Love in the face of evil: Steamboat’s Catholic church looks for solutions after release of statewide report on child sexual abuse
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As Rev. Ernest Bayer prepared to lead Mass on Thursday, Oct. 24, some horrific news dampened what is usually a celebratory service at the Holy Name Catholic Church in Steamboat Springs.
The previous day, investigators in Colorado released a 263-page report chronicling the abuse of 166 children at the hands of 43 Roman Catholic priests across the state dating back to 1950. Bayer later described the report as the Roman Catholic Church’s “confession,” the first step in a path toward healing.
But as he addressed his congregation before a life-sized statue of Jesus on the cross, he felt too wounded to speak. He tried to raise the chalice of wine meant to consecrate the blood of Christ. Suddenly, he fell to his knees, hands clasped.
“Forgive us, Lord,” he said.
Bayer opened his eyes. He saw some of the congregants holding hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
“That was probably one of the most powerful Masses I’ve ever had,” said Bayer, who has been a priest since 2001.
In the wake of the decadeslong child abuse scandal, he and other local church officials have taken steps to acknowledge the problem and find solutions. But the path to healing and justice has been a long one, forcing many to fear the priests who were supposed to protect them.
Understanding Colorado’s report
At least one priest identified in the report, Father Robert White, spent one year at Steamboat’s Holy Name Parish. Investigators described White as the “most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history.” He sexually abused at least 63 children over a span of more than 20 years in at least six parishes, according to the report.
White worked part-time at the Holy Name Parish in 1990, according to Betsy Johnson, office manager of Holy Name Catholic Church. He split his time between here and the St. Patrick Parish in Minturn.
No one from Steamboat has come forward with abuse allegations, Johnson said. In 2007, investigators requested documents pertaining to any potential abuse cases amid the statewide probe.
“We didn’t have any accusations. We had no paperwork. There was nothing to produce,” Johnson said.
But the report, commissioned by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, leaves many unanswered questions.
“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?” the report said. “The direct answer is only partially satisfying: We know of none, but we also know we cannot be positive there are none.”
It also relied on the voluntary participation of the Catholic Church, which has prompted criticism from survivor advocacy groups, particularly the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
Similar investigations in other states, including Pennsylvania and Texas, used search warrants or subpoenas to gather evidence. In Colorado, investigators relied heavily on files provided by the state’s three Catholic dioceses in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. An agreement between the Catholic Church and investigators limited the scope of the investigation.
“It does not chronicle abuse committed by religious-order priests in Colorado or by Diocesan priests before they were ordained,” according to the report. “It does not report clergy sexual misconduct with adults, including adult Church personnel like religious sisters or adult seminary students.”
The report described “a strong culture of reluctance” to report abuse allegations, dating back to 1950. It found at least 100 occasions where church officials could have brought allegations to the police, but they did so fewer than 10 times.
Because most of the abuse cases surpassed Colorado’s statute of limitations, and with many of the accused abusers already dead, investigators did not refer any child sex abuse allegations to district attorney’s offices.
Without a clear path forward for the Catholic Church or for the survivors of abuse seeking justice, Bayer and his congregants at the Steamboat parish have come together to protect children and report any suspicious activity. They also have tried to be transparent with people outside of the church.
On Wednesday, Bayer invited members of the public to discuss the state’s internal investigation and address any concerns. Ten people attended the meeting, most of them members of the congregation. Only one person attended from outside the church, Steamboat resident Frank Dolman.
A father and grandfather, he echoed the concerns of survivor advocacy groups that claim the statewide investigation will not do enough to address the problem of abuse.
“I want no child in the world to have to go through this ever again,” Dolman said.
Bayer addressed Dolman’s concerns by describing some of the local initiatives that aim to prevent just that. A policy has been in place for several years requiring all church employees and volunteers who work with children to take a training called “Protecting God’s Children,” according to Bayer. Created by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, it teaches how to identify signs of abuse or neglect.
Each year, some children in the parish receive what Kelly Vanderbosh, coordinator of the local youth ministry, described as “faith formation classes.” They include lessons that help youth recognize inappropriate behavior and report abuse. Vanderbosh listed by memory some of the aphorisms they learn, such as “Not every adult is a trusted adult.”
Nissa Brodman, director of parish ministries, attended Wednesday’s meeting and has been with the congregation for three years. She feels more confident that her three daughters can recognize dangerous situations and know what to do in such cases, which has brought peace of mind.
“My children know the dignity and worth of their human bodies,” Brodman said. “They are aware what’s safe and not safe.”
Recently, Bayer and his staff have taken even stricter measures to prevent abuse. Most of the rooms in the church now have video-only surveillance cameras, including the chapel, confessional, narthex, church hall and classrooms. More cameras will be installed in the sacristy and Bayer’s office, serving as 21st-century reinforcements to the eyes of God.
Amid the child sexual abuse crisis, such measures have become necessary protections should someone make an allegation. It marks a stark contrast from the “culture of reluctance” Colorado’s internal investigation described, which included punishing some who did report abuse to law enforcement.
“If someone accuses me and we are alone, it is my word against theirs,” Bayer said during Wednesday’s meeting. “Who do you think society is going to choose?”
This lack of trust hurts him.
Bayer, known to many as Father Ernest, is a soft-spoken man in his 50s with round eyes and a full head of chestnut-colored hair, save for a tinge of grey around his ears. He decided to become a priest at age 30 during a monthlong silent retreat in California. One day during the retreat, he was sitting alone in a chapel when he felt a sudden wave of immense feeling wash over him.
“It was the love of God,” he said. “God just kept pouring his presence over me — peace, love, joy.”
Bayer considered this a calling to the priesthood, proof that he was capable of taking up the vow of celibacy and devoting his life to the Catholic Church. It both angers and saddens him to know that priests who took the same vows could harm those they were supposed to protect.
“These priests, they didn’t feel the love of the Lord in their life,” Bayer said. “They were so far separated from God.”
A global path to healing
In recent months, the highest echelons of the Catholic Church have enacted stricter regulations to address the issue of child abuse.
Earlier in the year, on March 29, Pope Frances signed a law mandating that superiors and co-workers report abuse allegations. Under the law, failing to report incidents can result in dismissal, fines or even jail. It also establishes procedures for reporting incidents, imposes stricter screening for prospective employees and sets stricter guidelines for adult-child interaction.
Colorado’s three Catholic Dioceses have announced they will fund an independent, voluntary program to compensate victims of abuse, regardless of when the abuse occurred. Survivors can file a claim at coloradodiocesesirrp.com.
“If there is anyone else out there that has been abused and has not come forward, we are encouraging them to come forward,” Bayer said.
To achieve greater criminal justice for survivors, some state officials, including former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, have called for an expansion of the state’s statute of limitations for filing lawsuits involving child sex abuse. Currently, survivors of abuse have six years from when they turn 18 to file legal action and two years to sue a diocese for enabling the abuse.
Survivors may file an online report with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. It allows survivors to remain anonymous if they wish.
For the past two months, a special prayer group at the Steamboat parish has met weekly to pray for survivors of abuse and the future of the Catholic Church, according to Bayer.
He hopes the recent struggles will make the local parish stronger. Quoting Pope Frances, he said, “For those who stand by Jesus, evil is an incentive to ever-greater love.”
“That’s what I hope happens,” he said. “This evil will be an incentive for us to grow and love.”
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