Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church: When Adults are Victims

This week an Irish broadcaster revealed a Vatican letter from 1997 that appears to advise bishops to withhold priest sex abuse allegations from the police. The letter, written in response to Irish bishops’ policy of “mandatory reporting” and leaked by an Irish bishop, has been hailed by victim advocacy groups who hope this smoking gun will lead to definitive proof of the efforts of the Catholic hierarchy to impede prosecution of abusive priests.

As Catholic sex abuse scandals once again dominate headlines from Boston to Belgium, and even the fast-track canonization of Pope John Paul II is marred by questions of culpability, the role of the Catholic hierarchy in enabling clergy abuse seems indisputable, admitted even by die-hard church partisans like the Catholic League. But what’s less understood is how these same patterns persist in today’s Church, where demographic shifts and a dwindling priesthood may be creating a new set of scenarios for abuse.  

Christo Y Yo

In 2008, when Katia Birge, a US-born journalist and translator now living in Mexico, was 25, she says she became a victim of sex abuse in the Denver Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. But after a decade of explosive sex abuse scandals, most prominently involving minor children, Birge’s story doesn’t fit the recognized narrative. She was already an adult when it happened, and her alleged attacker is not an ordained member of the clergy. Both facts point to under-recognized trends in the Church that touch on its continuing problem with sex abuse: that adults are often its victims, if rarely its public face, and that shifting staffing decisions in a US Catholic Church quickly becoming more Hispanic have serious implications for how the Church handles abuse.

The Denver Archdiocese, through its Archbishop Charles Chaput, has long played a significant role in the ongoing Catholic sex abuse drama. Chaput acted as what victim advocates call “a kind of point man” for the Vatican, waging an aggressive counteroffensive against clergy sex abuse legislation and appearing at prominent abuse trials nationwide. In response to 2006 propositions to extend the statute of limitations on clergy sex abuse cases in Colorado, Chaput preached against the bills from the pulpit during Mass, hired a lobbying firm, wrote the governor, took out full-page newspaper ads, and bade his Colorado congregants to deluge state congresspeople with hundreds of emails and 25,000 postcards charging the bill was “bad law” that would allow the “pillaging” of church coffers. Writing in the Denver Catholic Register, Chaput charged the bills “exist for one reason only: to target the Catholic community.”

In this battleground atmosphere, Birge became active in the Denver church. After attending college in Kansas, the juvenile rheumatoid arthritis she had contended with since she was 11 flared up, and she moved home to Denver. In pain, and distressed to find herself dependent on her parents, Birge, whose mother grew up in a number of Latin American countries, joined a charismatic Hispanic church group for young adults held at Catholic churches around Denver.

The group, Christo Y Yo, drew as many as 500 participants across the Archdiocese and around 100 in Birge’s St. Cajetan Parish alone. It was run by a Mexican lay minister named Juan Carlos Hernandez: a dynamic and pious man in his mid-30s who charmed older women in the parish and encouraged young adults and young married couples to come to him for counseling and advice. In the rectory, he preached to the members of Christo Y Yo from the pulpit, and was sometimes invited to preach from the pulpit during the full church mass.

Birge grew close to Hernandez, debating morality and exchanging books on theology and the saints, considering their relationship that of a big brother and little sister—Hernandez was ten years her senior, and close to twice her size. In late May, that relationship was complicated when they kissed while watching a movie at his house. Several weeks later, hoping to discuss where they stood, Birge asked Hernandez to meet her to talk. He arrived late and in a strange mood, grabbing Birge’s thighs.

“It sounds fantastic that as a 25-year old woman, I didn’t get those things, but I didn’t,” says Birge. “I was very naïve. I should have listened to my instincts, but instead I listened to other people, and trusted this man’s judgment, because he had the stamp of approval from the church.” Hernandez (who declined several offers to comment for this story) offered to drive Birge to a nearby Wendy’s to talk, but instead he drove to a dark part of town, where he parked, lowered Birge’s seat and climbed on top of her.

