Controversial 'Father Bob' Dies at 81
Priest Involved in Sexual Misconduct Scandal Had a Farranging Ministry
By Michael Davis
Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
November 5, 2005
The Rev. Robert Kirsch, "Father Bob" to those who knew him, died at the age of 81 Thursday. Kirsch's ministry spanned several decades and reached from the Alaskan wilderness to Guatemala and Honduras. He has been described as an informal, blunt, burly Irishman who argued with Georgia O'Keeffe when he was the parish priest in Abiquiu and fought for the rights of migrant workers alongside C�sar Ch�vez.
"He was my only uncle," said Cynthia Nuttall, of Albuquerque. "He was it for us growing up. We all thought that everyone had an uncle who was a priest that flew airplanes (and) lived in New Mexico. I left New York (City) in 1976 to live with him."
Kirsch founded the San Martin and St. Jude Express, a ministry that flew hundreds of missions to bring doctors medicine and other supplies to remote parts of Mexico and other Latin American countries.
"The children would call him 'Padre Donuts,' " Desi Ramirez, a family friend, said Friday. "The day before he would fly, he convinced Dunkin' Donuts shops to donate all of their day-old donuts. He would bring them to the children by the sackful and when he flew in, they would run to the airstrip yelling 'Padre Donuts, Padre Donuts.' " While in Mexico, Kirsch convinced 75,000 Tarahumara to demand the rights of citizenship. He lived to see their numbers added to Mexico's rolls of voters and to celebrate their suffrage.
"He was a rebel with a cause," family friend and fellow boxing aficionado Roberto Espat said. "He said Masses at our home and baptized several of my grandchildren."
Kirsch also founded the New Mexico Lowrider Association and was known as "the priest with a Harley," according to his paid obituary. He would ride his original 1947 pan-head Harley Davidson through the South Valley and along Route 66 to minister to youth.
Kirsch also founded Albuquerque's San Martin Parish and it was his dying wish to be buried there.
However, Archbishop Michael Sheehan refused his request. Despite his numerous good works, Kirsch was the first priest sued in a series of sex abuse lawsuits. The lawsuit filed against him by Susan Sandoval and her attorney, Bruce Pasternack, launched an avalanche of litigation against the Santa Fe Archdiocese. Sandoval had accused Kirsch of having sex with her when she was 15 years old in the small town of Abiquiu. Kirsch admitted in a deposition to having sex with Sandoval when she was 19. It wasn't a violation of his vows, he said - there had been "no passion, no kissing, no nothing." He called it an allowable "reserved embrace." Sandoval lost her case: An Albuquerque district judge ruled that she had waited too long to bring her claim. "There was never any proof; there was never any trial; Father Bob was not evil," said Wallace Cegavske, a friend of Kirsch's. "He was an unconventional priest. He went out of his way to be close to the people he cared about. He didn't hold himself aloof and that put him in a position to be accused." Kirsch's supporters submitted a 370-signature petition asking that Kirsch be buried on church property, but Kirsch was not supported unanimously.
Sheehan in a letter to Kirsch wrote that "parishioners had come forward to voice their opposition to a restricted priest being buried on the property of San Martin." In lieu of burial on church property, Kirsch decided to be cremated, Cegavske said.
Memorial viewing will be held Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. at Santuario de San Martin Catholic Church. An all-night vigil will be held at his home following the viewing. Kirsch's memorial rosary will be recited at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. His memorial Mass will be celebrated Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. at the church.
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