Colorado’s review of Catholic Church sex abuse named priests, but not those who covered up their crimes
By Jesse Paul And Jennifer Brown
December 14, 2020
|Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila prays before the Blessed Sacrament during the Consecration of the Archdiocese of Denver to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on October 13, 2017, in Denver. |
Photo by Anya Semenoff
|Neil Elms at the back door of his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on Jan. 25, 2020, having a cigarette after hours spent talking of the abuse he suffered as a child by a priest, a close family friend, while in Catholic school. |
Photo by Joe Amon
|Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks to reporters on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, about a report on priest abuse in Colorado. |
Photo by Jesse Paul
|The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, photographed on Feb. 19, 2018. |
Photo by Eric Lubbers
|A photograph of Monsignor Lawrence St. Peter. |
Photo by Joe Amon
|Christ the King Chapel, on the campus of the Archdiocese of Denver, is the chapel used by seminary students seeking the priesthood.|
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office said time limited the investigation. The Catholic Church says it’s taken responsibility. But victims say the whole story hasn’t been told.
A pair of explosive reports on decades of child sex abuse in Colorado’s three Catholic dioceses named 52 priests but kept confidential the identities of numerous church officials — from administrators to bishops — who covered up or ignored allegations of misconduct and transferred known child abusers to work in other parishes.
The Colorado Sun counted 37 priests in the two investigative documents — one released last year and another earlier this month — whose abuse was hidden by the church, either because officials ignored victims’ stories, chose not to investigate or did not report suspected abuse to law enforcement. In many cases, the church allowed an abusive priest to continue working as clergy despite warnings about their behavior.
There were 212 people who were abused by priests as children or teens between 1950 and 2000 who came forward during the independent investigation, which began in February 2019. Of those, 113 were preyed upon by 14 priests after the church had been warned about their behavior, according to the independent investigation.
Church leaders in the Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo dioceses are referred to in the report only by generic titles. Investigators who reviewed church files to produce the report were operating under a voluntary agreement negotiated between the three dioceses and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. The scope did not include revealing the names of Catholic leaders who protected abusive priests over the past seven decades, according to Attorney General Phil Weiser.
“Clearly they didn’t hold everyone accountable,” said Neil Elms, who was 8 when he was raped by Monsignor Lawrence St. Peter in the early 1980s at Holy Family School in northwest Denver.
The report shows church officials knew that St. Peter was a pedophile before he abused Elms, even calling his misconduct with children “an open secret.”
“There is overwhelming evidence that the Denver Archdiocese was fully on notice,” the report says. But the names of people who didn’t pass along tips about his behavior are not included.
“These are individuals who thought it was in their best interest not to go to the police,” Elms said. “That’s like knowing that my friend committed a murder and not telling anybody. Give me a break. Nowadays, that’s an accessory. I just feel like the agreement that the AG had with the church was a mistake. Now who is covering up (for) who?”
In the case of Father Harold Robert White, whom the reports call “the most prolific known clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” the Denver Archdiocese knew from the outset of his career that he was a child sex abuser, investigators found. In fact, his crimes began before he was ordained in 1960. Investigators located 70 victims.
“When he had sexually abused enough children at a parish that scandal threatened to erupt, the Denver Archdiocese moved him to a new one geographically distant enough that White was not known there,” the reports say. “The Denver Archdiocese repeated this cycle at least six times and never once restricted his ministry, or removed him from ministry, or sent him off for genuine psychiatric evaluation and care.”
The people responsible for looking the other way are not named.
The omissions are in contrast to a well-known report on abusive Pennsylvania priests that prompted Colorado’s review. In that state’s investigation, which involved a grand jury, church officials who covered up the abuse of children were named and their actions — and inaction — detailed.
But Colorado’s investigation was different because the attorney general was unable to use a grand jury to conduct the probe because he didn’t have the permission of the governor.
“We had to make a judgment call about how to scope this report,” Weiser, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We prioritized what priests were abusers, (victims) getting compensation.”
Weiser said naming church officials who covered up the behavior of abusive priests “would have just raised the level of difficulty and it could have limited the effectiveness and to do what I thought were the critical priorities.” He pointed out that while specific officials aren’t named, the report clearly states that the church repeatedly failed to stop child sexual assault.
“We do call this out,” he said. “The church had a culture that was covering up and that was enabling abuse. That’s atrocious.”
In a 966-word statement, the Archdiocese of Denver defended the independent investigation and the subsequent reports, pointing out that there hasn’t been a substantiated abuse allegation in two decades. It says many of the church officials who were around when the abuse happened are now dead.
“The Archdiocese of Denver fully cooperated in the review, ensuring that all information was provided to the investigators. It did not leave out any relevant information and did not influence the report’s analysis or conclusions,” the statement said.