“I said you’re hurting me, you’re embarrassing me, I don’t want to do this. And then he got on top of me and that’s when I stopped fighting.” In the corner of her eye, Birge saw a plastic bag in the backseat, and feared Hernandez was going to kill her. The rape was interrupted when two men passed by walking a dog. Hernandez masturbated in the driver’s seat, then reached for the plastic bag, which contained a complete change of clothes. He removed all of the clothes he was wearing and tied them up in the bag. Afterwards, Birge says, Hernandez told her she was used, a whore, and that no man would want her.

That night, Birge emailed Hernandez, in Spanish, asking why he’d done what he did, and protesting his calling her a whore. It was an email that would spell the end of her later attempts to prosecute Hernandez, as divergent translations of the email were used to imply Birge was a scorned woman, seeking revenge. Because of the email, the local District Attorney would refuse to prosecute Hernandez in criminal court. The rest of the night Birge stayed awake, crying, and talking online with friends, who urged her to go to the police, or her priest, and recognize that what had happened to her was rape.

To Jeb Barrett, Denver Director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a peer counseling group that Birge turned to after the attack, her story follows classic lines of abuse of authority. “There are many cases where very charismatic men develop very close and controlling relationships with the people given to them for pastoral care. There’s a kind of intimacy that’s of a different level than the grooming of a child. You groom a child with favors and candy and strokes and get their trust. With an adult, it’s different.”

Adult victims could comprise up to 25% of all clergy abuse cases, estimates David Clohessy, National Director of SNAP, but often face considerable skepticism about their stories. “In the eyes of the law, victims like Birge are adults. But that doesn’t mean that emotionally, psychologically, in the presence of a trusted, powerful, charismatic clergy person, that in fact they can function like adults.” Considering the abundant ethical and legal prohibitions against doctors or therapists having even consensual sex with patients, in recognition of coercive power imbalances in play, Clohessy notes, “none of us have been raised from birth to think that a therapist is God’s representative or that a doctor can get me into heaven.”

A Servant in the Church

Several weeks later, in July, Birge had not reported the attack to the police nor had a rape kit done, but she did tell her mother. Together they went to their parish priest at St. Cajetan, a sympathetic man who regretfully told Birge she would have to talk to the head of Hispanic Ministries, Rev. Msgr. Jorge de los Santos, who supervised Hernandez. It took until the end of October to get an appointment with Santos, and when they finally met, Birge says he asked her what she had been wearing the night of the rape. He also promised to remove Hernandez from activities immediately and discuss the course of action with Archbishop Chaput the next week.

Birge obtained a temporary protective order against Hernandez, but she her family waited for months to hear back from the Archdiocese. She began counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, but in mid-January she had a grand mal seizure her doctors attributed to stress and lack of sleep. In February, Birge’s father Tom, an attorney, wrote Archbishop Chaput, asking for resolution. He was told that, while Hernandez “had a different version of the facts,” he had nonetheless been relieved of his duties.

However, at a hearing to renew the protection order in March, and again in June, Hernandez came to court accompanied by nuns who worked at the Archdiocese’s Centro San Juan Diego: Hispanic Institute for Family and Pastoral Care, where Hernandez had taught. The same month, the Birges discovered that Hernandez had been transferred to the Colorado Springs Diocese, where he had been named director of Christo Y Yo and was leading weekend retreats. (The Colorado Springs Archdiocese immediately let him go upon hearing about his history from the Birges.)

In a later meeting between Birge, her mother, and Msgr. Thomas Fryar, who oversees both the Office for Hispanic Ministry and all sex abuse cases in the Denver Archdiocese, Birge says Fryar told her the church had not done a background check on Hernandez, and they do not do background checks on any of their volunteers. “He also said they’d have done something if youth had been involved,” says Birge. “I’m not sure what he meant by that. That they’d have done something if a child had been raped?”

