Disgust, Validation, Hope: Survivors, Catholics React to Report Detailing 70 Years of Colorado Clergy Sex Abuse
By Elise Schmelzer
October 25, 2019
Seeing Father George Weibel’s name printed in the newspaper Thursday brought Hazel Lorraine Kroehl back to the Broomfield swimming pool where 60 years earlier the priest abused her.
Emotions flooded Kroehl. Then old shame crept up, before being washed away with gratitude. Finally, the world knew the priest for who he was — a pedophile.
Then Kroehl, 72, burst into tears.
“This is the first time I’ve ever cried over it,” she said Thursday.
For Kroehl and other victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests, the release Wednesday of a damning report detailing 70 years of clergy abuse in Colorado dredged up memories of the men who abused them. But seeing the priests’ names and descriptions of their crimes also validated what happened to survivors many decades ago.
The report also caused pain and deep reflection for many in Colorado’s Catholic community. Each new detail can test a person’s faith, though many remain loyal to their church, despite its flaws.
“I think like a lot of Catholics it’s complicated,” said Katie Lacz, a lifelong Catholic and a program associate at the Women’s Ordination Conference. “We’re all faced in this situation with this question of staying or leaving and all the implications of that. How can you stay? And how can you leave?”
The 263-page report — spearheaded by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office — is the most in-depth accounting of clergy sex abuse in Colorado to date. Its author, former Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, found that 43 priests here abused at least 166 children and that the church hierarchy worked for years to hide allegations from the public and created a culture where abuse went unreported.
Publishing the investigation has brought a flurry of new abuse reports to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, spokesman Lawrence Pacheco said Thursday.
When the list of abusive priests published online, Juliane Honeywell Haburchak immediately scrolled through the list of names searching for the priest who abused her more than 40 years ago.
Over the decades, Haburchak had searched George Weibel’s name online to see if his abuse had been made public, to see what ever happened to the man that groped her and a friend in a Littleton church when she was about 12 years old. She never found anything except his obituary.
At the time of her abuse, Weibel was leading an evening class at Columbine Catholic Parish she had to attend so that she could take her first confession. During one of those classes, Weibel put his arms around the shoulders of her and a friend and groped their breasts, Haburchak said. He asked multiple times if the touch was painful.
“I just remember thinking ‘That’s not right,'” Haburchak said. “But I didn’t have words for it.”
She eventually told her mom, but her mom never reported it. She became a more anxious and fearful child but didn’t tell anybody else.
Haburchak later left her faith — being at church made her nervous. In her late 20s, Harburchak returned to the church — now St. Francis Cabrini Parish — to see if Weibel still worked there. She thought about confronting him. But she never made it past the church’s entryway.
Instead, she was met with a large painted portrait of the man who had abused her. Fear enveloped her. How could this man who abused her be seen with so much respect?
“I felt so horrible,” she said.
When Weibel’s name appeared in the investigative report Wednesday, Harburchak felt relieved to see his crimes come to light.
“It was just so validating,” she said.
Harburchak said that one of the worst things that Weibel’s abuse did to her was cause her to lose her faith for decades, though she later returned to Christianity.
“I felt like I left a part of myself out for years,” she said.
Sixteen years before Weibel met Harburchak at the old Columbine parish, the priest met Kroehl through her parents. The priest would offer to take Kroehl and her siblings to a local pool in Broomfield. The priest would play games with the kids and on multiple occasions over the summer of 1959, Weibel groped 10-year-old Kroehl’s breasts over her swimsuit, she said.
She told her mom and sister years later about what happened when Weibel offered to take her and her siblings to a local pool, but didn’t report it otherwise.
“I never, ever thought I needed to call someone about this because I didn’t think anybody would believe me,” Kroehl said. “He was a representative of God, right? He couldn’t do anything wrong, could he? I thought I must have done something wrong to make him do that.”
Kroehl remained Catholic for a number of years. She became a social worker and for years helped children in Boulder County. Seeing Weibel’s name printed in the report brought her back to those terrifying moments in the pool, but it was healing, she said.
“It’s a validation of feeling,” she said. “The fact that it did happen. It wasn’t something I imagined. I wasn’t nuts.”
For the broader Colorado Catholic community, the report has brought the realities of an international scandal to the same churches they attend and made it more personal.
Lifelong Catholic and former state Sen. Rob Hernandez said seeing the names of priests he knew as a child shook him. Even though Hernandez has known of allegations against priests for years, the report destroyed impressions of men he had seen as role models.
“It shattered my impression of them and it shook me to my Catholic core,” Hernandez said of the report. “To think that those in power in the hierarchy of the church who preach these vows and the 10 commandments knew this was going on and didn’t protect us. We were children.”
Growing up in the Pueblo diocese in the 1960s, he said he knew boys who had been victimized and priests who preyed. He watched as adults repeatedly failed to intervene. Although the pain caused him to question how a loving God could allow such horror, he remained steadfast in his faith.
“My faith is internally strong,” he said. “I’ve always had a personal relationship with God and my maker, and that hasn’t shattered.”
Lacz was also devastated by the report, she said.
“My initial reaction is both deep sadness and a lack of surprise at the same time,” she said. “And that lack of surprise itself makes me very sad.”
But Lacz said she couldn’t turn away from a faith that is a central part of her identity. Instead, she vows to fight from the inside and hopes to make it a better, safer place. She doubts her decision to stay in the church sometimes. There are hard days, like Wednesday and Thursday, she said.
“And yet I believe in a Holy Spirit that moves in difficult situations,” she said.