Victims, advocates push for Archdiocese of Santa Fe officials to come clean
By Andrew Oxford
August 26, 2017
|Diana Abeyta, pictured last week in front the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, is among the abuse victims who say greater transparency by the Archidiocese of Santa Fe is long overdue. Luis Sánchez Saturno/ The New Mexican |
|The Archdiocese of Santa Fe administrative offices in Albuquerque on Wednesday. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican|
Everyone finally believed them. At least that is how they felt.
In the days and weeks after the Catholic Diocese of Gallup in 2014 published a list naming 30 priests and a teacher who church executives said had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children, Elizabeth Terrill got one phone call after another from survivors whose allegations had been met for years with denial and doubt.
With the bishop’s very public admission, some survivors believed at last that the Catholic Church and the broader community accepted their charges against men who once had been trusted and enjoyed protection from a system few others had challenged.
Terrill, the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator, recounts one caller telling her: “It feels like everyone really believes me.”
Gallup, a sprawling, rural and impoverished diocese, was doing what no other in New Mexico had. It named the priests at the center of a crisis that scarred an institution with an outsize place in the state’s culture.
The move came as the diocese descended into bankruptcy. It faced a string of lawsuits alleging long-running abuse and cover-ups by church officials. While the diocese offered the list as a measure of accountability, counselors such as Terrill say it also has been part of a process of healing.
More than two dozen other dioceses around the country have at least identified by name priests who church officials say were credibly accused of sexual abuse. A few dioceses have gone as far as to publish myriad internal documents that provide insight into the church’s approach to a scandal that would unfold over the course of several decades.
Others wonder why the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the state’s largest Catholic diocese, has not followed suit.
New Mexico was at the center of plots by church officials to cover up abuses of priests who were pedophiles. The Jemez Mountains served as home to an infamous “treatment” center, Servants of the Paraclete, where offending priests from around the country were shipped after molesting children. They weren’t cured, but they were released, often into New Mexico parishes.
Advocates for victims argue that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has not adequately accounted for its handling of the allegations against an untold number of offending clergy, including priests from other states who were placed in New Mexico as part of their rehabilitation, only to molest more kids.
Some victims and their advocates say church officials in Santa Fe should come clean with what they knew about sexual abuse in the archdiocese and when they knew it.
The question of how much information the public should see from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe is headed to court, with a judge in Albuquerque scheduled this week to take up a TV news station’s request to allow the release of documents concerning sex abuse allegations against clergy in multiple cases.
The New Mexican sent a letter Aug. 3 to Archbishop John C. Wester asking whether he would release the church’s files on all clergy who are the subject of substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct.
Citing ongoing litigation, spokeswoman Celine Baca Radigan declined to make Wester available for an interview but said the archdiocese “continues to be vigilant regarding sexual misconduct and stands firm on its zero tolerance policy.”
“We pray for all who have been victims of the sad reality of sexual abuse,” she said in an email.
Diana Abeyta said she was in the second grade when she was sexually assaulted by a priest in her parish. Abeyta is among the victims who say more transparency is long overdue.
A native of Albuquerque, Abeyta, now 57, recounted an adulthood spent struggling with the trauma of sexual assault.
Abeyta said she didn’t tell anyone about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child until a few years ago.
“You believe the priest is the closest thing to God. You’ve been taught not to question their authority,” she said of her stolen childhood. “You don’t know what to do.”
But one night on the TV news, she saw a report about allegations of sexual misconduct by the very same priest who raped her.
The group Bishop Accountability said Walter Cassidy worked in parishes around Taos, Mora and in Abeyta’s church in Albuquerque.
When she heard the stories of other survivors on the news, she called their lawyer and ended up suing the archdiocese in 2013.
The archdiocese settled the case in 2015. But Abeyta did not get one item she requested: the church’s files on Cassidy, who died in 1994.
The archdiocese moved Cassidy around the northern end of the state. Abeyta said the public should see how church officials handled the allegations against him. She contends, too, that the church should publish a list like the one issued by the Diocese of Gallup. It lists the priests who are the subject of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse as well as where they were assigned.
“I think the best form of healing for myself is for the church to come clean and say these things have happened,” she said.
Serious allegations of misconduct by clergy first surfaced in New Mexico more than 20 years ago when a series of lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe named four priests. The cases detailed episodes of sexual misconduct as far back as the 1970s.
Many more allegations followed, some stretching into the 1950s. The lawsuits revealed how Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs accepted priests from around the country who were accused of sexual abuse. The cases also brought to light allegations of abuse at a ranch for at-risk boys run by the Catholic Church in Northern New Mexico until the late 1960s, when one youth’s death while escaping in the snow prompted its closure.
