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  Embattled Priest Says Goodbye

By John J. Lumpkin
Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
January 17, 2000

Congregation Supportive Of Pastor in Sex Case

Father Baca's flock went to church Sunday, and they alternately cried and cheered for him. The members' tears and ovations for their troubled pastor, though, were not a gesture of forgiveness.

For them, there's nothing to forgive.

"It's support. It's unconditional support," said Beverly Oberdorf, the parish administrator at the Church of the Risen Savior in the far Northeast Heights, after the noon Mass. She said other parishioners share her sentiments. "We do not believe any of the accusations."

The Rev. Paul Baca celebrated his final Mass as a pastor on Sunday before going on administrative leave, as ordered by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe after a lawsuit was filed by Stella Tafoya of Albuquerque against Baca last week.

In her lawsuit, Tafoya accuses Baca of molesting her in 1973, when she was 15, and then having a relationship with her again after she came to him for counseling as an adult in 1989. She also sued the archdiocese, Archbishop Michael Sheehan and former Archbishop Robert Sanchez last week.

It's the first lawsuit filed against the archdiocese in five years by Albuquerque attorney Bruce Pasternack, who initiated a series of priest sex-abuse lawsuits in the early 1990s that accused Archbishop Sanchez and resulted in more than 180 claims against the church.

After Sunday's Mass, some parishioners handed out a church bulletin with a statement from Baca.

"I will say that I have always conducted my interactions with every member of our Catholic community with the respect demanded of me by my priestly vows," it reads. "In due time I will speak out in response to the allegations and finally have an opportunity to defend myself against the accusations presented by the media."

During his noon Mass, the last of the day, Baca referred only in passing to the entire matter, speaking of his cleaning out his things as he prepared to leave the church. His voice rose and fell as he conducted the rituals comprising the service.

The Mass included three predetermined readings from the Bible, as all do. The readings were delivered at Masses nationwide Sunday. A young man read the second, a selection from I Corinthians 6, where the apostle Paul discusses immorality:

"Brothers and sisters: The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him. Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body."

In his homily, Baca spoke of an old Ann Landers newspaper column he found while cleaning out his things. The column discussed how a small percentage of the world's population has enough food, decent housing and education.

"How blessed we are," he said to the congregation. He called on members to do good works and help create a heaven on Earth. He concluded with a poem by John Hall, "At Day's End."

He read the final lines, "As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say,/You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today?" and almost every person in the church stood and clapped for 30 seconds. Some sobbed.

Every Mass at Risen Savior on Sunday had two or three standing ovations for Baca, Oberdorf said afterward.

"He lives the true meaning of what being a Christian is," she said. Baca, 75, celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest last year.

Parishioner Sandra White said she had attended Masses celebrated by Baca for 21 years, since she was 15. Baca presided at her marriage and baptized her children, she said.

"What has happened to this man is really sad," she said. "He's been crucified. It's been like I've had a death in my family. I never realized how much my religion meant to me until this happened."

Pastor's statement

The full text of the Rev. Paul Baca's statement, part of a church bulletin handed out Sunday at the Church of the Risen Savior:

"I want to thank all of you for your caring and support during this trying time. I have been asked why I have not responded to the allegations. I have not been formally accused or served papers, so my attorneys have asked that I not speak until that time. All we know is what you know from the news reports. I will say that I have always conducted my interactions with every member of our Catholic community with the respect demanded of me by my priestly vows. In due time I will speak out in response to the allegations and finally have an opportunity to defend myself against the accusations presented by the media.

"I feel I have been tried and convicted in the media, and serious damage has been done to my reputation. My attorneys and I will try this case in the courts. I have never been involved in any litigation, so this is all new and disconcerting to me. Again, I thank you for your support through your prayers."

 
 

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