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  New Lawsuit Alleges Sexual Abuse by Priest: According to the Civil Complaint, the Alleged Sexual Abuse Took Place from 1970 to 1978

By Patrick Malone
Pueblo Chieftain (Colorado)
July 11, 2008

Jul. 11--A Denver man on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo alleging he was sexually abused by a priest at St. Pius X Catholic Church during an eight-year span beginning in the early 1970s.

The suit brought by Matt Cortez is the second filed against the diocese alleging abuse by Andrew Burke. Cortez's suit also names St. Pius X parish as a defendant.

According to the civil complaint, Burke sexually abused Cortez from 1970-78. Burke left the priesthood in 1973, but continued to have contact with Cortez. Burke was subsequently employed in the mental health field at Parkview and St. Mary-Corwin medical centers and the Colorado Mental Health Institute.

Burke, 62, committed suicide in September 2005 by shooting himself in the chest while lying in a garden outside his home.

At the time of his suicide, Pueblo police were investigating allegations of sexual abuse by Burke. A Colorado prison inmate, identified in court records only as John Doe, filed a lawsuit accusing Burke of sexual abuse. In a phone message to a Denver Post reporter on the eve of his suicide, Burke confirmed the inmate's claim was mostly accurate. He denied abusing anyone else.

According to the inmate's police report, Pueblo diocesan officials acknowledged that Burke wrote to the Vatican when he left the priesthood and admitted he had been receiving mental health treatment for an unspecified psychosexual behavior disorder.

Cortez said he engaged in settlement negotiations with the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo before moving forward with filing his lawsuit. He said during those conversations a diocesan official confirmed Burke had undergone psychotherapy for a sexual behavior disorder while employed as a priest.

In December 2005, the diocese cited employee confidentiality policies and denied a request from The Pueblo Chieftain to inspect Burke's personnel file.

Cortez said he asked to inspect the file during his prior negotiations with the diocese and was denied. He said one of the main objectives of the lawsuit he filed Wednesday is to get a look at Burke's file in order to determine whether other victims exist and to scrutinize the diocese's handling of Burke, given what officials knew about his behavior.

"More than the money, it's about Burke's file," Cortez said. "I want to prove what the diocese in Pueblo knew. That file will show the people of Pueblo how the diocese operates."

"Based on what we've seen in the diocese of Pueblo, (Cortez) has wanted to bring all the secrets out in the open, make them public in the interest of protecting kids," said Mike Finnegan, a lawyer from the Minnesota firm of Jeff Anderson and Associates, which represents Cortez. "We know more about this case going in than we do about a lot of them."

The lawsuit contends that the diocese was aware of allegations against Burke before he abused Cortez. The suit alleges that the diocese could have prevented future abuse by interceding to stop Burke, but neglected to. Cortez's nephew claimed he was abused by Burke years after the abuse of Cortez had concluded.

"The diocese has to be held accountable for what it knew and for doing nothing to stop it," Cortez said.

In addition to Burke's personnel file, Cortez said he hopes the prospect of monetary damages will get the attention of the diocese.

"How do you teach a corporation or any institution as large as the Catholic Church a lesson? You hit them in the wallet. If you don't, they don't fix the problem," Cortez said.

Msgr. Mark Plewka, the diocese's spokesman, said the diocese had not been served with Cortez's lawsuit, therefore it would be inappropriate for him to comment about it.

Asked about Cortez's allegations in November 2006, Plewka said, "I believe that what he said happened to him happened to him."

Cortez said his negotiations with the diocese, including Plewka, left him with the feeling that church officials are more concerned with image than with healing.

"They downplay the seriousness of what happened," Cortez said. "They treat victims like troublemakers and tell us to pray over it. Prayer only helps so much. It doesn't solve the kinds of problems that this type of abuse creates.

"Parents, children, everyone needs to know that if you're abused by a priest, you need to go to the police. Don't go to a bishop. It's been my experience that they'll only heap on the religion and the guilt without dealing with the heart of the situation."

Cortez said he's been further soured on the politics of the Catholic Church as he's followed a series of priest-abuse lawsuits through the Denver courts, and the death of pro-children legislation in the state legislature.

As it stands, childhood victims of sexual abuse often see their abusers go free in Colorado because of delays in reporting incidents. Cortez said he didn't fully realize the extent of the abuse he endured until Burke's suicide. After 10 years, criminal charges in those cases are not an option.

In the civil arena, the statute of limitations tends to be the first line of defense for those facing suits over allegations of abuse that date back decades. Lawyers for more than 20 former students at Roncalli High School in Pueblo who allege they were abused by a Marianist brother there were able to successfully sidestep the civil statute of limitations on grounds that the religious order kept secret reported allegations of abuse by the brother.

Cortez said he was disgusted to attend legislative sessions discussing the proposed extension of the statute of limitations, where Catholic groups were alone in fighting the changes and succeeded in defeating the proposed change in the law.

Cortez's suit seeks unspecified damages for physical and emotional pain and costs for counseling, psychological treatment and lost earning capacity.

"It doesn't matter if it happened yesterday or 25 years ago," Cortez said. "For people like me, it always feels like it might as well have been yesterday."

 
 

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