Affable Style Opened Door to Allegations
From a Typical Childhood to an Average Seminary Career, Few Saw Signs That Children's Claims Would Dog Harold Robert White
By Eric Gorski and Alicia Caldwell
Denver Post [Denver CO]
October 2, 2005
On June 4, 1960, Harold Robert White lay flat on his chest on the cold floor of Denver's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, offering his life to God and church.
He and two other graduates of St. Thom as Seminary were about to be ordained as Catholic priests after eight years of study, and part of the ordination Mass involved lying prostrate to show humility and recognize God's greatness.
White was a 27-year-old man of solid middle-class stock who tinkered with cars and double-dated in high school. An unremarkable student as a seminarian, White was dean of his class, well-liked and obedient to superiors.
But he was entering the priesthood in a time of change: The sexual revolution was about to shock cultural norms, and the Second Vatican Council would break down traditional barriers between priests and lay people. The tumultuous times helped shape White's priesthood.
To this day, White's black- and-white class portrait hangs in a corridor at his former seminary in Denver.
But for all practical purposes, White has been expunged from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver. He has been out of public ministry since 1993. The Vatican stripped him of his Roman collar last year, for reasons undisclosed.
The record of White that remains is contained in a confidential file at the Denver chancery that recounts the child sexual-abuse allegations against him.
In two months, White has gone from being a forgotten image on the wall to the chief figure that has dragged the Denver archdiocese headlong into accusations of betrayal and coverup that have characterized the clergy sexual-abuse crisis enveloping the nation's largest religious denomination. To date, the Denver archdiocese has been served with 10 lawsuits alleging it knew White was a molester and shuffled him from parish to parish.
"He was certainly a pleasant fellow, easy to get along with," said the Rev. John Slattery, a retired Colorado Springs priest who was three classes ahead of White in seminary. "I can't speak to what drives priests to do that sort of thing. To us, it's abhorrent. We can't come to imagine how our fellow priests would engage in that kind of activity."
White, 72, did not respond to interview requests. He previously told a Denver TV station the allegations contained "half-truths."
Interviews with parishioners, accusers and their families paint a profile of a priest whose friendly, approachable manner shielded a shrewd ability to groom impressionable boys and condition their parents to get what he wanted.
White's childhood - at least what is known of it - suggested nothing of the sort.
An articulate loner
The north Denver block where Robert White grew up was the kind where adults socialized while children commandeered vacant lots for all manner of games.
Harold and Geraldine White and their two sons, Robert and Jim, were devoted members of Holy Family parish and considered a great family.
Their livelihood depended on the family plumbing business. Harold White inherited it from his father, who came to Colorado from New York seeking a more favorable climate for his tuberculosis, Jim White recalled.
Glen Wickhorst, who lived on the block, said Bob White would stay behind when his father went fishing. He was more interested in cars and motorcycles. Wickhorst remembers Bob as a tall, articulate loner.
"He was very intelligent and very clean cut," said Wickhorst, 83, of Wheat Ridge.
He also called Bob White a "strange young man," effeminate in manner, who didn't play with the other kids.
In a brief interview outside his family's cabin in Grand Lake, Jim White said he is not close to his brother and hasn't spoken to him in years.
He said he didn't know of any trauma in his brother's upbringing - any instances of abuse inflicted on him - that would have made him more prone to committing the acts of which he is accused.
"We had a good family, a good upbringing," said Jim White, who is six years younger than his brother. "I put him up on a pedestal, him being a priest and all. This was a shock to me and my family."
At Regis High School in Denver, White ran with a group of guys that included Delbert Nielsen Jr. The two fiddled with cars and went on double dates.
Years later, Nielsen asked White to be the godfather of his first-born son.
His son, Delbert Nielsen III, is now one of the plaintiffs suing the archdiocese. He accuses White of groping him at the White family cabin near Grand Lake. The priest, he said, told him it was the will of God.
Structured seminary life
When White entered St. Thom as Seminary in 1952, he lived eight men to a room in the ORB, or "Old Red Brick" building on the peaceful campus in southeast Denver, recalled Jim Doebele, a classmate.
The seminary was run by the Vincentian religious order, and the students came from all over the region: Colorado, Kansas City, New Mexico, Wyoming.
"Back then, the two most respected and educated people in town were the doctor and priest," Doebele said. "When people had a problem of any kind, they went to one or both. Most Catholic parents felt if a son wanted to become a priest, that would be one of the better choices he could ever make."
White took seriously his responsibilities as dean of the class - the liaison between his class and the administration.
He took it so seriously, his classmates needled him and hatched practical jokes with a 1950s kind of innocence. Once, seminarians used a hanger to rig a bucket of water on a window so White was doused when he opened it, Doebele said.
"He was well liked," Doebele said. "We wouldn't have pulled tricks if we didn't like him."
Seminary life was disciplined. The men could leave campus only for doctors' visits, couldn't have a car, woke each morning at 5:30 and were forbidden to talk after lights out. During Latin class, a rector clanged a bell if a pronunciation was wrong.
"Obedience was drummed into you," said Doebele, who left the priesthood in 1968, got married and now works for an ecumenical ministry in Kansas City, Mo. "It was kind of military."
Five classmates of White's were interviewed for this story, and none remembered anything that would foreshadow the later accusations against him.
Part of the blame for the clergy sexual-abuse crisis has been attributed to Catholic seminaries' avoidance of in-depth discussions about sex.
Yet at St. Thomas in the 1950s, celibacy was discussed at least once a month on retreats, graduates say. Men stayed up late talking about it.