Jeanette R. De Melo, Director of Communications for the Archdiocese, said that, as the court case between Hernandez and Birge is still pending, the church would not comment, but added that volunteers and lay leaders are subject to background checks, and that under no circumstances would an alleged aggressor be transferred to another church, as Hernandez had effectively been moved to Colorado Springs.

In 2010, Birge added the Archdiocese as a co-defendant, arguing that the Church had failed to adequately supervise Hernandez: neglecting to conduct a background check on him or make him agree to the Church’s Code of Conduct. She submitted as evidence a series of 30-40 pictures of Hernandez taken from the Archdiocese website—and scrubbed from the site days after they were submitted as evidence—which showed him participating in official Church activities and retreats through March 2010. Birge and her attorney identified a prior victim, who anonymously gave a statement for the plaintiffs, alleging that Hernandez attempted to rape her under very similar circumstances several years earlier.

In their response, the Church sought to dismiss the case, arguing a peculiarity of Colorado law that holds that sexual misconduct is outside the scope of a minister’s duties, and therefore not something the Catholic Church can be liable for and implying the rape was just a date gone wrong. Most importantly, however, they claimed that Hernandez, as a lay volunteer, couldn’t be an agent or servant of the Church. The judge deciding the case, Hon. Sheila Rappaport (incidentally, the recipient of a 2004 Catholic Lawyers Guild award bestowed by Archbishop Chaput), accepted the last argument, declaring Birge had failed to demonstrate that Hernandez worked under the supervision and authorization of the Church “in any way whatsoever.”

Despite the Archdiocese’s efforts to cast Hernandez as a low-level volunteer, he’d held a number of positions of influence and authority in the church’s Hispanic outreach: as a member of the Archdiocese’s council for Hispanic Youth and Young Adults; as a keynote presenter at the fifth Hispanic Catechetical Congress of the Denver Archdiocese in 2007; and a participant in the elite Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, alongside Archbishop Chaput himself, and other high-ranking church officials like Msgr. Thomas Fryar.

The church’s main tack in the lawsuit, summarized Thomas Birge, Katia’s father, and attorney for part of the case, was representing Hernandez as “the guy setting up chairs in the basement, with no theological, pastoral, or guidance responsibilities.” In fact, Birge argues, Hernandez’s resume with the church places him “much closer to the priesthood level of power.”

I Think He Could Die for Jesus”

Perhaps most significant was Hernandez’s role as a leader in the Centro San Juan Diego, a pastoral and family care center dedicated to “the formation and promotion of Catholic leaders in the Hispanic community.” In her lawsuit, Birge charges that Hernandez was such an involved participant in Centro San Juan that its Director, Luis Soto, referred to him as an employee.

Hernandez, who was trained at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, and the Mexican-American Catholic College in San Antonio, was also the 2006 recipient of the Archbishop Gomez Pastoral Leadership Award, as a Church leader “whose actions embody Catholic teaching.” At a $100-plate dinner to benefit Centro San Juan, Hernandez was feted by the award’s namesake, Archbishop José H. Gomez of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, as well as Archbishop Chaput. In the Archdiocesan newspaper, Denver Catholic Register, Liliana Flores, the Archdiocese’s Hispanic Youth Coordinator breathlessly declared of Hernandez, “I think he could die for Jesus.”

This wrinkle in the case gets at a larger issue: Hernandez was just one of an increasing number of lay ministers and volunteers assuming formerly clerical roles in the Catholic Church, particularly in heavily Latino parishes, such as Denver’s. Facing a general shortage of priests, and a critical lack of ordained staff equipped to serve Spanish-speaking communities, a papal dictate was issued in 2003, calling for an expanded role for laity in the church’s ministry.

