Aspen police find sexual abuse accusations against St. Mary’s priest ‘unfounded’
Aspen Police investigators took their time, 19 months, before closing a sexual assault allegation against a Catholic priest as “unfounded” on Wednesday.
There will be no charges filed against Father Michael O’Brien, who served at the St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen from 2002 to 2011.
The investigation, conducted with the assistance of the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the FBI, began in September 2021 with an accusation of sexual assault against O’Brien regarding what was reported as a series of up to 300 incidents between 2004 and 2008 in Aspen, allegedly involving a juvenile victim.
Investigators with the Aspen Police Department said they spoke with at least 26 law-enforcement agencies, interviewed more than 80 witnesses and reviewed a polygraph report that O’Brien voluntarily submitted to. In total, the Aspen Police led by Detective Jeremy Johnson invested more than 500 hours into this case in an attempt to find the truth, according to the department.
“We understand the significant impact this case had on (the reporting person), Father O’Brien, St. Mary’s, and our community,” Detective Sergeant Rick Magnuson said. “We appreciate the patience that was given as investigators pursued this case. We are confident that we have reached the proper conclusion.”
“The reason it took 19 months was because there were multiple agencies involved, as well as attorneys on both sides, parties traveling. There were a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We had to get records collections from agencies, including medical records, and that involves a process and patience. It came together, it took time, but we needed everything before we could make our conclusion.”
The investigation was conducted with the assistance of the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
There were no comments available from St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of Denver made the following statement while not making a representative available for questions:
“After an exhaustive year and a half long investigation completed by the Aspen Police Department, the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has determined the allegations against Father Michael O’Brien are baseless, and the District Attorney has closed the case. This work and the outcome of the investigation informs the public that the allegations that Father O’Brien sexually abused a minor more than 15 years ago during his time at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen are false accusations against a good man.
“Father O’Brien was a priest in good standing when these allegations were first made in 2021, and in his more than 22 years of priestly service, he has never had any other allegation made against him. Father O’Brien has been out of ministry awaiting the outcome of this investigation and he will now await the determination of the Archdiocese’s internal process before he can return to ministry.
“False and fraudulent claims do enormous harm to the accused, the system, and to legitimate reporters of harm. The Archdiocese of Denver remains committed to the protection of all who are vulnerable, and we are also committed to defending our priests and anyone affiliated with the Church when they are wrongly accused.
“The individual who made these allegations also filed a civil lawsuit seeking money and the Archdiocese was quickly dismissed from that case. Now that the police have finished their work, the Archdiocese will complete our investigation and submit the facts, including all the available materials from the Aspen Police’s investigation to the Review Board of professionals who will advise the Archbishop on the issue of Father O’Brien returning to the ministry.”
The lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court around the time the criminal investigation began, accused the priest of numerous incidents. The victim named in the case, now in his mid-20s, is serving a 14-year prison sentence for sexual abuse in 2018 of a 16-year-old girl in Aspen.
At that time, Vicar General Very Rev. Randy Dollins said O’Brien “resolutely denied these allegations” and that the archdiocese had not received any other similar allegations against him.
O’Brien was not available for comment Wednesday.
Local investigators said they were grateful for the collaboration with the FBI and learned nuances to investigative techniques that will help the department in the future.
“It was great working with the FBI on this case,” Magnuson said. “They taught us some good strategies in terms of working with the archdiocese, as well as collecting medical records and personnel records.”
Magnuson credited Johnson on his lengthy and arduous work over the months, as well as the District Attorney’s Office and Chief Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham with the investigation and interviewing Father O’Brien.
“When someone comes to us, we have a philosophy on sex assault cases to start by believing. That is how we approached this case,” Magnuson said.
Authorities said if you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, contact Aspen Police at 1-970-920-5310, or Response Aspen at ResponseHelp.org or 1-970-925-7233. In this case, as with all sexual assault investigations, Aspen Police starts every conversation with “I believe you,” police officials said.
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