"There was no pressure on us to go on to become a priest," Slattery said. "We were told if you don't feel you can do it, leave because you'd be a square peg in a round hole. That was one of the principal things of our formation."
Accusations pile up
White stands accused of molesting at least 19 boys and one girl starting in the early 1960s and ending in the early 1980s.
The boys ranged in age from 9 to 18. Some were struggling with an absent father or their own sexuality. Others were swaggering football players.
The whispers started at White's first assignment: St. Catherine's in heavily Italian north Denver, not far from his old neighborhood.
Gloria Volpe, an elementary school student then, remembers that White took children for rides in his car. But he kept exclusive company.
"Always the boys, never the girls," Volpe said. "In those days, you might have called someone like him 'fruity.' He was sort of an odd duck."
Gary Wolf was one of those boys who went for a ride with White. The priest, a handsome man with blond hair and a cleft in his chin, would let eighth-grade altar boys drive his new Buick or Mercury, then fondle them, Wolf said.
"He knew no one would think ill of a priest," said Wolf, 56, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs.
Similar stories would follow White from parish to parish.
According to his accusers, he tempted boys with flashy cars, motorcycles, outings to hot springs, public swimming pools and his family cabin; he would fondle most and go further with some. Some men recount a single encounter with White. Others describe years of abuse. White would tell some boys he was showing them God's love. He admonished one not to mention "our little secret."
The Rev. Steve Rosetti, president of St. Luke's Institute in Silver Springs, Md., which treats and evaluates priests who molest children, said White's profile includes the largest red flag when it comes to priests predisposed to child sexual abuse: spending more time with young boys than people his age.
"If you connect with 12- or 13-year-old boys, where are your peer relationships?" Rosetti said. "For the guy to have a lot of toys and be connecting with young males raises the possibility of him being emotionally an adolescent."
The potential role of homosexuality in the clergy abuse scandal is a matter of disagreement.
More conservative Catholics believe a connection should at least be explored, pointing to the fact that most victims were adolescent boys. But most experts in the field reject a direct connection, saying that blaming homosexuality for pedophilia would be like blaming heterosexuality for serial rape.
Shift in theology, culture
The 1960s brought upheaval for not just U.S. society, but for the Roman Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965, ushered in groundbreaking reforms that created confusion and excitement in the church.
At St. Anthony's in Sterling, Robert White went from saying Mass in Latin with his back turned to the people to saying it in English while facing them.
He went from standing alone at the Communion rail distributing the body and blood of Christ to sharing the task with lay people.
The Rev. Peter Urban, a fellow assistant pastor at the time, said White adopted the changes in a spirit of following orders.
"He wasn't a revolutionary, saying, 'Damn it, I want these things changed,"' said Urban, a retired priest serving at Immaculate Conception parish in Lafayette. "He was going along with the system."
By then, White had been accused of molesting minors at two parishes. Urban does not remember anyone raising any concerns about his colleague.
Vatican 2 brought a seismic shift in the relationship between clergy and laity, Slattery said. There was a greater sense that clergy and the people were in it together for the church.
"Before, there was a sense if you wanted to be good fiends with someone, it had to be a fellow priest or a relative," Slattery said. "After Vatican 2, you could be closer friends with lay people. Before, we may have held them at arm's length, and they put us up on a pedestal."
At White's next parish, St. John the Evangelist in Loveland, the priest forged a close relationship with one family in particular. He ate dinner and stayed overnight at the Koldeway family farm.
But the family got the sense he mostly was interested in the two boys: Tom and John.
The brothers accuse White of wooing them with motorcycles, booze and trips to the mountains to prime them for his sexual gratification.
"When I think of how many times he was in my home and I didn't suspect anything ..." said their mother, Agnes Koldeway. "He ate at our dinner table. He celebrated birthdays. He was a priest; he was trusted. That's the way I grew up."
By the 1970s, White had adopted a more carefree appearance in keeping with the times. A photograph shows him in a khaki open-collar shirt and jeans, standing alongside motorcycles outside the log cabin rectory at St. Patrick's Church in Minturn, where White served longest.
The Rev. Richard Pike, a Presbyterian pastor in Minturn at the time, said that in a spirit of experimentation, he and White held an ecumenical Easter sunrise service at Chair Lift No. 3 at Vail. Pike said nothing led him to believe White had been implicated in child sexual abuse.
"We took 15 kids canoeing in Minnesota in 1972," said Pike, who lives in California. "The kids called him 'Uncle Bobby."'
When White arrived in Aspen in 1978, Roger Marolt said he immediately recognized a change from the brusque and aloof priests who preceded him.
"It seemed like the church was trying to bring in someone more approachable," said Marolt, an Aspen accountant and the son of an Olympic skier. "Father White was all that."
After one Mass, Marolt said, White hugged him and ran his hands up and down his back. Another boy allegedly was standing in his kitchen when White groped him. He told his parents, and a group of angry parishioners complained to then-Archbishop James Casey. Within months, White was gone.
White has not been linked to any abuse after his departure from Aspen in 1981. Archdiocesan directories list him as being on sabbatical that year. During that era, it was common for priests linked to child sexual abuse to be sent to an out-of-state treatment center.The archdiocese will not comment on whether White got treatment.
White attended his mother's funeral in 1999 at his boyhood parish, Holy Family. Some of his fellow priests attended.
White was still a priest then, but he couldn't have said the Mass if he had wanted to. He had been out of public ministry since 1993, meaning he could not say Mass publicly or work in any parish in the Denver archdiocese.
White was laicized, or reduced to lay status, by the Vatican last year, 44 years after he lay on the floor of Denver's cathedral, beginning his journey as a priest.
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