Survivors of priest abuse OK settlement from Archdiocese

Albuquerque Journal [Albuquerque NM]

December 28, 2022

By Colleen Heild

Child sex abuse survivors have overwhelmingly approved a $121.5 million plan in a crucial step toward resolving the long-running Archdiocese of Santa Fe bankruptcy reorganization, which was aimed at stemming the church’s financial losses while atoning for wrongs of the past.

Aside from providing monetary payments to nearly 400 abuse claimants, the terms of the settlement require the establishment of an “unprecedented” public archive of documents showing how “decades of widespread abuse occurred” in New Mexico and to prevent such abuse by clergy in the future.

A formal confirmation order is expected to be signed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David T. Thuma of Albuquerque on Thursday. Payouts in the case could begin in the coming months.

The reorganization plan is the product of years of legal wrangling that involved three mediators and effectively halted more than three dozens civil lawsuits in state court that alleged abuse of children by clergy in the archdiocese and negligence by church hierarchy.

The settlement is one of the largest of its kind involving the Catholic Church in the United States. About 31 Catholic dioceses or archdioceses have filed for bankruptcy reorganization nationwide, as clergy sex abuse claims have mounted in recent years.

The accusations in New Mexico date from the 1940s to the 2010s, court records show. Some 80 priests or clergy in the archdiocese have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and court records show the archdiocese in the past sometimes transferred priests to other parishes once accusations of abuse surfaced.

Under the negotiated bankruptcy reorganization plan, the archdiocese, aided by contributions from its parishes, will put up $75 million toward the total settlement fund, with insurance companies agreeing to pay $46.5 million.

In a side agreement, five religious orders that faced pending lawsuits will pay an additional $8.4 million, which will be shared by certain claimants. The orders include the Servants of the Paraclete in the Jemez, which ran a now-defunct treatment center for troubled priests and was accused of furnishing the archdiocese with priests and other clergy who preyed on children and teens.

There is also a recommendation for the archdiocese to set up a $2.5 million separate fund to pay future claims.

Archdiocese attorney Thomas Walker told the judge in a hearing Wednesday that of 376 survivor claimants who cast ballots on the plan, four voted to reject and three did not indicate acceptance or rejection, “which is over 99% acceptance.”

Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall told the judge his legal team has dealt with more than 250 clergy abuse survivors over the decade leading up to the bankruptcy filing in December 2018.

Hall said he wanted to remind the judge that even though there are hundreds of such abuse survivors, “through spouses or siblings or cousins or parents we’ve also heard many a heart-wrenching tale of tortured suicides, those who did not survive.

“As for the actual survivors, it is our hope that some small compensation, however inadequate it might feel like to some of them, will help with a sense of closure and some accountability,” Hall said.

Archbishop John C. Wester, in announcing the bankruptcy filing in December 2018, cited the pending litigation and the archdiocese’s dwindling resources. The archdiocese sold numerous properties to come up with the final negotiated contribution, including Wester’s house on Albuquerque’s West Side. The archdiocese also took out a mortgage on the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.

Terence McKiernan, president of the nonprofit, told the Journal on Wednesday that other dioceses in similar bankruptcy actions have had more survivor claimants and paid out less.

Though the specific per-person settlement amounts haven’t been finalized in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe case, McKiernan said they are bound to be more than what abuse survivors received decades ago.

In those days, survivors nationwide were paid as little as $5,000 per claim, he said.

“The mid-1990s settlement amounts were often just terrible, terribly unfair.”

For the Archdiocese of Santa Fe claimants, McKiernan said, “it seems clear that they’re going to be treated better. For New Mexico, this bankruptcy is going to be very different from the kinds of settlements that were happening in the ’90s.”

McKiernan said a key part of the settlement plan is the disclosure of documents, with redactions, by the archdiocese that will help the public understand how the clergy sexual abuse crisis occurred in New Mexico.

A statement in the bankruptcy case from the archdiocese said the document disclosure to the UNM Southwest Special Collections Archive at Zimmerman Library is “unprecedented across the country.”

“It is highly significant that documents are included in such a massive way to be made available to everyone who wants to read them. It’s utterly remarkable,” said McKiernan, “It’s going to change our understanding (of the crisis) in a major way.”

McKiernan, who lives in southeastern Massachusetts, credits “the survivors themselves, Brad Hall’s legal team, and Archbishop Wester” for their leadership on the issue.

“I feel the documents are absolutely a huge victory for transparency and accountability,” he added.

Wester, who couldn’t be reached for comment on Wedensday, took to the archdiocese website more than a year ago to ask for prayers while negotiations over a settlement were dragging.

He wrote that both the archdiocese and the survivors hoped to “bring healing to the victims and all those impacted by the scourge of clergy sexual abuse.”

Vicar General Rev. Glennon Jones on the same website, wrote that, “Almost all of the accused offenders are dead and can’t be questioned. But given past lawsuits and specifics in the (survivors’) claims, most, if not all, are very credible.”

Meanwhile, the archdiocese’s efforts to stop child sexual abuse by clergy were working, Jones added, noting there have been no recent claims.

“As you can imagine, this has become top priority since this scourge against children has come to light,” he wrote.