Church sex-abuse settlement gives victims answers

Associated Press/July 4, 2008

Denver - Tom Koldeway says he was about 9 years old when Harold Robert White, then a priest in the small mountain town of Minturn, started sexually abusing him.

That was 1970, and Koldeway, now 47, kept the secret for decades. When he finally told his siblings, he learned White had also abused his older brother and sister.

Koldeway was among 18 people whose lawsuits or claims of sex abuse by priests were settled this month by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver for $5.5 million.

Some of White's personnel records, released by the archdiocese as part of the latest settlement, confirmed some victims' allegations that church officials knew of complaints against White as early as 1961, and that they moved him from parish to parish as complaints arose instead of immediately alerting authorities.

White wasn't removed from ministry until 1993. In his only public comment on the allegations, he said they contained "half truths." He died in 2006.

Koldeway said church leaders concealed what White had done. "They enabled him to be what he was," Koldeway said.

"I get the most satisfaction out of the settlement being able to reveal the church conspiracy in this matter," Koldeway said. "I feel fulfillment through this. I feel justification. I have no regrets."

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said he could not judge actions of the bishops who handled White's case, since they have all died.

"We have so much more knowledge today of the impact of sexual abuse on others," Chaput said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We're aware that true pedophilia is a persistent state. It can't be cured. They (perpetrators) can be taught to cope with it and not to act on impulse, but it's not something that goes away. That's information they didn't have 20 or 30 years ago," he said.

State legislators have tried but failed to lift the statute of limitations for people abused by priests who seek legal action years later. Church leaders said they support lifting the limits on when childhood sex abuse victims can sue, as long as legislation applies equally to all institutions, not just the church or to private institutions.

Now with only two sex-abuse lawsuits left to resolve, the archdiocese said it hopes the matter is coming to a close.

"When our people, including clergy, found out about these things it really was a great disappointment and a heavy burden for them to carry. That hasn't gone away," Chaput said.

Chaput has apologized publicly and personally to victims. Asked what he would tell parishioners in the future, he said: "It's important for the church to always be attentive to these kinds of issues. And just have confidence that the new structures we've developed will help us respond to this if it would ever happen again."

The Denver archdiocese in 1991 developed an abuse policy stressing prompt investigation and cooperation with law enforcement officials. In the last five years, the archdiocese says, 77,000 priests, deacons, seminarians, employees, students and volunteers have been trained on warning signs and how to protect children from sexual abuse.

Both church officials and victims said they hope no other child is abused.

"Children need to know they can come forward," said Mary Kay Koldeway, Tom's sister and one of those covered by the settlements this week. "It's not in the past. It's happening all over."

White was accused in 16 of the 18 most recent cases to be settled. The other two claims involved priests Leonard Abercrombie and Lawrence St. Peter. Both have since died. Their personnel files haven't been released, and it was unknown whether they ever commented on the allegations.

In addition to being a priest, St. Peter served as administrator of the Denver Archdiocese between two archbishops in 1986.

The two unresolved lawsuits involve Abercrombie and another priest Thomas Barry, who has also died.

The church, like most institutions, rarely releases personnel files, and Chaput said the decision to release White's files was unusual.

"I took this step at the insistence of some victims and to secure closure for them, but also because Robert White is deceased and because of the number of cases against him," Chaput said at a news conference.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the release was relatively unusual but has happened before, including in Los Angeles, where the archdiocese announced a $660 million settlement of 508 cases last year.

"There's a definite trend. As the crisis and cover-ups continue, more and more victims insist on really trying to expose the corruption, so they insist on seeing the church records," he said.

Lawyer Jeff Anderson, who represented 14 victims in the latest settlements, said the Denver Archdiocese deserves credit for releasing the documents. "I credit my clients for making them do it and them for having done it," he said.

White was ordained in 1960. Letters from his file, dated 1961 and 1963 and written on stationery from the chancery office of the archdiocese, note White admitted he had approached some boys for indecent acts or touched them on the thigh.

The names of those who wrote and received the letters were redacted.

The 1963 letter notes a recommendation that White no longer work anywhere in Denver because of "wide knowledge" of his offenses.

White's records show he was moved from parish to parish, in some instances with recommendations and warnings that he be watched, not allowed to work with youth or in schools.

If the complaints had been made today, White would have been immediately removed from ministry and investigated, with information being forwarded to police, Chaput said.

White had spent birthdays and Christmas with the Koldeway family, and Tom Koldeway's mother said she never suspected abuse.

"I was so blinded," Agnes Koldeway said at a news conference.

"It was very, very hard to keep our faith after this," said her husband, Art Koldeway. "We're healing. We're getting better."

Chaput said he hopes the settlements open a path for the victims to return to the Catholic church one day.

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