DENVER — For nearly 50 years, Michael Smilanic told no one about a trip he took to Montreal in 1967 with two other boys and a Catholic priest – told no one about the night in a hotel room in Rochester, N.Y.
He was 14 that summer, and it was there, he told 9Wants to Know, that he was molested by a priest he had previously believed was “really cool,” a priest who drove a Pontiac G.T.O., flew airplanes, and took him skiing.
“He seemed more human, I think, than some of the other priests,” said Smilanic, who grew up attending St. Therese Catholic Church in Aurora.
Then, in 2015, Smilanic saw the hit movie “Spotlight,” which delved into the Boston Globe’s investigation of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Massachusetts.
“As a kid, I was really embarrassed and very confused – and then kind of felt like some of it was maybe my fault,” Smilanic said in explaining why he kept his story to himself for five decades.
Back home after seeing that movie, standing in his kitchen, he told his wife what had happened to him on that trip to Canada for Expo ’67.
“She kind of didn't know what to say, but she was very supportive and very saddened by it,” Smilanic said.
After his father died in 2017, he told his siblings for the first time. Later that year, he went to the Archdiocese of Denver and filed a formal complaint.
The priest he named – Neil Hewitt – was ordained in 1962 but left the ministry in 1980, and then got married.
“During his ministry, there was never any reports of misconduct with a child, and no reports of sexual abuse of a minor while he was in ministry,” Mark Haas, spokesman for the archdiocese, told 9Wants to Know.
However, 9Wants to Know has confirmed that there have been at least two complaints filed against Hewitt since he left the priesthood. Both alleged that he sexually abused teenage boys in the 1960s while he was an active priest. Smilanic’s complaint was one of them.
In addition, Smilanic decided he wanted to talk to Hewitt himself – calling multiple times before the former priest finally answered.
“I told him who I was, and asked him if you remembered me?” Smilanic told 9Wants to Know. “And he did say, oh yeah, oh yeah. And I said, do you remember what you did to me? And he did – he admitted it right away.
“He didn't hem and haw, he didn’t – there wasn’t a long silence or anything. He admitted it right away, and he said that he was sorry, and said I didn't think it was wrong, I don't know why it started.”
Hewitt, now 83 and living in Arizona, declined to sit for a formal interview with 9Wants to Know but spoke with a reporter on the porch of his home for more than 30 minutes.
“I did do things that were wrong,” Hewitt said. “I realize that.”
Hewitt made it clear he did not want a story done about him.
“About all I could do is what I did with Michael, you know, and just say I’m really sorry,” he said, with his wife of 39 years standing next to him.
More than 15 years after the Boston Globe’s stories shined a light on priest sexual abuse, the issue continues to roil the Catholic Church.
Just last year, a grand jury in Pennsylvania issued a scathing and graphic report, naming 300 priests it concluded had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of children in cases going back as far as the 1930s.
Just last week, police in Texas raided the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, accusing church officials of hiding files about clergy abuse. The raid led Dallas Bishop Edward J. Burns to issue a strongly worded statement defending the church’s cooperation with that investigation.
“The fact that the diocese is not in possession of certain names or information in some of its files does not mean that the diocese has hidden or concealed those names or information,” Burns wrote.
In Colorado, Attorney General Phil Weiser and the leaders of the archdioceses of Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, announced a review of clergy abuse here going back to 1950. Bob Troyer, a former U.S. attorney, is pouring over church files and also examining new complaints and plans to issue a report in the fall that will identify Colorado priests who have been credibly accused of sex abuse since 1950.
Weiser told 9Wants to Know it was important “that we name names for any abuses that happened here in Colorado of kids at the hands of Catholic priests.”
In addition, the three archdioceses have agreed to compensate victims financially. The amount of payments will be determined by an independent arbiter.
It’s possible that Hewitt may be included in that report even though church officials have said there we no complaints against him while he was an active priest.
“Any abuse that happens needs to be part of this inquiry, whenever the church found out about it,” Weiser said.
Hewitt’s time in the Catholic Church is detailed in church directories and newspaper articles.
Born in Northeast Colorado in 1936, he attended schools in Nebraska and in Fort Collins, where he graduated from high school in 1954.
He entered St. Thomas Seminary that fall, was ordained in May 1962, and was briefly assigned to St. Anne Church in Grand Lake before he was transferred to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Sterling in August 1962. He moved to St. Therese in 1965, to Church of the Annunciation in Leadville in 1967, and then received his first assignment as head priest at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Rangely in 1969.
