Catholics Hear Letter on Abuse Denver Archbishop Promises Vigilance

By J. Sebastian Sinisi, and Virginia Culver
Denver Post
March 24, 2002

Some said it was overdue.

Others thought it was on the mark and to the point.

Still others said it didn't go far enough.

Those were some of the comments Saturday as tempered optimism, mixed with relief, greeted Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput's letter apologizing for 'hurt and suffering' that may have resulted from any sexual abuse in the Denver Archdiocese.

The letter was read to nearly 1,000 parishioners at the Church of the Risen Christ in southeast Denver on Saturday. It will be read as the homily in 145 Denver Archdiocese parishes this weekend.

'I felt good that this was finally addressed,' said parishioner Tom Higgins. 'This letter should help begin some sort of healing - if that's possible.'

Monsignor Edward Hoffmann, church pastor, read the letter to parishioners who filled the sanctuary for an early Palm Sunday Mass on Saturday afternoon. At one point in the reading, Hoffmann seemed close to tears.

'Nothing can diminish the suffering of the victims of sexual misconduct in the church or explain away the seriousness of the sin, especially when committed against a child,' Hoffmann said as he read Chaput's letter.

The letter went on to say: 'I cannot promise that those who serve us in the church won't sin. But I can and do promise you that we will act promptly whenever we become aware of it.'

Chaput's message of reassurance comes at a time of growing concern over revelations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests nationwide.

'The letter was right on,' said parishioner Kevin Dwyer. 'The bishop indicated that we don't have this problem in our archdiocese, but we're now finding out that we don't know all we thought we did.'

Parishioner Anne Christopherson didn't think the message went far enough and said that 'any apology is inadequate. What are we supposed to say to all those poor children who are now adults?'

Christopherson wants more accountability for what happened.

'Lots of us think the church knew about this for a long time but simply swept it out of sight,' she said. 'There's no mention of treatment or expulsion for these priests.'

Kay Shoemaker said the statement was 'very well done. I found it very moving. It was so moving that Father Hoffmann had tears in his eyes.'

John Sodia said the letter was to the point. 'But the only people it will help are those who are ready to be helped,' he said.

On Friday, John Kane, professor of religious studies at Regis University, said the letter was a generally good statement that is necessary 'because people are worried.'

Kane said he appreciates that the archbishop talked about the 'sin" of abuse, 'but I wish he would have said 'crime' as well. Abuse is a crime.'

Kane also believes the statement should have referred to the problems within the structure of the Catholic Church that have allowed sexual abuse by priests to continue for so long.

'The church's structure is either weak or inadequate or sinful' in ways that have stymied prevention of abuse, he said.

The Archbishop's Palm Sunday homily

Denver Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput has asked all priests in his 145-parish archdiocese to deliver this homily today: Dear Friends in Christ,

One of the first lessons a young priest learns is that the crucifixion happened for a reason. The Holy Week we begin today with the reading of Christ's passion reminds us that sin is real, that we were redeemed at a price, and that the price of our ransom was the blood of God's Son.

The Gospel is a book for realists. Christ came to live and die for sinners, and in this world, that means each of us: priests and religious, single persons, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, deacons and bishops. Week after week, every priest encounters the reality of those sins in the confessions he hears from his people, and in the confessions he makes of his own sins - because another early lesson every priest learns is his own unworthiness to do the work God calls him to.

The mystery of the priesthood is that God calls men who are still sinful to sanctify His people. The mystery of the church is that God calls people who are still sinful - each of us - to sanctify the world. We're unworthy. We fail. We shame each other and ourselves with our sins. But still God asks us to follow Him.

This has been a Lent we'll remember for a very long time. The headlines have reminded us that sin isn't just something outside the Church. It can also live in the actions of her pastors and her shepherds. Nothing can diminish the suffering of the victims of sexual misconduct in the Church or explain away the seriousness of the sin, especially when committed against a child.

This is a source of huge sorrow and regret for me personally, and for anyone in leadership in the Church. No apology is adequate, but I do apologize sincerely and humbly on behalf of myself and our priests, for any hurt inflicted on our people over the years by clergy or lay employees of the archdiocese. Moreover, for the sake of peace in your hearts and to be worthy of your confidence in the Church now and in the future, I want to speak directly to you today.