New Mexico, as it turned out, was an epicenter of the priest sex abuse scandal.
In 2004, then-Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan wrote to parishioners that an internal review had identified 44 priests and two deacons credibly accused of sexual abuse in the previous five decades. By the time of the letter, none was ministering to the public, he said.
But the letter, which did not name any of the accused, was about as close as the church came to offering a public accounting of sexual abuse allegations against priests around the state.
By then, other dioceses had begun issuing what have become known as “credibly accused lists” naming priests who are the subject of substantiated allegations.
The Diocese of Tucson in Arizona was the first to embrace such transparency when it published a list in 2002.
In a letter to parishioners, then-Bishop Manuel Moreno cited a document known as the Dallas Charter, adopted only a few days earlier by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It required diocesan officials to put in place procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, and it called on dioceses to deal “as openly as possible” with their communities.
The archbishop of Baltimore followed a few months later, issuing a “credibly accused list” for his own community. The disclosure proved controversial, and the archdiocese removed the list from its website for several years after the archbishop retired.
In the 15 years since, more than two dozen dioceses and religious orders have published similar lists, according to the group Bishop Accountability.
The disclosures vary from a series of names to bullet points detailing where each priest worked and his current status with the church.
Some lawyers have cautioned that such lists are often incomplete, reflecting only the end of an investigative process involving internal review boards and church officials. More priests might have been accused of sexual abuse but never thoroughly investigated.
A few dioceses have gone even further, however, publishing files on each listed priest. These include redacted letters, notes and reports.
Such disclosures typically come as a condition of settlements in lawsuits against the church.
For example, to settle claims brought by more than 500 victims, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed in 2007 to release the redacted personnel files of 124 priests.
“You see confessions. You see letters. You see evidence these guys have been caught. They know what’s going on,” said Barbara Dorris, managing director of the Support Network for those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.
Dorris said such disclosure is valuable in helping survivors heal by giving credence to their allegations. Abuse can be an isolating experience, leaving many survivors to think they are alone in their experience or that they are to blame, she said. Seeing patterns and practices across an entire institution can dispel those notions.
Dorris said parishioners deserve transparency, too.
“We need and deserve to know how much they knew and when they knew it and what they did with that information,” she said.
A lawyer for KOB-TV is asking a judge to allow Brad Hall, an attorney for Abeyta and dozens of others who say they suffered abuse by clergy, to share documents concerning three priests accused in separate cases of sexually abusing children in New Mexico.
Though Hall has accumulated tens of thousands of pages of documents from the archdiocese, the files are confidential under a judge’s order. And a section of the church’s legal code, Canon Law, calls for keeping sensitive files locked away in archives only bishops can access.
The archdiocese is contesting the proposal to unseal the records, arguing the move would violate the privacy of survivors and scrap any chance the church might have for a fair trial.
New Mexico journalists have taken the archdiocese to court in the past to pry loose information about church officials’ role in sexual abuse at the hands of priests.
In the mid-1990s, lawyers representing sexual abuse victims interviewed then-Archbishop Robert Sanchez over the course of several days, producing a lengthy transcript that would offer insight into how the church’s top leaders in New Mexico handled allegations of misconduct.
But the transcript was kept confidential under a judge’s order until The Albuquerque Tribune, Albuquerque Journal and KOB-TV went to court and asked for its release.
The church’s lawyers fought back. Judges agreed to allow the deposition’s release with certain portions redacted.
The transcript revealed an archbishop who, when asked about reports of molestation, said he “did not understand that to be a crime” and described the church as “trying to not make a public scandal.”
A judge in Albuquerque will take up KOB-TV’s latest request during a hearing scheduled for Friday.
In Gallup, spokeswoman Suzanne Hammons acknowledged that some have called for the diocese to release records on the priests it already has identified. But she said the church must strike a difficult balance between providing information for the community and protecting privacy.
As a compromise, the diocese allows survivors one year after settling with the church to review the records of the priests who abused them.
Terrill said, however, that she receives few requests to see those records.
Around the country, other archdioceses also are wrestling with similar questions of disclosure and privacy.
The Archdiocese of Seattle, for example, published a list last year of priests accused of sex abuse.
But Michael McKay, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, said church officials should go further. He said he read just about every file on sexual misconduct in the archdiocese until 2003 while serving on an internal review board.
McKay said he believes the public should see those records, too. For one thing, he said, disclosure will help survivors and the broader community to heal as well as rebuild trust in the church.
He said such disclosure also would help protect children in the future by revealing how the church handles allegations of sexual misconduct.
“The church leadership in many cases ignored what was going on or actively pursued a cover-up,” he said. “I’m not sure it is being handled appropriately today. The important thing is, we don’t know.”