Three years later, he returned to Leadville as head priest at Church of the Annunciation, and stayed there until the summer of 1979, when it was announced he was transferring to the chapel at Stapleton International Airport.
In reality, he was preparing to leave the priesthood and marry, and the Official Catholic Directory showed him “on leave of absence” in 1980.
In May of that year, he got married.
TIMELINE | The life of Neil Hewitt
After Hewitt arrived at St. Therese in 1964, he made a quick impression on Smilanic – and on another boy, Peter Coulter.
“He didn't seem as priestly as other priests,” said Coulter, who did not know Smilanic but described many of the same experiences.
Coulter described a trip to Northeast Colorado with Hewitt and three other teenagers in which the priest tried to get the boys to go skinny dipping with him at a lake, bought them vodka, and had pornography in his car.
Coulter said he got drunk and awakened in a hotel room in his own vomit with two of the others boys on the trip. Father Hewitt and the other teen were not in the room – Coulter said he has no idea where he was.
“The whole thing was a, an episode in grooming us – no doubt,” Coulter told 9Wants to Know. “Looking back on it, no doubt. At the time, I didn't recognize it.”
Coulter does not believe he was sexually abused.
“I don't think I was molested,” Coulter said. “I don't remember anything like that.”
For Smilanic, there was also a late-night stop at a lake.
“It was dark, summertime,” Smilanic said. “It was real warm. We stopped at this place and he says, let's, let's go swimming. And it's like, well, God, I don't have a swimming suit, or anything, he’s like, no don't worry about it, we’ll skinny dip.”
On a ski trip to Loveland, as Smilanic sat in the back seat of that Pontiac while a girl he did not know was in the front seat, he said Hewitt handed him an erotic novel called “The Harrad Experiment.”
“It was about having sex with different people – with anybody, you know, you don't have to be married,” Smilanic said. “I was shocked by it. I just didn't understand it, because how is it that the priest would give me this thing?”
Then, on the trip to Montreal, he said Hewitt convinced him to eat nutmeg, claiming he’d get high. Smilanic said he didn’t – but played the part of a stoned teenager because he felt foolish. He said he and Hewitt were in the bed closest to the window while the other two boys on the trip slept in a different bed.
“The light was coming in the window, the window air conditioner was on, and I had said, wow, that – is that a train coming,” Smilanic said. “That was part of my faking.”
That, he said, is when Hewitt molested him.
He said he found it “the most confusing” thing he experienced.
“It was inappropriate,” Smilanic said, “because that’s not what any adult should do.”
When he spoke with 9Wants to Know, Hewitt acknowledged that he remembered the trip, including that he’d chartered a plane to fly the three boys to Montreal.
While he did not directly acknowledge molesting Smilanic, he repeatedly said he’d done things he knows were “wrong.”
“At the time, I didn’t think of it as being … very wrong, I think is, would be the best way to say it,” Hewitt said at one point.
Asked if he came to think of it as wrong at some point, he answered, “Yeah I have – yeah. Oh yeah.
“It’s worried me all my, all my life,” Hewitt said. “I don’t think I really realized all the, all the, uh, morality of what I was doing, truthfully, from my, from my youth.”
Hewitt spoke in generalities, acknowledging repeatedly that he'd done things that were wrong. Asked if he knew how many boys were involved in that, he said, "no." Asked if he had an estimate, he replied: “Oh, maybe – my guess would be around eight, maybe nine. I mean it wasn’t a real often thing that I was doing – often. I wasn’t doing it a lot of times – I’ll put it that way.”
In December 2017, Smilanic went to the Archdiocese of Denver and laid out his allegations against Neil Hewitt.
In June 2018, in a letter, the Rev. Jorge Rodriguez, the auxiliary bishop and vicar for clergy at the archdiocese, offered him a year of counseling “from any licensed mental health professional of your choice.”
The letter offered something else: Validation of his allegations.
“I first of all want to thank you for sharing your story with us, as it takes great courage to face the wounds of one’s past and share it with others,” Rodriguez wrote. “I pray that sharing this experience is a step towards healing the shame and hurt that you no doubt have been holding in for all these years.”
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.
As part of a review of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Colorado, the state Attorney General’s Office is trying to identify victims.
To file report childhood sexual abuse, go to the AG’s website: https://www.coag.gov/ReportAbuse
Victims can remain anonymous.
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