Honorable Way to Address Abuse

Denver Post
July 3, 2008

The legal settlement between the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver and 18 plaintiffs who alleged they were sexually abused by three priests doesn't end the suffering of those victims.

But the cash awards, arrived by mediation, do give the victims and their families the resources to receive whatever professional counseling and other services they may need. Equally important, the victims, who were between the ages of 8 and 14 when the abuse occurred, now have the emotional satisfaction of knowing the church has formally acknowledged its institutional responsibility for the harm wrought against them by men whom the vulnerable youths had every right to trust.

Some victims and their lawyers remain highly critical of the archdiocese's role in this long-past but still dreadful affair. But short of inventing a time machine to travel back and forestall the actions of men who are long dead, it's difficult to see what more Archbishop Charles Chaput could have done.

The incidents settled Tuesday occurred between 1954 and 1981. All of the accused priests, Harold Robert White, Leonard Abercrombie and Monsignor Lawrence St. Peter, are dead. The latest settlements mean the archdiocese has now resolved 43 claims against the three with awards totaling $8.3 million. Only two sexual abuse cases are still pending against the archdiocese, one against Abercrombie and the other against another dead priest, Thomas Barry.

In a meeting with The Post's editorial board, Chaput was asked how the archdiocese's response measured up against a question by one of the victims: "What would Jesus do?"

"Jesus didn't have to deal with the American legal system," Chaput replied ruefully.

His point is well taken. Chaput is not only shepherd to 525,000 Catholics, he and the institution he leads are defendants in a number of unresolved lawsuits, which severely constricts what he can say in public. But that hasn't stopped him from apologizing "on behalf of myself, our clergy, and the whole Catholic community" and offering to meet personally with every victim.

More important than expressing regret or paying monetary compensation is taking strong steps to minimize the chance of such abuse occurring in the future. Chaput's predecessor, Archbishop Francis Stafford, now a cardinal, already took those steps, establishing comprehensive sexual misconduct policies in 1991 that include the immediate reporting of any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to law enforcement. That hopefully ensures any future crimes of this nature will not be covered up as those by alleged serial offender White apparently were by church authorities who are themselves now deceased.

The past cannot be changed and crimes by offenders now dead cannot be punished by earthly authorities. Under the circumstances, the archdiocese has made an honorable effort to redress the harm done to living victims and help them get on with their lives.


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