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Investigation Into Child Sex Abuse By Priests In Colorado Finds Dozens of Victims

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new investigation into child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Colorado has found dozens of victims and a decades-long cover-up. The report also warns that current church record-keeping and reporting processes are still so lacking that it's impossible to conclude children are safe around priests.

Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radio has been following this. She joins us now. And Allison, this was an independent investigation, right? Who commissioned it and why?

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: This was inspired by the 2018 grand jury investigation launched by the Pennsylvania attorney general that found years of undisclosed abuse across the state. Colorado's then-attorney-general wanted to embark on a similar effort here, but the state laws don't give the AG here quite that same authority, so they sort of did what they could.

And this report is kind of a sunlight-as-a-disinfectant approach. No one will walk away in handcuffs or anything, but they're hoping that with full disclosure and priests' names, the church will change.

CORNISH: And I understand investigators have been speaking out. What have they said so far?

SHERRY: They've said that over the course of roughly 60 years, at least 160 Colorado kids were abused by 43 priests. Some of those priests have been reported on previously. The report talks about one late priest, a Reverend Harold Robert White, who had 63 victims.

And another prominent piece of news here is how much the church worked to cloak this abuse or move that abuse around, as it was. That priest I just mentioned was shifted to, I think, six Colorado parishes in rural areas over the course of just 15 years. Here's Colorado's Attorney General Phil Weiser today speaking at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PHIL WEISER: It's unimaginable. And the most painful part for me was that we have had stories told of victims coming forward, and they weren't supported.

CORNISH: Here's what's different about this story that I've noticed, which is that it raises concerns about current record-keeping - right? - and implies that kids might not be safe now. Can you help us understand this?

SHERRY: Yeah. You know, the authors of the report are really critical about how the church has kept track of this stuff not, like, 50 years ago but today. And they say that although they have no credible claims of child sex abuse since 1998, they cannot be sure that more abuse didn't happen or is still happening now because the paper files and the documentation is just so bad.

They took an average - it took an average of 19 years before they took action on a priest after hearing about an abuse allegation and that more than a hundred kids were abused because of those delays.

CORNISH: At the same time, is it known yet whether any of those accused of abuse are actually still serving?

SHERRY: Well, that's a tough question, Audie, because we know that none are in Colorado and a lot of them are dead. But because church officials routinely didn't call law enforcement when victims and their families reported abuse to church authorities, it's unclear where some of these priests are. One came from Ecuador, was practicing in the Colorado mountains. And when he was confronted by the archdiocese after they learned of some abuse, he left. And we don't know where he is now.

CORNISH: The response from the archbishop of Colorado?

SHERRY: The archbishop called the report painful to read and said he was sorry for the years of pain these priests caused children. And going forward, the church says they'll embrace all recommendations made in the report, including contracting an independent expert to field abuse claims.

Also, the attorney general's office has a reparations panel being run by Ken Feinberg. You probably know him because he ran the 9/11 Victims Fund. And they're taking applications now for victim compensation. The AG has also said he may back a state law that would adjust statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims next year.

CORNISH: That's Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.