Settlement Unsettling to Victim

By Patrick Malone
The Pueblo Chieftain
September 13, 2009

Andrew Burke committed suicide in September 2005, when allegations of sexual abuse against him were about to be made public.

Two Pueblo natives - a 48-year-old man and his nephew in his 30s - have settled lawsuits with the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo over sexual abuse allegations against a former priest.

The elder relative said he's not satisfied with the outcome or the route negotiations took to get there.

Matt Cortez and his nephew both claimed prolonged abuse by Andrew Burke in their suits against the diocese. Both men received undisclosed settlements, Monsignor Mark Plewka of the Pueblo diocese confirmed.

Plewka has twice affirmed his belief that Cortez's claims were true. Cortez's suit accused Burke of seeking him out as an adolescent and sexually abusing him from 1970-78 - both before and after Burke left the priesthood - and grooming him by financially supporting his athletic endeavors.

Years after Cortez had left town, Burke allegedly sought out his nephew and established a similar relationship fraught with sexual abuse and grooming, according to his suit.

Besieged by media inquiries and knowing that the allegations against him were about to become public, Burke committed suicide by gun in September 2005 in the garden of the home he shared with his wife on Pueblo's South Side. He was 62.

On the eve of his suicide, Burke confirmed some abuse allegations in a phone message left for a Denver Post reporter. He denied others. It was then that Cortez said he reconciled what had happened to him. He began negotiating face-to-face with officials from the Pueblo diocese. Diocesan representatives balked at Cortez's request for $1.8 million and the release of Burke's personnel file.

A 2004 Pueblo police report generated after Plewka reported another man's allegation of abuse by Burke noted the letter Burke wrote to the Vatican seeking to be excused from his service as a priest in 1973. He had been assigned to St. Pius X Catholic Church.

According to the police report, Burke admitted in the letter to the Vatican that he struggled with a “psychosexual behavior disorder.”

After leaving the cloth, Burke worked in the mental health field at local hospitals and the Colorado Mental Health Institute, where he was employed at the time of his death.

To Cortez, unearthing details of Burke's time as a priest was paramount because he believed it might hold clues to diocesan knowledge of abuse by Burke that should have motivated the diocese at the time to intercede and prevent Burke from having access to children in the future - including Cortez and his nephew.

The diocese refused Cortez's demands in the face-to-face negotiations, which lasted for almost a year. So he began shopping for an attorney to file suit.

Cortez said the diocese's failure to make a counteroffer led him to believe reaching a settlement was never the institution's intention during the personal negotiations.

In July 2008 Cortez and his nephew filed their suits against the diocese, and in June the first mediation session was held between the parties to the suit.

At the mediation session it was apparent to the mediator that Cortez had missed the allotted window to file suit. In Colorado, an accuser of childhood sexual abuse has two years from the time they realize a plaintiff was allegedly negligent to initiate a lawsuit.

Almost three years had passed between Cortez's first meeting with the diocese and his filing of a lawsuit, and he left the session knowing that the diocese was on sound footing to reject any proposed settlement, regardless how modest.

To Cortez's surprise, soon after the mediation conference his lawyer notified him that the diocese had extended settlement offers to him and his nephew. Both were accepted, and neither included the release of Burke's personnel file.

While he acknowledged that the diocese had little reason to offer him anything, from a legal perspective, Cortez remains bitter toward the church over its protracted negotiations with him, which he believes were a calculated effort to devour the statutory window of time he had to file suit.

Plewka dismissed Cortez's belief and said the diocese never intentionally stalled in its talks with him. He said the settlement offer was a magnanimous move aimed at doing what's right.

"Basically, what we tried to do was apply a fundamental fairness in all of the (abuse allegation) situations," Plewka said. "Each case is different. The settlement of this case is consistent with our commitment to restorative justice."

During the years since he first sat face-to-face with Plewka, Cortez has followed developments in church-related lawsuits over sexual abuse throughout America and internationally. He's grown increasingly disheartened by what he perceives to be the “reach of the church” into state legislatures, courts and other governing entities.

Cortez was active in two failed pushes in recent years at the Colorado statehouse to lift the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits.

He sees the church's lobbyists and lawyers as soldiers in the war to protect those who harm children, and considers the church's public stance of compassion a facade that masks what he perceives as greed and an absence of general concern for victims of clergy abuse.

In the span between Cortez's first talk with diocesan representatives and the settlement of his suit, the Pueblo diocese and the Society of Mary religious order settled more than 20 lawsuits brought by Roncalli High School students over abuse by former Marianist Brother William Mueller during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he taught at the school. The combined payout topped $2.4 million.

A handful of lawsuits also have been filed in the meantime alleging abuse of boys by priests decades ago in the Pueblo diocese.

Cortez expressed concern that some victims who haven't come forward to date will follow the path he did and talk first to the diocese. He recommended against it and said the diocese's recommendations of prayer and counseling to overcome the pain of abuse amount to little more than window dressing.

“This isn't a bump in the road that's so soon forgotten," he said. "It sets the tone for every part of your life.

“Everywhere that these suits are filed, the statute of limitations is the diocese's first line of defense. I'm convinced they practice stall tactics to help their standing. That's what they did to me. For other victims, I'd recommended against following the track that I did. Go out and hire a lawyer right away.”

Plewka said the diocese is genuinely conscientious about victims' healing and welcomed anyone with allegations to talk to the diocese about the situation.

“We try to meet with people when they come forward,” Plewka said. “We do not engage in delaying tactics. We are always open to alternative dispute resolution discussions. We like to settle cases amicably. We're more than willing to meet with anybody that has complaints about misconduct. Our door is open and people are treated professionally.”

While he's glad for the money the diocese paid, Cortez said the lifelong pain of coping with his abuse experience has left him hollow.

“There's nothing to feel good about,” he said. “I live with this every day and will for the rest of my life. It wasn't just about the money. I wanted Burke's file made public to expose what this church really does. For me, there's no personal satisfaction in the way this turned out.”



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