Greeley Tribune [Greeley CO]
July 21, 2023
By Lauren Penington
Sponsor of bill that created window to sue over decades-old abuse says constitutional amendment may be needed
One afternoon last month, Miranda and Jennifer Wetzler answered a call from their attorney in shock: The Colorado Supreme Court had blocked the sisters’ chance to right a decades-old wrong after their alleged abuser had walked free more than 30 years earlier.
“When I heard the news, I started crying and I just thought, ‘Not again,’” Miranda Wetzler said. “I thought maybe this time we could get the justice we deserved.”
Colorado’s Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act, which took effect Jan.1, 2022, provided a three-year window for adults who were sexually assaulted as children to bring forward lawsuits over abuse they allege happened between 1960 and 2022, even if the statute of limitations for criminal charges had long since expired.
The Wetzler sisters were preparing to file a lawsuit under the act when a unanimous decision by the state’s high court on June 20 struck down the law as a violation of the Colorado Constitution’s prohibition on retrospective legislation.
The court’s ruling has effectively blocked all of the lawsuits filed by sexual abuse survivors under the act over the last year and a half, though state court officials said they weren’t able to calculate exactly how many cases were brought under the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act.
Advocates say it’s a blow for victims who’d been given a glimmer of hope through the new legislation, and one of the bill’s sponsors told The Denver Post she’s looking into the possibility of drafting a constitutional amendment to keep the matter alive.
Casey Ballinger, a spokesperson and advocate for the Blue Bench, a sexual assault prevention and survivor support center in Denver, said survivors already had faced significant difficulties receiving accountability through the legal system.
“So to have something be implemented, to have survivors feel like there’s an opportunity to come forward and receive accountability through the civil legal system, and then to have that taken away, it sends the message that systems don’t care about their experiences or the harm that’s been caused,” Ballinger said.
“Why should we hide who we are?”
The Wetzler family originally pursued criminal charges in 1989 against the girls’ alleged abuser, Theatine priest Bart Nadal of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver and then-pastor at Fort Collins’ Holy Family Church, which the family attended.
The sisters were 7 and 8 years old at the time of the allegations.
After the family pressed charges, harassment from the congregation and the town was so bad that Miranda and her sister, Jennifer, had a police escort to and from school until their parents eventually pulled them out, Miranda Wetzler said.
“We had to go stay with my brother because my parents were getting threatening phone calls asking if they knew where their daughters were and being told that they were going to be hurt,” she said.
A jury found Nadal not guilty after deliberating for just 10 minutes, Miranda Wetzler said. Decades later, the sisters thought the state’s new Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act would allow them a second chance at seeking justice — this time in a civil court.
“When the law passed, I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue a lawsuit or not,” Miranda Wetzler said. “I have a family now, and knowing what happened back in the ’80s, I was fearful. But as I was thinking about it and time passed, I thought to myself, ‘Why should we hide who we are? Why should we not be able to tell our story?’”
Nadal died in 2015, but the sisters planned to sue the Archdiocese of Denver and the Theatine Religious Order for physical and mental damages, if they weren’t able to come to a pre-lawsuit settlement.
Jennifer Wetzler said the new law was scary, but exciting.
“As all these cases were coming out, I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t lie. This isn’t something that I made up in my mind as a child,’” she said. “I’m not the only one going through this.”
The Wetzlers reached out to Jessica Arbour at Horowitz Law, knowing the firm had experience representing survivors of sexual abuse.
“You can understand, after everything they’ve gone through, that when this civil option is put on the table, there’s a lot of hesitancy to go through all of that again,” Arbour said. “Thirty years later, people have a different understanding of clergy sex abuse, things are different today. So they call me, they get themselves mentally ready to move forward with the lawsuit and then there’s a giant roadblock in the way.”
Arbour represents nearly a dozen claimants against various Catholic dioceses, religious orders and school districts who have now been shut out of the courts by the state Supreme Court’s June decision
“Their story is just heartbreaking and frustrating, especially now that we know that the lawmakers were given advice that the proposed bill would likely fail any constitutional challenge,” Arbour said.
Representatives of the Archdiocese of Denver declined to address The Post’s questions about the allegations against Nadal due to the possibility of future litigation.
But the Archdiocese of Denver said in a news release last month that the organization supports the state Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the law because “litigation is never the means to true healing. It is adversarial and ultimately does no harm than good.”
The Archdiocese has always cared for sexual assault victims, the news release stated, citing outreach efforts including an agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in 2019 to conduct an independent review of the history of sexual abuse of minors by diocesan priests.
That review, however, did not include religious order priests, even those, such as Nadal, who had been publicly accused.
