Longtime Colorado Priest Removed from Duties after Allegation of Sexual Abuse Decades Ago

By Jessica Fender
The Denver Post
April 12, 2010

Parishioners emerging Sunday from St. Thomas More Catholic Church voiced disbelief that one of their priests known for his jokes and love of Irish heritage faces an allegation that he sexually abused a young boy decades ago.

Father Mel Thompson, the assistant pastor for nine years at the Centennial church, was removed from his duties Thursday, a day after diocese officials say his accuser came forward. Parishioners at the seven Front Range churches where Thompson has served received notice Sunday of the priest's suspension through a letter from Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

Thompson, who could not be reached Sunday for comment, maintains his innocence, according to a release from the archdiocese.

The news, on the heels of international turmoil over what Pope Benedict XVI may have known about decades of priest abuse, stirred indignation among victims groups and critics of the Catholic Church who have pushed for more openness in how sex-abuse cases are resolved.

Yet one critic said the speed with which this particular accusation was handled may signal a change in how the church deals with such cases.

Among Thompson's supporters, Kelly Dore, a longtime parishioner at St. Thomas More and mother of two young sons, said she didn't believe the accusation.

"He is a wonderful man, and as a previous sex-assault victim myself, I can say that," Dore said. "I would trust my children with him any time. It's very sad this happened."

The allegation against Thompson, a high-ranking priest at one of Colorado's largest Catholic churches, dates to an incident in the early 1970s, archdiocese spokeswoman Jeanette De Melo said.

Citing concerns for the victim's privacy, she declined to reveal the nature or location of the alleged abuse or the law enforcement agency to which the archdiocese reported the incident.

Thompson served Denver parish St. Rose of Lima from 1969 to 1970 and in 1973 served Good Shepherd Parish, formerly called St. John the Evangelist.

Lt. Matt Murray with the Denver Police Department said that as of Friday, the head of the child- abuse division had not received notice from the archdiocese, but he said the age of the alleged crime would make an investigation impossible.

"If it's outside the statute of limitations, we won't investigate it," said Murray, adding that the statutory formula depends on the victim's age at the time of the abuse. "It won't go back to the '70s. We don't even have a case."

De Melo said that while the basic facts of the allegation check out Thompson did serve at the location and at the time the abuse allegedly took place church authorities have not yet decided whether to pursue their own investigation. She declined to discuss the contents of Thompson's personnel file but said there were no substantiated complaints of abuse against the suspended priest.

Under its code of conduct, the archdiocese could deploy an abuse-response task force composed mostly of church-involved laity to investigate further. Thompson could be reinstated or barred from the priesthood depending on the task force's findings.

"We take these kinds of allegations very seriously. Care is taken to be sure we're not acting in haste and presuming his guilt," De Melo said. "Our decision to make it public was based on the fact that people in those parishes should understand we have received an allegation."

Just as the nation has been swept by a series of priest sex- abuse scandals in the past decade, so too do Coloradans have a history with the church that has bred distrust among detractors.

At least 45 cases alleging sex abuse within the Denver Archdiocese mostly involving three now-dead clergymen were either litigated or mediated between 2005 and 2008.

Critics such as Florida lawyer Adam Horowitz who handled many of those Colorado cases say that if the events surrounding Thompson's suspension happened in the rapid succession that the archdiocese claims, it would denote a shift from the secrecy that has led to years of litigation.

Officials say Thompson's accuser came forward Wednesday; the priest was suspended Thursday, and parishioners and the media were alerted Sunday.

"If April 7 was the first complaint, and if they released that information right away, then obviously we wouldn't take issue with the swift pace," Horowitz said. "It (would be) a marked change from how they've done things in the past."

Horowitz added that it's impossible to tell whether church officials had earlier indication of alleged wrongdoing without a peek at Thompson's personnel file, the type of document the archdiocese has fought to keep private in the past.

Recent headlines regarding Pope Benedict and sex-abuse allegations in Germany, Ireland and Italy have sparked an uptick in complaints to a Denver victims group and may have drawn out Thompson's accuser, Jeb Barrett said.

"Every time someone goes public, we get more calls from victims and their families about something they've never talked about," said Barrett, head of Denver's chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's not unusual for people to go into a sort of denial until their 30s, 40s and 50s. There's so much shame attached to it."

Thompson, who public records suggest is in his early 70s, has spent most of his priesthood in Colorado, where he's built a loyal following among recent parishioners.

After joining the Catholic church at the age of 21, Thompson was ordained a few years later at Big Piney Grade School in Wyoming.

He served briefly in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita in Kansas before coming to Colorado in 1969 and moving often through a series of Front Range churches.

By 1989, he settled at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Lakewood, where he served until he joined St. Thomas More as parochial vicar in 2001. As parochial vicar, Thomp son would have assisted at Mass, taken confession and generally assisted the pastor in a number of duties, which would also include contact with children, De Melo said.

Fatima officials heralded "Father Mel's" humor and compassion in a biography posted on the church's website.

"With his quick wit and love of everything Irish, (he) found the parish quick to embrace his fun-loving ways and his compassion for the sick and suffering," the biography said. "Many parishioners enjoyed their first glimpse of the 'Old Country' with Father Mel as their guide."

The description matches up to the memories of many contacted Sunday by The Post.

"He has a good personality, liked to joke. He always wore his green sweater for St. Patrick's Day," said Laszlo Gombas, parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima. "We wish him the best and keep him in our prayers."


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