Denver archbishop defends removal of priest after allegations of sexual abuse
By Electa Draper
The Denver Post
April 13, 2010
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput on Monday asked for prayers for the priest he removed from the ministry Thursday and healing for the man who reported that he had been sexually abused by the Rev. Melvin Thompson more than 35 years ago in an undisclosed Colorado parish.
Chaput, in a column that will appear today in the Denver Catholic Register, said he understands the frustration parishioners at St. Thomas More Catholic Church have expressed at losing a "respected and well-loved" priest about whom no previous allegations had been made.
Catholics have complained, Chaput said, of the "unfairness" of the action to relieve Thompson, 74, of his priestly duties one day after a single unsubstantiated accusation that he denies.
Chaput said it was a painful but necessary action. The archdiocese reported the accusation to civil authorities April 8, according to spokeswoman Jeanette DeMelo. None of the police or sheriff's departments in the Colorado cities and counties Thompson has worked in had seen a complaint as of Monday afternoon.
"In removing Father Thompson, or any member of the clergy from the ministry in a situation like this, we act purely to ensure the safety of children, families and the integrity of the church community," Chaput wrote.
Archdiocese officials deny the church response was uncharacteristically quick, as some advocates for sexual-abuse victims have described it.
Florida lawyer Adam Horowitz, who has litigated many of the more than 40 cases against the archdiocese, said Thompson's speedy removal signaled a marked change from the church's past track record.
However, Denver archdiocese officials said Monday that the zero-tolerance policy has been in place and followed since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines in 2002.
New Vatican policy
Also on Monday, the Vatican posted a policy guide on handling sexual-abuse cases on its website. The guide stems from a 2001 overhaul of church sexual-abuse laws — a revision led by Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The guide says that bishops can restrict the activities of any suspect priest. They must report abuse cases to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and follow the local civil laws in reporting sexual abuse to law enforcement agencies.
Within the church, the Vatican can direct a bishop to prosecute an abuse suspect in a local church proceeding or it can dispense with a church trial and refer a case directly to the pope.
Thompson is the second Denver Archdiocese priest removed under the 2002 guidelines, DeMelo said. Father Timothy Evans, convicted in 2007 of sexual assaults in Larimer and Jefferson counties, was the first.
No other allegations are pending against any other priest in active ministry, DeMelo said.
Current Colorado law has no statute of limitations in criminal cases involving sex assault on a child.
However, in the early 1970s, when Thompson is accused of committing the abuse, the law gave victims three years to report the crime, said Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. Because of the elapsed time, Thompson is unlikely to face criminal charges, she said.
The archdiocese's conduct-response team has begun an internal investigation, DeMelo said, but she would not comment further on the process or the use of outside investigators.
Chaput also asked Monday that anyone who has concerns about Thompson's conduct to contact Chris Pond, director of the archdiocese's Office of Child and Youth Protection.
Some want more action
Jeb Barrett, leader of the Denver Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said centuries of a deeply rooted culture of secrecy surrounding sex crimes won't be reversed by one or two statements by a bishop.
"Chaput should personally visit every parish where this credibly accused predator worked and beg victims and witnesses to call police and get help," Barrett said in a statement Monday.
Pennsylvania State University history and religious studies professor Philip Jenkins said the Catholic Church is going through one of the most traumatic periods in its long history. But he said that in 20 years of research, he found no credible evidence that Catholic priests are more likely to be involved in sexual abuse than clergy of any other denomination, celibate or not, or of any non-clerical profession dealing with children.
Jenkins said the best quantitative data comes from a 2004 survey by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which estimated that between 1950 and 2002, 4.5 percent of all U.S. priests had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor.
John Jay College researcher Margaret Leland Smith this week told Newsweek magazine that she estimates the rate of sexual abuse among the American male population in general is about 20 percent. More conservative estimates are about 10 percent, Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told the magazine.
St. Thomas parishioner Bruce Tawson of Highlands Ranch voiced the frustration of many church members shocked and saddened by the archbishop's swift action against Thompson.
"The situation with Father Mel has yet to play itself out. It is unknown whether he'll get his day in court or what would happen if he did," Tawson said. "But one thing is for sure: Our parish and our community has lost the love and service of a truly beautiful priest, and we will miss him."