Priest Accused of Abuse in 1980s
April 3, 2013
A 37-year-old man filed a lawsuit in Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque on Tuesday alleging that a Roman Catholic priest in Questa sexually molested him over a 1 1/2-year period in the 1980s.
The lawsuit alleges that the Rev. Michael O’Brien abused the plaintiff, identified only as “John Doe” in the complaint, beginning when he was about 10 or 11 years old and while he was in training to become an altar boy at St. Anthony Parish in Questa, north of Taos.
According to the complaint, the alleged abuse began with what the now-deceased O’Brien, known as “Father Mike,” called “massage time” and “escalated to the point that Fr. O’Brien committed many counts of criminal sexual contact and penetration against Plaintiff.”
The lawsuit states that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which oversees parishes in northern New Mexico, and St. Anthony Parish knew or should have known that O’Brien was a pedophile priest and had “unbridled access to children.” It further alleges that the archdiocese placed O’Brien and other pedophile priests into New Mexico parishes and “deliberately chose to conceal the fact of the priest’s problems.”
The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiff, who is married, has a family, owns a business and lives in Taos County, according to his attorney.
The archdiocese responded to a Journal request for comment with a brief statement attributed to Father John Cannon, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe:
“This alleged incident occurred 30 years ago. The Archdiocese has had a zero-tolerance policy in place for over 20 years. We do not comment on pending litigation.”
According to the complaint, the alleged victim only recently began to realize the abuse and impact it had on him. He approached the archdiocese last year seeking help and was told it would pay for counseling if he did not contact a lawyer or bring a claim.
“As Plaintiff’s realizations developed during counseling about his patterns of self-destructive behavior and the extent of his harm, Plaintiff did contact an attorney,” the complaint reads. “When his attorney contacted the Archdiocese, the Church ‘cut off’ its parishioner from any further counseling, despite his need and the benefits he obtained therefrom.”
The suit claims that the alleged victim suffered “a lifetime’s worth of emotional harm and turmoil,” including “severe emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of faith, loss of sexual capacity, loss of self-esteem and other damages.”
The alleged victim is being represented by Albuquerque attorney Brad D. Hall and Kelly Clark, a nationally known Portland, Ore., attorney known as one of the nation’s leading child abuse lawyers.
“We plan to prove that the entire Church, and certainly the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, well knew by the 1980s that a substantial number of its priests were pedophiles but that, despite that knowledge, the archdiocese failed to put into practice effective policies to screen or supervise its priests, including Father O’Brien, and also failed to warn Catholic families of the dangers of their children from pedophiles in the priesthood,” Hall said.
According to Hall, the alleged victim or a member of his family apparently contacted Clark and Clark contacted him to serve as counsel in New Mexico.
A bio on his law firm’s website says that Clark has represented hundreds of children and adults abused as children in child abuse cases.
In 1999, Clark, who has a master’s degree in theology, won a case against the Archdiocese of Portland in the Oregon Supreme Court, which changed the law in that state and garnered national attention for its theory of liability for “institutions of trust.”
In 2010, Clark was lead counsel in a trial against the Boy Scouts of America that disclosed the so-called “Perversion Files,” a log on pedophiles kept by BSA. That case resulted in a nearly $20 million verdict against the Boy Scouts, including $18.5 million in punitive damages.
Clark could not be reached on Tuesday, but in a news release he’s quoted as saying that incidents of “delayed disclosure,” as apparently experienced by the alleged victim in this case, are common.
“Over and over again, we see that children who are betrayed and abused by a trusted adult cannot bring themselves to disclose what happened to them as children, and often cannot do so even well into adulthood. This is especially true if there is a religious or spiritual component to the betrayal and abuse, as was the situation here,” he said.
O’Brien was known to lead youth on pilgrimages to the Santuario de Chimayó from the Estancia Valley in the 1970s.
A Taos News article from 2009 indicates that Father O’Brien served at San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos from 1977-81. While there, he led a restoration effort at the more than 200-year-old church, which is considered one of the most photographed churches in the world.
Hall said a records search shows that O’Brien, who was ordained in 1970, also served at several other northern New Mexico churches in the 1980s, including St. Gertrude in Mora, from 1982-84; Our Lady of Sorrows in Las Vegas, from 1985-86; and then St. Anthony, from 1987 to at least 1989.
Accusations of child molestation at the hands of priests is nothing new to the Roman Catholic Church, and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in particular.
In the early 1990s, several lawsuits were filed against New Mexico priests alleging sexual impropriety.
By August 1993, 17 priests in New Mexico had been accused of crimes ranging from child rape to fathering a child.
Six of the priests were convicted of sex crimes, two were arrested but not convicted and eight were sent to Servants of the Paraclete, an order in Jemez Springs that worked with troubled priests.
Servants of the Paraclete is where bishops from all over the United States sent troubled priests, some of whom were reassigned to New Mexico parishes.