Two years later, the Committee on the Laity of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a report, “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” detailing a plan to use the more than 32,000 “lay ecclesial ministers” already in place to minister to an increasingly Spanish-speaking Church—a volunteer task force characterized in the document as being authorized by the church hierarchy to serve; possessing specified ministry leadership roles; working in close mutual collaboration with ordained church leaders; and receiving church training appropriate to their roles. Lay ecclesial ministry, the bishops argued, “entails an explicit relationship of mutual accountability to and collaboration with the Church hierarchy.”

The Jesuit School of Theology that helped train Hernandez has a special training program for Hispanic ministry, the Instituto Hispano, which seems inspired by this call. “Since the Second Vatican Council,” a pamphlet for the school reads, “ministry in the Church has shifted in sometimes challenging ways. Before the Council, priests and nuns carried out most of Church ministry. Since then, as their numbers declined, lay men and women in great numbers have committed themselves to work alongside priests and nuns. This partnership is essential for the Church’s mission to thrive. The Jesuit School of Theology is preparing ministerial leaders—Jesuit, religious, and lay—to work together as partners for tomorrow’s Church.”

No Hierarchy of Abuse

There’s a critical disconnect between acknowledgments like these of lay ministers’ prominent position in the Church and the Denver Archdiocese’s efforts to disown Hernandez after he was accused of rape. At one point, in the midst of the trial, Birge and her mother sought a truce with the Archdiocese, offering to drop the suit against the Church in exchange for background information that could help in a criminal prosecution against Hernandez. They met with Msgr. Thomas Fryar, who Birge says quickly announced that her peace offering was based on false assumptions, since Hernandez was not an employee, nor was Christo Y Yo any more a part of the Church than was the pro-choice group Catholics for Choice. (Christo Y Yo is still listed prominently on the Archdiocese’s Hispanic Ministry page). When Birge and her mother left the meeting, after no resolution, she says a sacrosanct from the office followed them into the parking lot.

To victims’ advocates, this level of intimidation, and the attempt to recast Hernandez as an insignificant volunteer, is par for the course across the country, and especially in Denver, where Church lawyers have used increasingly aggressive, victim-blaming tactics as part of a brutal Church defense industry, composed of attorneys, insurers and the bishops who hire them.

“That’s been our experience here,” says Jeb Barrett, “that people who have gone to the Archdiocese have found their families scrutinized and questioned. It’s revictimizing, and it discourages other victims from coming forward.”

If anything, adds David Clohessy, “I think Church officials are even more reckless and callous when a predator exploits adults.”

Birge’s case against the Archdiocese was dismissed in September, and Birge says the Church requested that she pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. In December, Birge settled with the Church, waiving her right of appeal in exchange for the Archdiocese dropping its claim for reimbursement.

Jeanette R. De Melo, the Archdiocese Communications Director, declined to directly address the Birges’ characterization of how the Denver church handled the case. “It is important to note that Ms. Birge advanced many of these same arguments in her suit, and the Court not only dismissed her case as unfounded, but awarded tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and costs against her, personally,” said De Melo.

While the verdict validated the Archdiocese’s argument, that its once-celebrated lay minister did not represent the Church, experts on sex abuse say the fallout for victims is the same. “Although he wasn’t a cleric, people in a role like that still command a certain amount of respect, and a power imbalance because they are lay people doing what a cleric would be doing” says Tom Doyle, a former Catholic Air Force chaplain who became a whistleblower about sex abuse and co-author of Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. “I’ve known a number of instances where lay people like that have sexually abused vulnerable women and men. The destruction is just as bad. And the Church is just as responsible for monitoring lay employees as they are for clerics.”

Clohessy agrees.

“It’s tempting, but wrong, to think that abuse by a seminarian is worse than abuse by a lay employee; abuse by a priest is worse than abuse by a seminarian; abuse by a monsignor is worse than abuse by a priest, and on up the ladder. That’s especially true when the hierarchy responds as they have in this case, defending the perpetrator in precisely the same way they would if the perpetrator was a bishop.”