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Investigator finds 43 Catholic priests in Colorado sexually abused at least 166 children

8-month investigation slams dioceses for record keeping, damaging culture


At least 166 children were sexually abused by 43 Catholic priests in Colorado over the past 70 years, and more than half of those children were abused after the state’s three dioceses knew the priests were abusers, a state-led investigation found.

The abuse spanned nearly every corner of the state — in an Estes Park trailer and Denver homes, in church rectories and at camps, according to a damning report published Wednesday by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. The youngest victim was a 5-year-old girl who was raped by a priest visiting her Pueblo school. The priest told her she would be committing a mortal sin if she reported what happened.

The report details eight months of investigation by a former federal prosecutor and is the most in-depth accounting to-date of clergy sex abuse in the state. The report’s author, former Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, blasted the dioceses for poor record keeping, ineffective reporting systems and a culture that suppressed allegations and created a danger to children.

But advocates, survivors’ attorneys and Colorado’s former attorney general who initiated the probe said the investigation was flawed from the beginning because it was narrowly focused and relied on the dioceses to provide records in good faith. Unlike similar investigations in other states, the Colorado investigators were not able to subpoena records or compel testimony.

“How can you know what you don’t know? It’s impossible,” said Cynthia Coffman, former Colorado Attorney General who began talks with the dioceses during her tenure. “We had to rely on the integrity of people who have a motive to hide bad facts.”

Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who has represented victims of Colorado priests, said,”Really they’re just scratching the surface.”

While the investigator found no allegations of abuse that happened after 1998, Troyer said it was impossible to know whether abuse was still happening because the dioceses’ records were flawed and incomplete.

“Arguably the most urgent question asked of our work is this: are there Colorado priests currently in ministry who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children?” Troyer wrote in the 263-page report. “The direct answer is only partially satisfying: we know of none, but we also know we cannot be positive there are none.”

Before the 1990s, the three Colorado dioceses, like many others across the country, purged documentation of abuse from files or did not record them at all, according to the report.

If the allegations remained in the records, they often were shrouded in euphemism up until the 1990s, Troyer wrote. For example, church files described the rape of a 12-year-old boy as a “boundary violation” and described a series of 10 sexual assaults on children as “boy troubles.”

“Our review revealed flaws in the Colorado Dioceses’ records and practices that make it impossible to honestly and reliably conclude that no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998 — or that no Colorado Roman Catholic priests in active ministry have sexually abused children or are sexually abusing them,” Troyer wrote.

In response to the report, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila released an 8-minute video and four-page letter to the Catholic community. He apologized to those who have been abused and praised their courage for coming forward. The archbishop declined an interview about the report through a spokesman.

“If any survivor wishes to meet with me personally, my door is open,” Aquila wrote. “I have met with many survivors, and from these heart wrenching personal interactions, I know there are no words that I can say that will take away the pain. However, I want to be clear that on behalf of myself and the Church, I apologize for the pain and hurt that this abuse has caused, and for anytime the Church’s leaders failed to prevent it from happening.”


Overall, Troyer found that abuse by Colorado clergy was at its worst in the 1960s and 1970s and that nearly two-thirds of the victims were abused by five priests. Nearly all of the victims were boys, and most were between the ages of 10 and 14.

At least two of the known victims later died by suicide and descriptions of the abuse they suffered were detailed in the notes they left.

Twenty-two of the abusive priests worked in the Denver archdiocese, 19 of the priests worked in the Pueblo diocese and two worked in Colorado Springs. The most prolific abuser, Denver’s Harold Robert White, abused at least 63 children before he was removed from the priesthood.

On average, it took the dioceses more than 19 years to restrict an abusive priest’s authority after receiving an allegation that he had sexually abused children, and seven abusive priests never faced any restrictions, Troyer wrote in the report. The dioceses also routinely failed to report allegations to police even when required by state law.

Weiser announced in February that an outside investigator would review the files of the three Colorado dioceses and evaluate whether church leadership handled allegations of sexual abuse properly. The Archdiocese of Denver, the Diocese of Pueblo and the Diocese of Colorado Springs agreed to provide any necessary files to the investigation and to relinquish oversight of the review.

But the scope was limited.

The investigator did not review files related to those who said they had been abused as adults. The query also only encompassed diocesan priests and left out any allegations about religious order priests, deacons and non-ordained staff.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser outlines ...
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser outlines a Catholic church abuse investigation during a press conference at the AG’s offices in Denver on Oct. 23, 2019.

Weiser previously said that any instances of the dioceses refusing to cooperate would be noted in the report. And Troyer found instances where important documents and facts were not given to him, though he said he did not have evidence that the information was intentionally withheld.

One abuser named in the report, Lawrence St. Peter, appears to have destroyed reports in his personnel files about alleged assaults of multiple victims, Troyer wrote. In his role as acting archbishop in the 1980s, the priest had unfettered access to his own records.

Coffman said that she had to compromise with the dioceses on the terms of the investigation because the attorney general’s office does not have the authority to convene a grand jury on the topic. The dioceses on multiple occasions made it clear that they could walk away from negotiations at any time. Because of the limited scope of the investigation, many questions still remain, she said.