The church says it admits that in the past it failed to remove abusive priests when there was “some notice of a prior incident,” but that it has taken steps to ensure those missteps never happen again. Weiser said that’s a major success of the investigation.
“All of the analysis we are doing today is obviously in hindsight, and under today’s understanding of sexual abuse and today’s standards for handling such things,” the church’s statement said. “Clearly the administrators working decades ago must be judged by the societal standards of their time, including what police agencies and all institutions did to address sexual abuse.”
The Colorado chapter of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, has not given up hope on a criminal investigation — and full transparency about who covered up the abuse.
“That is the big question: who knew and when?” said Jeb Barrett, who was assaulted by a priest in Montana as a child and now lives in Colorado. “Why didn’t they do anything? Because their main job is to protect Mother Church.”
Barrett and his group pushed former Attorney General Cynthia Coffman for a grand jury investigation, and while Barrett is grateful for the Colorado review, he calls it a compromise that didn’t achieve justice.
“The three dioceses only released files that they were comfortable with,” Barrett said. “The long-term goal is that we have a grand jury investigation.
“The church has been defending itself against any accusation or liability for generations. Ultimately, we have to look at the secrecy, the impunity and the immunity that they claim. They hide behind statute of limitations. They try to control everything. We have to learn to be skeptical of anything and everything they say. It’s taken me a lifetime to reach that point.”
Coffman said she would have preferred a grand jury investigation into child sex abuse in the Catholic church. But in Colorado, unlike Pennsylvania, the attorney general needs the permission of the governor to launch that kind of criminal investigation.
Weiser has signaled that a criminal investigation into the church is unlikely. He’s not seeking authority from the legislature or Gov. Jared Polis to go down that road.
“I have to recognize that we are in a fiscally constrained environment,” he said at a news conference earlier this month. “The challenge that we have is we are already strapped. We had to take some serious cuts.”
It’s also unclear if there would be any criminal charges that could be pursued at this point.
Colorado has a ”mandatory reporter” law that requires teachers, clergy, doctors, psychologists, social workers and first responders to report suspected physical and/or sexual abuse of a child that they become aware of to law enforcement. However there is a three-year statute of limitations, meaning historic priest abuse in the Catholic church — the most recent case independent investigators identified happened in 1999 — would fall well outside of the timeframe for prosecution.
Priest was “putting the make on guys” yet abuse continued for years
In Elms’ case, the reports detail how the church, at least 12 years before his rape, “had been receiving numerous, reliable, consistent reports that St. Peter was sexually abusing children.”
“When St. Peter was assigned to Holy Family Parish in 1972, one priest there reported he heard ‘at least 10’ complaints that St. Peter was ‘putting the make on guys,’” the report says. “The same priest reported over the next few years that seven or eight boys complained they had been approached sexually or fondled by St. Peter. This same priest reported all this to a Denver Archdiocese official and begged him to tell the archbishop.”
The concerned priest and the church official aren’t identified. It also is unknown whether the archbishop at the time, James Vincent Casey, was ever told about St. Peter’s behavior.
What is clear, however, is that St. Peter continued to sexually assault children, including Elms, who was subjected to years of abuse.
“It’s unfortunate that they knew 12 years before he laid a hand on me that he was a pedophile,” said Elms, who is now 46 and lives in western Massachusetts. “I think what’s more unfortunate is there was somebody who identified it that was never heard. The poor priest who spoke up probably felt so powerless. Somebody who was doing the right thing behind a cloak still got shunned away.”
Elms thinks St. Peter would have abused children wherever he was and that he used the church simply as a means to carry out his crimes. The church didn’t step in to stop St. Peter, and therefore the institution and its people are just just as culpable.
“It wasn’t just the coverup part,” he said. “It was that they were almost enabling him. That’s just sick.”
Report details numerous coverups, but no names
The Colorado report is riddled with examples of cover ups, perpetrated by unnamed officials.
Here are some of them:
Father Leonard Abercrombie: Investigators found there is “strong circumstantial evidence” that the Denver Archdiocese knew as early as 1962 that Father Leonard Abercrombie was sexually abusing children. He even self-reported twice to the archdiocese that his parishioners were accusing him of wrongdoing.
“For the record, twice while stationed in Roggen Father complained to me that some were accusing him of this vice,” an auxiliary bishop, who is unnamed, wrote in a memo. “I told him to ignore it and see to it that his actions gave no grounds for even slight suspicion. Seemingly, he is plagued by this accusation. I have no knowledge which would justify it; but he may be foolish in giving grounds for suspicion, and in his reaction to the charge.”
Abercrombrie sexually abused at least 18 boys between his ordination in 1946 and his departure from the state in 1972, investigators wrote.
Abercrombie frequently abused boys during overnight camping trips. He was assigned to rural parishes, and was moved around by the archdiocese many times.
