burke, 62, committed suicide in the garden of his South Side Pueblo home in September 2005 by shooting himself in the heart, with a towel draped across his chest.
A note that Burke left to loved ones contained no admission that he had abused boys, police said. However, in a phone message to a Denver newspaper reporter Burke acknowledged that the former altar boy's account was accurate. However, he denied "any allegations of worse sexual activity," according to The Denver Post.
Burke left the priesthood in 1973 and went on to work in the mental health field. He was employed at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at the time of his death.
According to a Pueblo police report, Burke had communicated with the Vatican about his plans to leave the priesthood in a letter that mentioned an unspecified "psychosexual behavior disorder."
The Catholic Diocese of Pueblo held conversations with Cortez that involved possible settlement discussions until September, when Plewka notified Cortez via e-mail that the diocese was rejecting certain terms of the settlement he was seeking.
According to a copy of the e-mail obtained by The Pueblo Chieftain, the terms that were rejected by the diocese included Cortez's requests for $1.8 million and public release of Burke's personnel file at the diocese.
The diocese also rejected Cortez's request for a public admission on a Web site or during a news conference that Burke had sexually abused Cortez. In the e-mail Plewka stated that such an announcement would serve no preventive purpose to protect others from molestation because Burke is dead. The message also noted that Burke and his attorney had denied any sexual abuse took place when they were first confronted with the allegations.
"You would think the Catholic church would want to get rid of these people and open their files," Cortez said. "But to them, it's better to hide them somewhere rather than take full responsibility."
Plewka said the diocese has an obligation to keep employee files private.
Cortez acknowledged that the diocese has provided counseling, and the e-mail from Plewka recommended that it should continue.
Cortez said he hoped to resolve the matter with the diocese without enduring the trauma of court proceedings. However, he said he is likely to file a civil suit against the diocese because terms that he believes are important were rejected during out-of-court settlement discussions.
Plewka said the diocese is open to meeting with anyone who claims to have been abused by its clergy.
"We take every allegation seriously," Plewka said. "These claims are not dismissed out of hand. Our main concern is for justice for the person who claims they have been harmed, and also that healing and reconciliation be theirs."
Plewka said the diocese tries to appease those who allege clergy abuse.
"We don't have a cookie-cutter approach to what victims need," he said. "What we're interested in doing is entering into dialogue to develop a personal approach for each person that comes forward. A lot of that depends on what the victims themselves would like to see done."
Cortez contends that negotiations with the diocese were progressing favorably until claims submitted in more than 20 pending lawsuits were rejected by its insurance carrier on the basis that the diocese allegedly was aware of sex abuse allegations against priests - including the suit involving Burke brought by the former altar boy - before the plaintiffs were allegedly abused.
The North River Insurance Co., based in New Jersey, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court contending that it is not obliged to provide a legal defense or insurance coverage in the lawsuits. The insurance company's suit is based in part on its claim that the diocese "knew of (former Marianist Brother William) Mueller's and Father Burke's propensity to sexually abuse minors," and therefore the insurance coverage should be voided.
U.S. District Court filings by North River do not specify how the company was aware that the diocese knew of the priests' alleged proclivities.
On Friday, Plewka stood by his past statements that the diocese was not aware of any allegations against Burke or Mueller until around the time that the first lawsuits were filed last year. Plewka also denied that negotiations with Cortez broke down when North River challenged its obligation to cover the diocese.
Plewka said he had not reviewed the insurance company's lawsuit against the diocese, and therefore declined to comment on it.
The diocese and the Marianist religious order have been named in 21 suits in Pueblo district court brought by former students at Roncalli High School, who claim Mueller subdued them with ether and sexually abused them.
Chieftain reporter Robert Boczkiewicz contributed to this report.
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