“I cannot fathom that there have been no allegations of misconduct in 21 years,” Coffman said. “That defies logic and reason. And the church over and over again said ‘Nothing has happened since 1998, there’s nothing to see.’ I’m not convinced of that representation.”

The report also does not name the people who helped protect abusive priests. While the report speaks of cover ups, it does not say who directed the shuffling of priests or the destruction of documents. It’s unclear how far up the hierarchy such decisions were being made.

Damaging culture

The internal culture of the three dioceses prioritized the reputation of the church over the wellbeing of children, Troyer found.

“We found, in other words, a strong culture of reluctance to report serious crimes against children if doing so might harm the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church or the career of a fellow priest,” Troyer wrote.

Troyer found that out of 100 opportunities to do since 1950, the dioceses only reported abuse to police 10 times. The Denver Archdiocese, however, has made important improvement in voluntary reporting to law enforcement and has routinely reported allegations to law enforcement since 2009, Troyer found.

“It is almost as hard to believe — but proven by the documents we reviewed from all the way up to at least the early 1990s — that professionals asserting high moral authority chose to protect their institution and their colleagues over children,” Troyer wrote.

For example, one victim reported to another priest in 1988 that she had been fondled by Father George Weibel, a pastor at Holy Family Parish, during a trip to a pool. The priest, who is not named, later said that he didn’t report the abuse until 1993 because he was friends with Weibel.

“This is a good example of a phenomena we saw manifest elsewhere in our review and investigation,” Troyer wrote. “Specifically, there was a deeply rooted culture in the Colorado Dioceses that discouraged priests from ‘ruining the careers of their brothers’ by reporting their sexual abuse of children.”

In an older case, officials with the Denver archdiocese bailed a priest out of jail after he was arrested for sexual abuse of a 6-year-old. After the priest’s conviction in 1946, the church persuaded local authorities in Golden to give Father John Stein a more lenient sentence and be released on probation.

Stein went on to abuse at least three more boys in Colorado and four more in New Mexico.


Every step of the Denver Archdiocese’s current process to document allegations and review them is flawed, Troyer found. Even the archdiocese’s in-house audits of the system is mechanical and unsubstantive.

The archdiocese’s conduct review team — tasked with investigating the claim and making recommendations to the archbishop — was especially problematic. The group is inexperienced as investigators and the requirement that all members be Catholics in good standing with the church could create bias, Troyer found.

Victims interviewed by the team are required to come to the archdiocese’s headquarters and sit in a room decorated with Catholic art, which could be traumatizing, Troyer said. The victim then has to explain their abuse to a room full of strangers, including an attorney tasked with defending the archdiocese.

“These flaws, cumulatively, can result in a victim’s allegation never really being treated as an allegation because the process can be so daunting and the burden on the victim so heavy that s/he declines to engage in or continue with the process,” Troyer wrote. “The result can be that an investigation ends inconclusively and a potential abuser stays in ministry without restriction.”

“Given what is at risk, with comparatively little effort and expense, the current systems’ flaws can be remedied so that fewer (or even no) children suffer in the future,” Troyer wrote.

Troyer recommended that the dioceses do the following:

  • Create an independent, expert investigative agency to handle child sex abuse allegations.
  • Implement an electronic record-keeping and tracking system for such allegations.
  • Hire a person fully dedicated to victim assistance.
  • Improve personnel training.
  • Hire an independent party to conduct evaluations of the dioceses’ investigative systems at least once every two years.

In his letter, Archbishop Aquila said he would follow Troyer’s recommendations. Archdioceses spokesman Mark Haas said in an email that the church recognized that despicable things happened here and that there were “incredible failures to properly address them.”

“We have over 300 current priests, none of whom are named in the report. It seems at times that they are held to the standard of ‘guilty until proven innocent,’ which is an impossible standard to prove,” Haas wrote. “I’d ask that you consider if that is a fair standard to hold them to, or if maybe they should be treated as any of us would like to be treated if we were in that situation.”

Weiser said he was encouraged by the archdiocese’s willingness to adopt the changes.

The dioceses paid half of Troyer’s $300,000 fee and anonymous donors ponied up the remaining half. No state funds were used to pay for Troyer’s work. The dioceses also are funding a reparations programs for victims of diocesan priests’ abuse.

Moving forward

If the dioceses do not follow the recommendations, Weiser said his office would consider backing legislative changes to hold the church accountable. Troyer will continue to investigate allegations if they are reported, Weiser said.

“We will be watching very closely,” the attorney general said.

Troyer warned against seeing his report as the end of questions about the church’s handling of abuse in Colorado.

“Concluding from this Report that clergy child sex abuse is ‘solved’ is inaccurate and will only lead to complacency, which will in turn put more children at risk of sexual abuse,” Troyer wrote. “The accurate conclusion is that this threat to children will continue unless the flaws we identify in the Colorado Dioceses’ policies, practices, and systems intended to protect children are fixed and the recommendations in this Report are implemented.”

Coffman said more investigation should be done into the groups of people left out of Wednesday’s report. The legislature should also consider changing the civil statute of limitations to allow victims more time to file lawsuits.

“I think it would be a tremendous disservice to past victims of abuse and to those who may be victimized in the future to let the church to pat a hand on this report and say ‘It’s done,’” Coffman said.