DENVER — Donna Ballentine was sorting through a box of her late mother’s papers when she came upon a two-page, handwritten letter.
She recognized the handwriting immediately – it was that of a cousin, Stuart Saucke, who’d taken his own life a decade earlier.
“Dear Neil,” the letter began. “It’s been 24 years since you sexually molested me. I also have been an alcoholic for 24 years.”
The letter wasn’t dated or signed, but Donna immediately knew it was meant for Neil Hewitt, a Catholic priest who married her and baptized two of her children at Leadville’s Church of the Annunciation.
As she read the letter, she thought about Stuart’s difficult life – including a long struggle with alcoholism that ended when he shot himself to death in Missouri in 1991. There’d been whispers before that he’d been molested by a priest, but now she had a letter in his handwriting laying out specific allegations – sexual assaults on trips to Canada, to Sterling and to Denver. In two of the instances, Stuart had been plied with alcohol, according to the letter.
“It just confirmed to me that this happened,” Ballentine told 9Wants to Know. “I just wish that he could have come and spoke to somebody, but I know that the shame and hurt that he felt – he felt that he just could not at that time.
“And he probably was just trying to numb it through alcohol and whatever.”
In July 2002, Donna went to the Archdiocese of Denver and filed a formal complaint against Hewitt, who by then had been out of the priesthood for more than 20 years and was married.
She turned over a copy of the letter to church officials.
A 9Wants to Know investigation found, however, that Stuart Saucke is not the only person who has accused Hewitt of molesting him in the 1960s, when he was an active priest. A man named Michael Smilanic, who grew up in the Denver area attending St. Therese Catholic Church, told 9NEWS that Hewitt molested him during a trip to Montreal for Expo ’67.
Hewitt, who was ordained in 1962, had been assigned to St. Therese before being transferred to Leadville.
Hewitt, speaking to 9Wants to Know on the front porch of his Arizona home, was asked specifically whether Saucke was “telling the truth in that letter he wrote?"
“Uh, yeah, pretty much,” Hewitt responded.
He acknowledged that he’d been sent the letter sometime after Donna Ballentine found it in late 2001 or early 2002.
In February, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced an independent review of clergy abuse in the state going back to 1950. Bob Troyer, a former U.S. attorney, was granted access to the files of priests accused of abuse and is going to determine the credibility of those allegations. Troyer’s examination will include the files of the archdioceses in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
The result, Weiser told 9Wants to Know, will be a report that will “name names.”
“The archdioceses here in Colorado have committed to turning over all information of any complaints, of any responses by the Catholic Church, so that we can have a full accounting of what happened, how it was handled,” Weiser said, “and to make sure that we name names for any abuses that happened here in Colorado of kids at the hands of Catholic priests.”
The move came after a 2018 report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania that names 300 priests in molestation cases going back to the 1930s.
Weiser said he was stunned by the grand jury’s assertion that church leaders in that state had engaged in a “massive cover-up.”
Weiser also said that criminal charges could be a possibility.
“If matters come forward that are appropriate for a referral to a district attorney and criminal investigations, that is going to be a part of this process,” he told 9Wants to Know.
In addition, an independent arbitrator will determine whether compensation should be paid to past victims. That arbitrator will set the amount of any reparations – and leaders of the three archdioceses have agreed to abide by those determination.
Mark Haas, public relations director for the Archdiocese of Denver, said the church agreed to the review, “to go through our history, to be transparent about it – to provide, you know, some measure of justice for past victims and past survivors, and to be able to take a step forward in kind of the healing process.”
Haas said a lot has changed since the era when Hewitt was an active priest, beginning with a mandatory reporting policy in 1990 and other protocols since then designed to root out abuse and deal with it swiftly. For instance, the Archdiocese of Denver now has a zero-tolerance policy.
A priest accused of abusing a child would be immediately removed from the ministry while the allegation was investigated. If an allegation was deemed credible, “that priest would never be allowed to be in ministry within the archdiocese again,” Haas said.
“He could never be transferred,” Haas said. “He could never be moved to another diocese. For all intents and purposes, he could never be a priest again.
Haas acknowledged that the revelations that are likely will be painful.
“Whenever we hear about stuff that's happened in the past, I mean it's, it's devastating,” Haas said. “But, you know, at this point all we can do is, is work with people who come forward and try to provide a level of justice and, and some level of healing.
Neil Hewitt left the priesthood in 1980 so that he could marry, Haas said.
“There was never any reports of misconduct with a child and no reports of sexual abuse of a minor while he was in ministry,” Haas said.
After 9Wants to Know knocked on Hewitt’s door, he spoke for more than 30 minutes. And although he spoke in generalities, he repeatedly expressed regret.
He said at one point there was a time when he didn’t think is actions were wrong.
“I really, don’t think I did,” he said. “I also was, you know, very, very afraid of confession, in the church, for one reason or another, you know? I went to, I went to – actually, I did, I confessed these things to some priests, and they, you know, it was just, you know, say three ‘Our Fathers’ and three ‘Hail Marys’ and have a nice day type of thing.”
Smilanic, watching footage of Hewitt saying those words, was stunned.
“Three ‘Our Fathers’ and three ‘Hail Marys,’ you know, when you're a kid and you say a cuss word, and you go to the priest, that's what you get,” he said. “I mean it's kind of – it’s just absurd that he would get that.”
Hewitt also said something that confirmed another assertion in the letter written by Stuart Saucke, who had been a forest ranger and firefighter before he ended his own life after a long battle with alcohol.
“I had seen him once afterwards,” Hewitt told 9NEWS, “just happened to run into him at the airport one time. And that was, that was it. And he, you know, I didn’t – I didn’t say anything to him about anything, and he didn’t say anything to me about anything.”
In Stuart’s letter, he wrote, “When I was 22 I saw you at an airport going to a fire. I wanted to kill you.”
All of it makes Donna Ballentine sad.
She remembers a time, shortly after Stuart’s father died suddenly of a heart attack, when everyone welcomed Father Neil Hewitt in his life.
“Hewitt came, and, you know, Stuart was packing to go with him on a trip,” Donna said. “And we all thought how wonderful that was that he had an outlet, you know, to experience things. Hewitt had a plane, you know? He would take him places – Canada, wherever.
“We just at that time – I remember the parents talking about how fortunate it was that he had somebody to be a mentor, to kind of look up to during these difficult times.”
Today, she feels differently.
“His actions, what he did to Stuart as a child – it ruined him for life,” she said. “You know, we don't have Stuart anymore.”
In response to the accusations against Hewitt, the Archdiocese of Denver released a lengthy statement.
"No matter how long ago an alleged incident of sexual abuse of a minor occurred, details of a horrendous evil being committed are heart-breaking to hear," the statement says in part. "When the archdiocese receives an allegation, our priorities are providing support for the survivor and making sure the allegation is properly reported to local law enforcement."
Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.
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