Survivors of child sex abuse by Catholic priests call for Colorado statute of limitations reform

Democratic lawmakers may consider reforms in the wake of damning child sex abuse report.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver. (Photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr creative commons)

Survivors of child sex abuse by Catholic priests are calling for reforms to Colorado’s statute of limitations for such crimes in the wake of a damning report detailing decades of sexual abuse and cover-up in the church.

Such reforms could allow survivors to use lawsuits to expose more child sex abuse than was included in the 263-page report.

“That allows survivors to come forward when they are ready,” said Joelle Casteix, an advocate for the nonprofit Zero Abuse Project, during an emotional press conference in Denver on Friday. Casteix sued her California Catholic Diocese for sexual abuse. 

Three survivors spoke to reporters in response to an independent report commissioned by the attorney general’s office and released earlier this week. The report chronicles at least 166 instances of abuse of children by 43 priests. Most of the abuse, according to the report, was carried out by just three Denver priests: Leonard Abercrombie and Harold Robert White, both whom have since died, and Neil Hewitt, who no longer lives in Colorado. 

Related: Report: Sexual abuse of children went on for decades in Colorado’s Catholic church

It took an average of almost 20 years before the church responded to reports of abuse, the investigation by former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer found. The report found dozens of instances of child sex abuse not reported to law enforcement authorities even though such reporting was required by Colorado law. Nearly half of the children abused were abused by priests after the allegations against the priests came to church leadership’s attention. 

“It is devastating for us as survivors to know that so many children were abused by Catholic priests,” said Jennifer Stith, the executive director of the childhood victim advocacy organization WINGS. “The majority of victims were abused after initial reports and allegations had been made.”

Stith, speaking to cameras and reporters, directly addressed survivors, saying “we want every survivor to know you are not alone.” She also acknowledged victims who may have not been covered in the report because their records were expunged or because the abuse was not reported, or worse, because they took their own lives. 

The Archdiocese of Denver, the Pueblo Diocese and Colorado Springs Diocese agreed to participate in the investigation and voluntarily turned over records. Troyer said he found no indication that any records were withheld, but the report noted that that is not the equivalent of saying the records were complete. The report found shoddy record-keeping and evidence of one abusive priest purging his records of abuse in the 1980s. 

(From left to right) Jeb Barrett, Joelle Casteix and Jennifer Stith respond to a report on child sexual abuse in Colorado’s Catholic church at the Denver Press Club on Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

Stith, Casteix, and Jeb Barrett, Denver director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called for a more thorough investigation, one that would include religious orders as well. 

They also advocated for legislation that retroactively removes the civil statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases. 

In Colorado, if a child sex abuse survivor wants to sue the perpetrators of abuse, they generally have to do so within six years of turning 18. Some states have no statute of limitations for civil or criminal cases involving child sex abuse. And, as Casteix says, California, where she was abused by a priest, just revoked its civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse. 

In general, a person can be criminally prosecuted in Colorado for child sexual abuse for any incident after July 1, 1996.

Casteix said the criminal statute of limitations can’t be retroactively applied before then in most cases, due to provisions in the U.S. Constitution. But a retroactive civil window gives victims a way to hold abusers accountable and creates a record of abuse, she said. 

Several Democratic lawmakers said they are considering changes to the state’s statute of limitations but did not disclose details.

“I know there is probably some interest and probably some willingness,” Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, told reporters at the state Capitol on Thursday. 

Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila responded to the report in a video saying “we recognize how difficult it is for survivors of abuse to share their stories, and we thank all of you for your courage.” 

The report recommends that the church create or contract with an independent, expert investigator to handle clergy child sex abuse allegations; implement a comprehensive record-keeping system; dedicate a victim coordinator whose sole purpose is victim care; enhance internal training; and hire a third party to investigate records, investigations and trainings at least every other year. 

Aquila said the Denver Archdiocese will adopt all of the recommendations in the report. 

Casteix said the recommendations aren’t good enough. “The devastation that the church sees from this report is one iota of the devastation of a single victim.”

 

Correction: The previous version of this story incorrectly reported the statute of limitations for sex offenses against a child as 20 years with DNA evidence. 

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