Silence, Elusive Evidence Muddle Abuse Cases

By Howard Pankratz
Denver Post
March 24, 2002

In Colorado, two teenage boys said Roman Catholic priest Mark Matson molested them. The charges were dropped.

Two years later in California, a boy said Matson fondled him. A jury acquitted Matson.

Then in Hawaii, 13 years after the first accusation, a judge in 2000 sentenced Matson - then a chaplain at an Army medical center - to 20 years in prison for attempted assault and five years for third-degree sexual assault.

Mark Matson is the kind of priest the Denver Archdiocese won't talk about.

As revelations of sexual misconduct by priests sweep the country, Denver Catholic officials say their policy doesn't tolerate sexual misconduct but add that they don't want to create a climate of suspicion by discussing when or how many times that policy has been enforced.

How common are wayward priests in Colorado?

Over the past two decades, Colorado prosecutors have filed charges in several cases, and even where there were no criminal charges, civil suits have resulted in damage awards for victims.

All but one of Colorado's 22 district attorney's offices, however, told The Denver Post last week that they know of no active sex-abuse cases against priests. Grand Junction officials wouldn't comment.

Prosecutors are meeting with or sending letters to Catholic officials seeking their cooperation.

Matson was a well-known figure in the Catholic Church in Denver before moving to Hawaii.

In Denver, he was director of a national Catholic youth program called Awakening. He directed youth rallies and was responsible for bringing Mother Teresa to Colorado to speak to Catholic youths in 1986. He produced videos for teenagers on AIDS, teen suicide and satanic worship.

And it was in Colorado where two youths accused Matson of fondling them.

The boys claimed that in December 1987, Matson gave them a ride and shared a bottle of whiskey. He also talked to them about a relaxation technique he called 'floating.' While showing them the technique, Matson allegedly touched their crotches.

Jefferson County prosecutors dismissed the case when they discovered what they thought were discrepancies in the boys' stories over when the encounter took place.

While Matson awaited trial, he was accused in 1989 of fondling a youth in Santa Rosa, Calif. A jury there later acquitted Matson.

Finally, a 13-year-old boy in Hawaii told a story about Matson that was similar to the allegations in the Colorado case. The boy said that while at a beach park he encountered Matson, who said he would demonstrate a magic trick about levitating.

The boy claimed Matson touched his stomach and then fondled him.

'The ironic and disturbing part is the description of the offenses he faced in Colorado was similar to the way he committed the offenses here,' prosecutor Rom Trader said during Matson's sentencing, according to newspaper accounts.

In 1989, the close-knit community of Ignacio, where two-thirds of the population is Catholic, was shaken when the Rev. Bill Groves - known as 'Father Bill' - was accused of, and ultimately pleaded guilty to, sexual assault on a child, a class 4 felony. Groves, then 37, was removed as pastor of St. Ignatius Church. He was given four years' probation and ordered to undergo sex offender treatment, said Craig Westberg, assistant district attorney in Durango.

Monsignor Mark Plewska said Pueblo diocesan officials 'were floored' when the charges were filed against Groves but that Pueblo Bishop Arthur Tafoya immediately removed Groves from the parish. Plewska said the diocese has a sexual abuse policy and does not move priests from parish to parish if there are allegations against them and doesn't reinstate them if they are found guilty of abuse.

Still, allegations against priests often are difficult to prove, said Frank Ruybalid, the district attorney in Trinidad. When allegations are delayed, it's more difficult.

'When you have somebody who the community views as credible - such as a police officer or a minister or a teacher - and you have a child making an allegation when there is no physical evidence, you have a tough case,' he said.

The Larimer County district attorney's office found that out in 1989, when a Fort Collins jury took 10 minutes to acquit a Catholic priest of molesting two girls.

The Rev. Bart Nadal, then 67, had been pastor at Holy Family Church. After the allegations arose, he was assigned to other duties in the Denver Archdiocese.

The younger of the two sisters, ages 7 and 8, claimed they were fondled during a Memorial Day outing. The 7-year-old said Nadal put his hands under her clothing and rubbed her chest, back and thighs as he drove her home in his truck from a fishing trip. Each time he touched her, the girl said, he swerved on the road. The girl said that when she moved to the far side of the truck to avoid Nadal, the priest then fondled her older sister.

But Nadal claimed he was the target of a small group of people in the church who wanted to get rid of him and claimed the girls' testimony may have been tainted by biased adults.

Loren Schall, assistant district attorney in Fort Collins, said priest cases are difficult.

'The defense (in the Nadal case) was that it didn't happen, it was politically motivated,' said Schall. 'They are very difficult cases. People look up to priests and put priests on a pedestal.'

Staff writers Kirk Mitchell and Virginia Culver contributed to this report. Howard Pankratz can be reached at 303-820-1939 or


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