SANTA FE (NM)
Santa Fe New Mexican
October 9, 2021
By Rick Ruggles
Rudy Blea continues to pay a heavy toll for a sexual liaison he had 51 years ago, at age 19, with a 17-year-old boy.
The incident led to his inclusion on the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s list of clergy and other Catholic hierarchy who are considered credibly accused sexual abusers of children. Blea says he shouldn’t be on the list.
Records from state District Court and the U.S Bankruptcy Court in New Mexico describe in some detail how he came to be on the list of 80 men — priests, deacons, brothers — who are widely known as pedophiles. The documents also describe Blea’s arguments for why he shouldn’t be listed among them.
His primary argument is that he never served as a Catholic priest or in any other role in the archdiocese that would qualify him as a member of church hierarchy. The archdiocese said he did, however, study in the 1970s at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Santa Fe and later at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, where men prepare for the priesthood.
Blea also maintained in a recent U.S. Bankruptcy Court hearing the incident involved consensual sex, Judge David Thuma wrote in an opinion. The hearing was held as part of the archdiocese’s 3-year-old bankruptcy case, in which about 385 people have claimed abuse, often in their childhood, by clergy tied to the Catholic institution.
But in 1994, about 25 years after the episode, the other man sued Blea and the archdiocese, alleging Blea had raped him at a Catholic retreat during a vulnerable time in his life. The incident occurred in the summer of 1970 when Blea helped lead a group of young Catholics in a retreat at the Pecos Benedictine Monastery.
Blea settled the case with the man, who is now deceased, for $5,000, multiple court records show.
Thuma wrote in his opinion it wasn’t clear if the archdiocese had made a payment, too.
In 2018, the same year the archdiocese filed its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Blea filed a state District Court lawsuit accusing the archdiocese of defamation for including his name on the list of credibly accused sexual abusers. The lawsuit said the archdiocese “announced to the world that … Blea was a Benedictine priest who was a child molester” and that it failed to conduct a proper investigation.
The suit has remained on hold while the bankruptcy case lumbers on.
Blea, who has been employed by the New Mexico Department of Health for 15 years, declined to be interviewed. He is a staff manager of the agency’s dental health program.
His entreaties to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court have gone nowhere.
Thuma recently wrote in an opinion that a court in many instances, including this one, doesn’t have the right to overrule a church’s management of its own activities. Neither the Bankruptcy Court nor state District Court has jurisdiction over whether it was proper for the archdiocese to put Blea on the list, Thuma wrote.
The Rev. Glenn Jones, vicar general of the archdiocese, wrote in an email Thursday: “Mr. Blea was not placed on the list without reason. He has been long informed of the process to appeal his case with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, but to date has not availed himself of it.”
Thuma’s opinion in September said an archdiocese review board initially looked at Blea’s case and then examined it again after Blea’s protests. The board altered Blea’s listing to note he had been “in formation” to become a clergy member. But neither the review board nor Archbishop John C. Wester altered the basic finding that he should be named on the list.
Blea and his attorneys’ legal briefs are sprinkled throughout 840 filings in the bankruptcy case, in which the archdiocese seeks to raise enough money through property sales, donations and insurance to settle with the victims.
Because he’s on the list of credibly accused clergy, Blea no longer can serve as a volunteer coordinator at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi or the Villa Therese Catholic Clinic board of directors, or participate in any parish volunteer groups. He served as a “lay minister” with Catholic churches for at least 39 years, according to Thuma’s 17-page decision last month.
Thuma’s order notes the state also has prohibited Blea from government activities involving children.
Blea wants the archdiocese to admit he never got a chance to respond before his name was placed on the list; to send letters to publications and websites saying he was erroneously put on the list; and to issue statements to the archdiocese’s parishes saying he is a Catholic in good standing and should be allowed to serve as a volunteer, board member and in other activities.
His attorney, Annie-Laurie Coogan of Santa Fe, wrote that Blea “was never deposed, nor was his statement taken at any time in the past 51 years since this one allegation.”
In one document, Blea and his attorney argued the 17-year-old boy wasn’t a minor in 1970 because the church’s definition of a minor changed in 2001 to 18 and had been 16 before that.
Blea also contends he never was a member of the clergy or a seminarian who worked within the boundaries of the archdiocese and was never found guilty of abusing a child.
In a 2017 letter to Wester, after the list was published, Blea wrote he “had a very short (over the summer) relationship with a non-clerical friend.”
He wrote in the letter he had decided to settle the civil case against him “to avoid court costs” and because an attorney had advised him he would be “tarred in the media” if the suit proceeded.
The archdiocese argues in numerous court documents Blea never claimed he was innocent of the affair and in fact admitted he had sexual contact with the teen.
Blea hoped to be removed from the archdiocese’s bankruptcy proceeding so he could pursue his own case against the institution in state court. But one of the archdiocese’s attorneys argued he shouldn’t “jump to the front of the line” while hundreds of claimants await a bankruptcy settlement.
Thuma has frozen the state proceeding, in part so no one can use that avenue to access the archdiocese’s funds before a bankruptcy settlement is reached. The judge said he would make no exception for Blea.
He wrote in an opinion three weeks ago Blea might be able to argue in court he has been defamed and, if victorious, halt further publication of defamatory statements.
But the courts don’t have the authority to order the archdiocese to remove his name from the list or to determine whether he was close enough to church hierarchy in 1970 to warrant inclusion on the list, the judge said.
“The Court cannot police the church’s tribunals to assure that members’ rights under canon [church] law are protected,” Thuma wrote.
He added Blea needs to pursue his case through the church’s appeals process.