“That’s almost half the priests in the state of Colorado who were left out, who weren’t part of the scope of the investigation,” Arbour said.
“My hope is that going public will help others”
When the Colorado Supreme Court announced it would review the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act, the sisters’ lawsuit was still in the planning process. But for Aaron Houston, another of Arbour’s clients, a lawsuit already was underway, alleging the Rev. Jerry McKenzie sexually abused him in the 1990s, beginning when Houston was 16 years old.
The lawsuit brought against the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Colorado alleged McKenzie sexually abused Houston at St. Michael & All Angels Church, Camp Ilium and a cabin near Nederland for two years until Houston was older and able to break contact.
“Trauma and abuse don’t surface immediately,” said Houston, who filed the lawsuit anonymously but agreed to use his full name in discussing the case with The Post. “That’s why this law was so important. … I didn’t realize until I was in therapy in my adult life really what had happened, and I think that’s a common story for a lot of survivors of abuse.”
Houston’s attorneys said they were unsure whether McKenzie is still alive.
The Episcopal Diocese did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Post. But it did release a statement to Denver news organizations after the lawsuit’s initial filing, acknowledging that “McKenzie was forced to resign his ministry many years ago, in 2000, following allegations of sexual misconduct.” The diocese said it only learned of the allegations in the lawsuit recently.
Ballinger, who works as a lead advocate for the Blue Bench, said there’s a multitude of reasons why it may take time for survivors to come forward about sexual harm.
“This act would have given them the opportunity to come forward in a timeline that was better for their healing journey,” she said. “It can feel devastating for folks to be at a place in their healing where they do feel ready to come forward only to be told by the systems that be that their time limit is up. That can feel really minimizing for something that already takes a lot of strength and courage to come forward about.”
Houston said that pursuing the lawsuit, which is now in the process of being dismissed, was part of his healing process, and so was telling his story.
“My hope is that going public will help others,” he said. “Even if I never see any justice for what happened to me, I hope that this can make a difference.”
Ballinger said 80% to 90% of sexual abuse victims in Colorado know their offender in some capacity, often making it difficult to process what occurred as sexual assault.
“The children in these cases also may not have had the autonomy to make the decision themselves as to how they would like to proceed and what accountability could look like in their cases,” she said. “This act gave them the opportunity as adults, who have more say in the legal process, to decide for themselves how they’d like to proceed. And it sounds like with this overturning, that autonomy is again being taken away.”
Jennifer Wetlzer said the sisters felt silenced by the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision, and that the most important thing was for other people to hear their story and know what happened.
“If I can use my voice to help protect another child from going through what I did, I want to use it,” she said. “This is about accountability. I just want to hear in court, ‘This really happened. These girls did not make this up. Their parents did the right thing.’ That’s what’s important to me.”
“We’re not going to be defeated”
For now, Houston and the Wetzlers still have hope and said they were encouraged by other efforts to give childhood sexual abuse survivors a chance to tell their stories — including a potential constitutional amendment.
“Yes, it’s hard to speak up, but there are people who will believe you,” their attorney Arbour said. “After everything they went through, they’re not going to be silenced again. And eventually, we hope that we’ll have the chance to tell a jury about that.”
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora who sponsored the bill that created the Sexual Abuse Accountability Act, said she is working with the law’s original drafter to explore additional civil options that would allow survivors to pursue justice while complying with the state’s constitution.
“We want to restore what the intent was in the bill,” Fields said. “When I sponsored the bill, I thought we had the legal authority to do what was done. … I understand the language and the findings, but we’re still disappointed that we have to begin this work again. You just have to pick yourself up from the disappointment and find a way to press forward.”
Fields said she is assembling a team of stakeholders to craft a constitutional amendment that, with some simple language changes, would create opportunities for people to report and receive remedies for the harm done to them when they were a child.
The bill won’t be introduced until January, when the 2024 legislative session begins, so it’s a long way away from becoming law — a constitutional amendment would also need to go before Colorado voters. But Fields said lawmakers’ commitment to the issue remains strong.
“We’re not going to be defeated in this disappointment, we’re not going to lay down,” she said. “We’re going to stand on the stories of those who’ve been harmed by people in authority and, with whatever words we need to put in there, create that clawback.”
RESOURCES FOR SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT
Denver Sexual Assault Hotline: thebluebench.org. Call the hotline at 303-322-7273 for free, 24-hour help.
Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault: Offers a searchable database of support services through youhavetherightco.org.
Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA): movingtoendsexualassault.org. Call the 24-hour hotline at 303-443-7300.
National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit rainn.org for live chat.