Earlier this year, Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., announced a mediation effort to help resolve sexual abuse allegations from the past currently pending against the local Church. Since then, a number of the cases have successfully been resolved. More may reach closure in the coming weeks. The archbishop sat down with the Denver Catholic Register last week to discuss the progress of the effort.
DCR: When did you first try to mediate the cases against the Archdiocese of Denver?
Archbishop: When the initial claims were filed in August 2005. It's the first thing we did, because it's the right thing to do. Sexual abuse is a terrible experience. I've been a priest for 36 years. I've seen the damage left by sexual abuse both within and outside the Church many times. If any person was hurt in the past by any priest of the archdiocese, we want to help that person heal.
DCR: But how does that fit with legally defending the archdiocese?
Archbishop: The better question to ask is: What's just in these circumstances? The answer to that should drive everything else. We have a serious calling to help any victim of clergy sexual abuse to heal. We're completely committed to that effort. The current cases we face are all 25 to 52 years old, but that doesn't diminish the suffering that the victims experienced.
At the same time, we have an equally serious obligation to the people of the Catholic community in northern Colorado. They have rights, too. Many of them weren't even born when these incidents happened. They're innocent. As a bishop, I have a duty to protect them and their resources. Justice must respect the rights and needs of all the parties involved. That's what makes this process difficult. That's why mediation is so complex but also so important.
DCR: How did the "panel approach" to mediation develop?
Archbishop: We decided to appeal directly to the persons who brought the suits to avoid any miscommunication or impediments that might develop through the attorneys. We wanted to create a process that could help provide genuine healing for these individuals. The mediation-panel process that evolved is unique. It's not the way mediation is normally conducted.
DCR: At the time this idea was launched, how many lawsuits had been filed against the archdiocese?
Archbishop: Thirty-one. Today, a total of 35 cases have been filed.
DCR: Do any of these lawsuits allege wrongful conduct during the past 25 years?
Archbishop: No. All of the incidents occurred more than 25 years ago.
DCR: How did the mediation panel process actually work?
Archbishop: Every individual is different. Each has different needs. So we wanted to approach mediation in a new way. We asked a respected former state judge to convene a panel of professionals from the wider Denver community — a police chief, a rehabilitation specialist and himself — to bring their various skills and life experiences to the process. Two of the three panelists were non-Catholics. We also gave the panel real autonomy and maximum discretion in conducting its work. It was important for each plaintiff to know that neutral professionals were listening to their experiences and available to help. We also wanted to give the panel every chance to succeed. I also made myself and my entire staff available to the panel to assist it in any way the panel deemed necessary. We wanted each person who had been hurt to know he or she could communicate openly, and if they didn't want representatives of the Church present that was acceptable to us; on the other hand, if they wanted to talk to me directly, I was fully available.
DCR: What happened?
Archbishop: One attorney who represented persons in 19 separate lawsuits agreed to take part if he could be present and if I would also be present to listen to the stories of each of his clients. I agreed. In fact, I listened carefully to each person's account of what they remembered had happened to them, and how they believed it had affected them. It was a difficult and moving experience because each of these persons carried a very heavy burden. But I hope the process communicated that we're serious about our concern for every victim.
DCR: Did archdiocesan attorneys take part in the process?
Archbishop: No. We wanted this to be an effort at healing, separate from any litigation. Our attorneys were not present at any time when any of the claimants presented their story to the panel. Nor did they appear during the conversations that took place among each of the plaintiffs, the panel and myself. We wanted to keep the attorney input to a minimum so that the persons involved would know they were dealing directly with the panel and with me as archbishop.
DCR: What arrangements did the archdiocese make to compensate these individuals?
Archbishop: At the outset, we created a substantial fund to compensate these individuals for what they had suffered. We left it to the discretion of the panel to independently determine what was just and fair for each of the individuals whose claims they believed were credible. The archdiocese did not overrule or interfere with any of the panel's decisions.
DCR: What have the results been so far?
Archbishop: We think this works — and works well. Several of the plaintiffs told me that this process and our outreach have led them to reconcile with the Church. To date we've had six lawsuits settled. I'm hopeful that we'll have several more resolutions in the near future. Most of all, I'm grateful to the people of the archdiocese for supporting these steps to care for these hurt people. We're laboring first and foremost to bring closure to any person who wants to heal.
DCR: What are your plans to reach out to those who chose not to take part in the panel process?
Archbishop: We'll continue to try to be proactive — both spiritually and otherwise — to help anyone who has ever been hurt during his or her childhood by any member of our clergy. The Church will always remain open and receptive to a just resolution of legitimate claims. We're committed to that now and in the future.