Father William Gleeson: The Pueblo Diocese had multiple chances to stop Father William Gleeson from abusing boys. Instead, church officials ignored the complaints and transferred the priest to new parishes.
In August 1968, Gleeson was transferred — without reason, according to his file — from St. Mary’s in Montrose to St. Pius X Parish in Pueblo. This was only weeks after he was accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy at St. Mary’s.
The victim, who came forward last year, told investigators that he had reported the abuse to the pastor of St. Mary’s in the summer of 1968. Gleeson was transferred to Pueblo that August.
“The Pueblo Diocese took no other action against Gleeson,” the state report says. “It did not restrict his authority. It did not prevent his access to children.”
Then in 1969, the family of a 17-year-old boy reported to the church that Gleeson — who was then in Pueblo — had “groped and humped” him. Gleeson admitted to hugging the boy and perhaps making him feel uncomfortable, but warned the boy’s mother to “stop slandering the church.” The Pueblo Diocese neither investigated the allegation or reported it to law enforcement.
Decades later in 1993, as the dioceses’ “sexual misconduct review board” looked into old files, the allegations were unearthed. An investigation that included 24 interviews and several psychological evaluations of Gleeson was deemed inconclusive. It was decided that Gleeson was not an “imminent threat” and that it wasn’t necessary to report him to law enforcement.
But, according to this year’s state investigative team report, that review failed to take into account significant corroborating evidence and gave no weight to the victim’s testimony.
Gleeson had already died by the time other victims came forward in 2019 and 2020, bringing his total known victims to five.
Father Delbert Blong: The Pueblo Diocese received reports of Father Delbert Blong’s sexual misconduct with children 12 years before Blong fondled and masturbated a 15-year-old boy who attended Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Junta in 1964.
More than a decade prior to the teen’s abuse, according to Blong’s file, the parish administrator was told that Blong was sexually grooming adolescent boys and behaving as if he were involved in a “love affair” with one boy.
The parish administrator reportedly informed the Pueblo bishop of these claims in 1953, calling Blong “actually love crazy” for teenage boys. The administrator said he had asked Blong to stop and that Blong had refused.
By the time the La Junta victim reported his abuse in 2019, Blong was dead.
Father Andrew Burke: Burke was allowed to sexually abuse at least four preteen and teenage boys in the months and years after the Pueblo Diocese knew that Burke had a psychosexual disorder that “drove him to sexually abuse children,” according to the investigator’s latest report.
The abuse took place in the 1970s, after Grand Junction church personnel “knew Burke had a problem and shunned him as a result,” the report says.
One victim, who was 14 at the time, said Burke asked him to meet at a Grand Junction motel room where Burke masturbated. Reports from the other three victims were similar.
All four victims first reported the abuse last year to the special investigative team. Burke is deceased.
Father Duane Repola: Repola was transferred around the Pueblo Diocese so many times in the 1960s and 1970s that investigators who reviewed the allegations against him were suspicious about the reason for the moves.
Repola served seven years as a diocesan priest in the Pueblo Diocese, and in that time, he was transferred from La Junta to Grand Junction to Alamosa. The timing of his move from Grand Junction to a chaplaincy position in Alamosa coincides with allegations that surfaced during the independent investigation regarding a then-14-year-old boy who was abused in 1967.
The victim, who reported the abuse last year, said he scrambled under a bed to get away from Repola after Repola got into bed with him, took off his clothes and put his penis against the boy. At the time, Repola was an assistant pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Grand Junction.
A year after arriving in Alamosa, in 1970, Repola was put on leave for one year and was required to participate in “professional counseling.” The nature of that counseling – and why the Pueblo Diocese required it – is not explained in Repola’s file. He died in 1971 while on his leave of absence. It’s odd, investigators wrote, that the diocese was silent about the reasons for the transfers or the counseling.
“His pattern of assignments indicate that the Pueblo Diocese may have been aware that he engaged in such behavior,” the investigators wrote. “We reach that conclusion having seen in our investigations numerous child sex-abuser priests in Colorado with a similar pattern of assignments and employment actions.”
Father Timothy Evans: The Denver Archdiocese knew Father Timothy Evans had “sexually harassed and touched fellow seminarians” and was inappropriately “consumed” with particular teenage boys, as evidenced by his church file. This was before Evans “forcibly groped, fondled and sexually molested” a 12-year-old boy who was sent to Evans’ office during religious education classes at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Fort Collins in 1998.
Evans’ file did not contain any specific reports of sexual misconduct with children prior to the boy’s abuse, but makes clear that church officials should have known he was a threat, according to the state report. The church had enough evidence to suggest that there had been inappropriate conduct with children — complaints that the church failed to investigate.
Evans was convicted in 2007 of sexually assaulting children and served 13 years of a 20-year sentence. The 12-year-old victim came forward last year and was not part of the criminal case against Evans.