The Catholic bishops in Colorado have pulled off a dangerous scheme to keep secrets, hide documents and prevent exposure for covering up the sexual abuse of children for decades. And they are being applauded for it.
After decades of hiding the sexual abuse of children by dozens of priests in Denver, Pueblo and across the state, they struck a secret deal with the Attorney General to silence survivors by paying them off. Colorado is not the first state to strike a deal with the leadership of the Catholic church and it won’t be the last.
These payouts, distributed as a part of the victim compensation fund, hide the culpability of offenders, and of the Catholic bishops who have protected them. This practice aims to block essential reforms that would open up the statute of limitations in Colorado, thereby allowing survivors of child sexual abuse to seek justice.
The limited group of survivors who have come forward through a private process are required to sign a waiver that they will not file a lawsuit. That sets a perilous precedent for the leadership of the Catholic Church to continue hiding documentation of decades of cover ups. And the Catholic bishops in Colorado are a part of it.
One brave survivor I represent was sent a letter this week telling him that he would receive $25,000. This is a man who has lived with the memory and the repercussions of abuse for fifty-five years. He was one of at least a half dozen kids in Pueblo who were abused by the same priest, Father Gary Kennedy. Church leaders valued his pain and suffering at $25,000. This is a small fraction of the compensation he would receive in the courts with an open statute. But for most survivors their only option is to accept the small amount being offered by the victims compensation fund. That is unfair and untenable.
Survivors in Colorado and their families deserve better.
To make matters worse, this scheme doesn’t even allow every survivor abused by a Catholic cleric to seek justice. If the abuse was perpetrated by a member of a religious order, such as the Jesuits or the Franciscans, the survivor is not eligible. If the abuse happened while the survivor was an adult, the survivor is not eligible. This means that the survivors of abuse by one-third of publicly accused clergy in Colorado are not eligible.
Survivors who are eligible were only given a narrow window to apply. This is problematic and insufficient. It often takes survivors months, if not years, to come forward. This program puts an insensitive deadline on coming forward to share a life-spanning trauma and, often, secret shame.
I have been representing survivors of sexual abuse for almost forty years and the secret deal in Colorado is a continuation of the tactics I have seen the leadership of the Catholic Church rely on for decades. In a few months, Colorado’s Catholic bishops will get to put speculation and further legal troubles behind them while survivors and the public alike will never know the extent of the abuse for which they are responsible.
If justice for survivors of sexual abuse was really the priority, the legislature would pass the bill introduced in February to end the statute of limitations and the Governor would sign it. The statute of limitations currently prevents the majority of survivors from exposing the Catholic priests who abused them and from holding the Catholic bishops accountable for their cover up of these abuses. And because the statute of limitations is such an impediment to survivors getting justice, their only choice is to apply for the victim’s compensation fund.
Catholic bishops shouldn’t have the power to take away the rights of survivors while covering up for their own crimes. And that’s exactly what is happening right now in Colorado.