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  Official Maintains Diocese Was Unaware of Priest's Behavior: a Spokesman Does Believe a Man Who Filed Suit Was Abused by a Deceased Former Priest, but Says Church Officials Did Not Know of Andrew Burke's 'Proclivities'

By Patrick Malone
Pueblo Chieftain (Colorado)
July 23, 2008

An official with the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo hasn't changed his belief that a Pueblo man who recently filed suit against the diocese was abused by a former priest.

However, Msgr. Mark Plewka still maintains that the diocese was unaware of any inappropriate behavior involving Andrew Burke and young boys until decades after the alleged acts took place.

Matt Cortez of Denver filed a lawsuit two weeks ago in Pueblo district court naming the diocese and St. Pius X Parish as defendants. The suit alleges that Burke sexually abused Cortez between 1970 and 1978. Burke left the priesthood in 1973, citing an unspecified psychosexual behavior disorder in his exit letter to the Vatican.

He stayed in Pueblo and worked in the mental health field. Burke, 62, committed suicide in September 2005.

At the time of his suicide, police were investigating the reported abuse of a former altar boy in the early 1970s. Plewka said he reported those allegations to police when they came to the attention of the diocese in 2004. Cortez met with diocesan officials in hopes of negotiating a settlement long before he filed his suit. According to e-mail correspondence between the diocese and Cortez obtained by The Pueblo Chieftain, negotiations broke down when the diocese balked at the $1.8 million sum that Cortez sought and his demand that the diocese make public Burke's file.

"There was never any breakdown (in negotiations) over money," Cortez said Tuesday. "There was never any counteroffer from the diocese, so I don't see how that can be where it broke down."

During the negotiations, the diocese reportedly offered Cortez an apology and counseling. Plewka said some people who have reported to the diocese that priests abused them have been satisfied with psychological and spiritual counseling that the diocese has provided.

"Each case is handled on its own merits," Plewka said. "When people come forward we treat them courteously, kindly and with professionalism. Some don't want it to go any further, but want psychological and spiritual counseling. We deal with each person as an individual when they come forward."

Cortez said his perception of the negotiations with the diocese was quite different.

"They treat you kindly until you threaten them with a lawsuit, then they throw you out the door like they did me," he said.

Cortez said he believes when accusers go to the diocese first, they are steered toward acceptance through prayer of what's happened to them.

"They're abusing the trust and the faith of these people all over again, the same way the priests do when they abuse somebody," Cortez said. "Prayer and religion only go so far when you have to deal with something like this."

Plewka said he is not aware of any other Burke accusers besides the St. Pius altar boy, Cortez and Cortez's nephew, who is the lone known Burke accuser who has not filed a lawsuit against the diocese. Plewka also said he has no reason to believe it's anything more than coincidence that the two most recent suits filed against the diocese involve priests who were assigned to St. Pius X parish during the early 1970s.

On Tuesday, Plewka reiterated that he believed Burke had abused Cortez.

"I believe that Andy Burke had a boundary violation relative to Mr. Cortez," Plewka said.

Central to Cortez's suit is his claim that the diocese was aware of past behavior by Burke that should have alerted officials to keep him away from children. Plewka said the diocese had no knowledge of that behavior at the time that it could have made a difference.

"The diocese did not know anything about Andy's proclivities at all," and therefore couldn't react to them, Plewka said.

"That's a typical answer from the diocese," Cortez said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if Burke was getting treatment for this disorder he admitted, then the church was probably paying for it. Of course they knew."

 
 

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