Accused Priest Coping with Lawsuit and Media Glare

By Ollie Reed Jr
Albuquerque Tribune (New Mexico)
January 14, 2000

At Mass, the Rev. Paul Baca didn't mention the sexual-abuse lawsuit filed against him, but churchgoers prayed for him.

In his 50 years as a priest more years of service than any other active priest in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe the Rev. Paul Baca has seen his share of challenge, struggle and hardship.

But nothing in those years of experience prepared him for Thursday, with cameras shoved in his face at his lawyer's office.

"It was so intrusive," Baca said Thursday evening as he sat at a desk in an office at the Church of the Risen Savior, the Catholic parish he founded in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights and where he has served as pastor for more than 20 years.

Baca, 75, is suddenly the target of media interest because Stella Tafoya filed a lawsuit in state District Court in Albuquerque on Wednesday that accuses the priest of sexual abuse and other charges. The lawsuit also names the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Archbishop Michael Sheehan and former Archbishop Robert Sanchez as defendants.

A native of Albuquerque's South Valley, Baca has earned a reputation as a tireless servant of the people, a laborer who helped build churches with his own hands, someone who got things done, a priest who loved the poor and started ministries to help the needy wherever he was assigned.

But on Thursday evening, not long before he was to celebrate the 6:15 Mass, Baca was a man who saw his good name, his standing among the people he serves, everything he has achieved threatened.

His face was etched with fatigue and a touch of bewilderment. He was calm, polite and soft-spoken. But he said he did not want to talk about the accusations in the lawsuit because he had not seen the lawsuit, and because his attorney had advised him not to say anything until his lawyer had had a chance to read the allegations.

"I had thought about getting something together that shows all the good things we've done here," Baca said.

"But . . . until I've had a chance to see the papers, we're in limbo."

Minutes later, Baca, wearing green vestments, celebrated Mass for about 50 people.

During his homily, he did not talk about the accusations that have been made against him.

Instead, he reminded his congregation that God does not take sides in things such as war or political campaigns, in which each party is trying to dig up scandal about the other party.

He said God is not going to fight our battles for us, but that God is there to guide people, to help them work things out among one another and to bring out the best in one another rather than the worst.

The lawsuit, however, was on the minds of the parishioners gathered at the church Thursday.

During the part of the Mass in which the congregation is invited to name causes or intentions for which it wants the group to pray, one woman said, "For you, Father Baca, from all of us here tonight, that you be given the strength and support you have always given us.

"Lord, hear our prayer . . .."

Tafoya, 41, filed the lawsuit against Baca in state District Court alleging sexual abuse, conspiracy, battery and other matters. The lawsuit does not specify damages being sought.

In a written statement, the archdiocese would not comment about the Baca case but said it does not tolerate sexual misconduct within the church.

The lawsuit alleges a sexual relationship between Tafoya and Baca that began in the 1970s when Tafoya was 15 and Baca was a pastor at the Queen of Heaven Church. It went on to say the relationship ended when she was 16 but resumed in 1989.

According to the lawsuit, Baca ended the relationship 1990, when Catholic priests began to face lawsuits for sexual abuse.

State District Court Judge Theresa Baca, who is the Rev. Baca's niece, originally was assigned the case but has recused herself. The case has been assigned to Judge Daniel Schneider.


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