Sex abuse settlement may disrupt plans for new church

Santa Fe New Mexican

September 10, 2022

By Daniel J. Chacón

Another parish is feeling the pain of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s $121.5 million settlement in a bankruptcy case that stems from hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Some congregants at San Isidro Catholic Parish in the village of Agua Fría had been told the parish would be receiving half the proceeds of a land sale to build a new church.

But now there are doubts the parish will retain the building funds amid the archdiocese’s efforts to settle its Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Congregants fear the parish may lose about 23 acres of church property in a deal between the archdiocese and the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority without seeing a dime.

Representatives of the archdiocese did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

Minutes of a meeting last month between archdiocese officials and parish leaders state the Rev. John D. Cannon, now rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, had told congregants the parish was “getting half of the total money for the building of the new church” from the sale of the parcel, and the archdiocese would put the remaining funds toward the settlement.

The archdiocese has asked its 93 parishes to contribute a combined $12 million to help close the gap between what the archdiocese’s insurers will pay and the $75 million the archdiocese is responsible for covering.

The San Isidro property in question, between Rufina and Agua Fría streets, is adjacent to a parish center the congregation now uses for Mass and other services.

It’s unclear who called the meeting, but it began with the head of the housing authority presenting plans for the property and archdiocese officials discussing the bankruptcy case.

According to the minutes, the housing authority purchased 24 acres from the archdiocese south of Rufina Street in 2018 “and saw an opportunity” to buy one or more parcels on the north side “for continuation of their projects.”

The meeting quickly devolved into parishioners questioning the use of the proceeds from the land sale.

Cannon, who had been the parish priest until he was assigned to the cathedral in April, did not return a message seeking comment. He was not at the meeting, but archdiocese officials said during the meeting Cannon told them he “never gave any dollar amount that would go to the new church building fund.”

The parish has a historic church on Agua Fría Street but has been trying to build a new church for years as its congregation has grown. While the historic church still gets occasional use, most religious services are held at the parish center as fundraising for a new church continues.

Cannon, the former parish priest, told members of the parish’s finance committee about the proposed land sale last year, according to the minutes.

The initial deal for the property sale called for the parish to sell 20 acres to the housing authority for $1.9 million, with plans to build housing for low-income seniors and families, the minutes state.

“Half of the money would go to the Archdiocese and half would go to the parish for the new church. That’s what we were told — nothing more — 20 acres,” parishioners wrote in the minutes, which were posted on an Agua Fría village Facebook page.

After a November meeting with housing authority Executive Director Ed Romero, Cannon asked congregants to add three more acres to the deal, which the parish finance committee signed off on because the parish was still going to get half the proceeds, the minutes state.

“Then, a couple of months later, there was a letter in the bulletin regarding the land that was going to be sold, and information that part of the money was going towards building the new church — that’s why we agreed to add the three acres,” the minutes state, attributing the comments to George Rivera, who serves on the finance committee.

“We want our money that was agreed to,” Rivera said, according to the minutes.

Another parishioner, Lois Mee, agreed the church bulletin informed parishioners the parish would be getting “part of the money” from the sale of the land for the construction of a new church.

“At some point, someone pulled the plug on all of this and took all of the money. We want to know why this was done,” Mee said, according to the minutes.

The minutes state officials with the archdiocese “just had a blank stare and kept looking at each other and shrugging their shoulders.”

Parishioners informed archdiocese officials they had recordings of their meetings with Cannon, as well as a copy of a letter the priest penned that appeared in the church bulletin indicating a share of the proceeds was part of the deal.

The housing authority plans to build apartments for seniors and single-family residential units on the property.

Romero declined to divulge the number of planned units, but the meeting minutes state there are plans to build 60 units for seniors and 160 to 200 low-income “work force” housing units.

“We’re under contract right now, hoping to close sometime over the next two or three weeks,” Romero said.

He declined to disclose the purchase price.

William Mee, a longtime San Isidro parishioner who is married to Lois Mee, said the land sale came as a surprise to the congregation.

“We knew that the archdiocese had its hands on it, but we didn’t know that it’s basically a done deal,” he said.

Another San Isidro parishioner, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from the Catholic Church, said members of the congregation learned the property was up for sale after Cannon called a meeting with parishioners at the start of the year, before he was assigned to the cathedral in April.

“During Mass, they informed everybody who was in church that day that there was going to be a meeting after church,” the parishioner said. “That’s when I found out about it.”

The parishioner said no more than 20 people attended the meeting after Mass. Because so few people stayed behind, the looming sale of the property may not be widely known among the flock, the parishioner said.

“There was a couple of them that were a little spicy [in their remarks], so they were really not happy, and the other people that didn’t speak, you could just see the disappointment in their faces,” the parishioner said.

“When the building starts, and groundbreaking, it’s going to be a hard thing for me to take,” the parishioner said. “But without God, we’re nothing, so I guess I just have to leave it in His hands. It is what it is, and it’s already, I guess, set in stone.”

Although the property is under contract, the minutes of the August meeting state the land deed includes a clause stating “if the property ever stopped being used for the benefit of the parish, it would revert back” to the family of the man who donated the land to the parish. The donor is identified as Fred Grill, a local contractor, in the minutes.

William Mee said the parish would have been more supportive of leasing the land, which it had approved in concept in the late 1990s.

“People love their land in Agua Fría,” he said. “They don’t want to give it away. Once it’s given away, it’s gone forever.”

Mee said he understands local parishes have to help the archdiocese settle the bankruptcy, but he said they’re being overburdened.

“I guess we need to help the church out, but they have to take some responsibility for their actions,” he said. “Why did they bring in priests from Wisconsin to molest the kids here and now there’s a bill due from that? Why aren’t these priests being gone after or their archdiocese that let them come over here?”

He was referring to the Catholic Church’s practice in decades past of sending priests from throughout the nation who were suspected of abusing children to a retreat center in the Jemez Mountains. After a period of treatment at the facility, many of the priests served in parishes throughout Northern New Mexico, where they faced more allegations of abuse.

The Rev. Vincent Chávez, pastor at St. Therese of the Infant Jesus in Albuquerque, complained recently about the large sums of money Catholic families and parishes are being asked to contribute to help satisfy the settlement.

“Catholics all over the Archdiocese should be angry,” Chávez wrote in an email to The New Mexican in July. “… Basically the victims [and family members of the victims] in various parishes are being asked to pay for their own settlements.”

Chávez called the $12 million the archdiocese is asking individual parishes to contribute unfair. His parish already owes the archdiocese about $150,000 for a loan St. Therese had to take out to finish replacing its roof years ago.

“Now they are bleeding us for a further $104,727,” Chávez wrote.

After Chávez spoke out, he was placed on a leave of absence.

“I poked the bear too much,” he said at the time.

The San Isidro parishioner who requested anonymity said some parishes will have to shoulder a bigger financial burden than others.

“I understand why they’re doing it, but I think it’s a little unfair to all the Catholic churches that have to do this,” the parishioner said.

Meanwhile, the San Isidro Catholic Parish will have to continue without a church to accommodate its growing congregation.

The parish has held various fundraisers, including raffles and a dance, but has only raised a few thousand dollars for a new church that will cost millions, the parishioner said.

At the August meeting with archdiocese officials, congregants expressed concerns the archdiocese would raid the funds the parish already has raised for the new church. But they were given assurances it wouldn’t.

“Several people have asked us, as members of the Pastoral Council, to check if the money that is being donated to the new church building fund now will be taken by the [Archdiocese of Santa Fe] as well, to pay for the lawsuits,” the minutes state. “Because they are going to stop donating if that is the case.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.