Judge OKs Archdiocese of Santa Fe settlement of $121 million in clergy abuse cases

Santa Fe New Mexican

December 30, 2022

By Phaedra Haywood

Years of negotiations between survivors of clergy sex abuse and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe moved toward conclusion this week when claimants and a federal bankruptcy judge approved a proposed $121.5 million agreement that would settle nearly 400 claims made by people who say they were abused by Roman Catholic clergy.

“While I hope and pray that the bankruptcy outcome will bring a measure of justice and relief to the victims … I realize that nothing can ever compensate them for the criminal and horrendous abuse they endured,” Archbishop John C. Wester said in a written statement issued Thursday.

“I pledge that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe will remain vigilant in protecting children and young people from clergy sexual abuse, doing all we can to assure them of a safe and protective environment in the Catholic Church,” Wester wrote.

Attorney Brad Hall, who represents about 140 of the claimants — most of whom say they were abused in childhood — said letters will go out next week informing people how much they can expect to receive from the settlement. Checks could start being sent out in mid-February if there are no last-minute changes.

The amounts each person will receive will vary “depending on the level and impact of the abuse” as determined by a court-appointed allocator, Hall said in a phone interview Thursday.

The settlement also calls for the creation of a fund against which future unknown claims could be made, as well as a public database of records pertaining to sexual abuse claims made against the church over the past 50-plus years.

Wester pledged the archdiocese “will continue to monitor the safeguards we have put in place and implement the non-monetary agreements. In the weeks ahead, we will publicize more details of the agreement since it is our desire to assure everyone that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has learned from past errors and is solidly on board to maintain a safe environment for children and young people, offer healing and reconciliation to victims and survivors, make prompt and effective responses to allegations, cooperate with civil authorities and discipline offenders, all the while maintaining our zero tolerance for clergy sexual abuse and any other abuse of children and young people.”

Hall said the “Abuse Document Archive” — which would be created and maintained by the University of New Mexico College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences’ Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections — is a unique part of the settlement agreement negotiated by a panel of survivor representatives and not called for by similar settlements in other states.

“Tragically, some survivors who started with us have passed away but their stories and the courage they exhibited throughout their lives will be documented in the public archive,” Charles Paez, chairman of the Official Creditors Committee, said in a written statement Thursday.

Perpetrator personnel files, victim files, investigative files and transcripts, witness depositions, clergy risk assessments and law enforcement reports are among the types of documents that will be included in the archive, according to a memorandum of agreement that is part of the overall settlement. Some documents will be redacted with the goal of protecting victim identities.

The settlement will bring to an end a bankruptcy process the archdiocese began in 2018 in response to a flood of claims from hundreds of New Mexicans who said they were sexually assaulted by priests.

Sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy emerged as a nationwide issue more than 30 years ago and was particularly acute in New Mexico.

Though the problem is not unique to the state, its residents may have been disproportionately affected due to the presence of the Servants of the Paraclete, a rehabilitation center for troubled priests established in Jemez Springs more than 75 years ago. Many pedophile priests were sent there for treatment, and some were later allowed to serve in New Mexico parishes.

Hall said his office has seen “tens of thousands of documents going back to the 1950s” regarding clergy abuse, and the victims represented in this case represent only a fraction of the people victimized.

“There are no doubt a few thousand or more victims of priest abuse in our state over the decades, and a fair number are not here as survivors because we know they committed suicide along the way or died of an overdose or something like that,” he said.

“These 400 survivors getting a little compensation in this Chapter 11 case are the tip of an iceberg, but they do represent an effort by the archdiocese to provide all the victims some closure,” Hall added.