In his letter to priests for Holy Thursday this year, the Holy Father writes that 'as priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of (the mystery of evil) at work in the world.' Any sexual misconduct by any priest of the Church is a grave sin and does serious harm to innocent people. Therefore Church leaders have an equally grave duty to act on allegations quickly and fairly.

The Archdiocese of Denver has had an effective sexual misconduct policy in place since 1991. We make this policy available to anyone. Every member of the clergy must review and sign it as a condition of services. So too must every lay archdiocesan employee. Any violation is grounds for immediate termination or suspension.

We live that policy honestly, consistently and diligently, and because of this, I believe that no priest dangerous to children serves in any ministry in the Archdiocese of Denver. We do not, and will not, assign any known pedophile to any form of ministry. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter and his chief deputy reviewed our policy last week, found it effective and publicly praised it. We have promptly notified, and will continue to notify, proper local authorities of any suspected child abuse, and we cooperate with those authorities.

We treat every allegation of sexual misconduct by any member of the clergy or archdiocesan lay employee seriously. We are unequivocally committed to compassionate care for any victims and their families.

I cannot promise that those who serve us in the Church won't sin. But I can and do promise that we will act promptly whenever we become aware of it. We do and will take every reasonable measure to prevent sexual misconduct before it occurs. Additionally, all of our seminarians - the men who will serve our Church as priests in the future - take part in careful psychological screening and spiritual formation.

I've had many gifts in my life, but surely the greatest is the gift of my priesthood. For 31 years it has been my privilege to serve the people of God. To experience your love and to see your goodness. It's also been my joy to minister alongside so many good priests who have taught me what it means to be unselfish and a person of character. Support your priests. They need you. Our priests are good and dedicated men who bear the burden of these scandals in the Church in a very personal way. Pray for them, encourage them, and lead them by the witness of your own holidays.

The Epistle today tells us that Christ 'emptied Himself (and) humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.' For American Catholics, this Lent has surely been an emptying and a humbling experience. The cross this Holy Week will have a deeper meaning for all of us. May God grant us an Easter that restores us with His light and love.

Your brother in the Lord,

Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop of Denver

High-profile sexual-abuse cases

involving members of clergy in Colorado

1999: The Rev. Pat Nicholson was accused of having a sexual relationship with an Air Force Academy cadet 15 years earlier. Lt. Col. Nicholson, a Catholic priest, left the Air Force in July 2000 but was not court-martialed.

1997: The Rev. Marshall Gourley was accused in a lawsuit by John Dean Ayon of sexual molestation. The case against the Denver Catholic priest never went to court because the statute of limitations had expired. The molestation allegedly took place in the early 1980s, when Ayon was a teenager.

1997: A 30-year-old man sued Barnabus Stelzner, the Holy Cross Abbey and several others at the abbey, alleging they had sexually and physically abused him while he was a student there 15 years earlier.

1993: Thomas Perea sued the Rev. Delbert Blong and the Pueblo Catholic Diocese, claiming he and the priest had a sexual relationship from 1971 until late 1992. Perea said the priest infected him with HIV. An undisclosed out-of-court settlement was reached in 1994.

1993: Daniel DeHart, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Greeley, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Christa Bohrer. He was sentenced to 16 months in jail and six years probation. Bohrer had testified in a civil case that her sexual involvement with DeHart began when she was 13 and lasted until she was about 18. She said DeHart told her that if she didn't marry him, she'd go to hell.

1992: The Rev. Richard Chung killed himself two days after officials at St. Mary's High School in Colorado Springs told him he was under investigation for inappropriate behavior with a student.

1992: Homer Wolfe, the former minister of Bear Valley Church of Christ, was ordered to pay $ 450,000 to a 17-year-old boy who said that he was assaulted by Wolfe during counseling sessions from 1981 to 1988. In a separate case, the minister and the church paid $ 400,000 to a Littleton man who also sued.

1991: Robert Lee Thrasher Jr. pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault on a child. His 14-year-old victim and her mother were members of Thrasher's Melchizedek Order of the Christhood of Eternal Light. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

1991: Bryan Bush, a former youth director at several Denver-area churches, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on sexual abuse charges. Bush confessed to molesting dozens of juveniles.

1990: The Rev. Bill Groves, a former priest at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Ignacio, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of sexual assault on a 14-year-old boy.

1990: Edmund Joseph Moran III, a youth pastor at Front Range Baptist Church, pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and second-degree sexual assault. He had been arrested after being found in the back seat of a car with a 17-year-old girl. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 12 years probation.


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