The challenge for the archdiocese: Looking forward, but never forgetting

Santa Fe New Mexican

February 4, 2023

By Phill Casaus

Archbishop John C. Wester has seen the Archdiocese of Santa Fe through a cataclysmic clergy abuse scandal, a bankruptcy of more than $121 million, and worst of all, the unscrubbable stain of the damage done to hundreds or thousands of New Mexico Roman Catholics, most of them children.

The clip file is huge and painful. But if you look at the calendar, much of it is in the past.

Or is it?

Not by a long shot.

My source? Archbishop John C. Wester.

“You know, sometimes people say, ‘Well, I guess we’ve settled that,’ ” Wester said in a recent interview. “I say, ‘Oh, no, we haven’t settled it at all.’ ”

His message is easy enough to discern. The archdiocese’s awful history regarding the sexual abuse of children can never again just be pages in a book; stories in a library; signatures on checks. The battle against abuse has to be an everyday shadow, a cautionary tale, or the horror of the past several years — past several decades — can return.

The head of a large spiritual organization and business, Wester is quick to point out reforms the archdiocese has enacted after acknowledging the grievous mistakes that many would call negligence. It’s why the conversation is sun spliced with rain.

“We’ve done a lot,” Wester said, pointing to a variety of internal processes the archdiocese has instituted through the abuse scandal. “The cases now have dwindled down to almost nothing compared to the ’50s and ’60s. But nonetheless, we have to be vigilant. … I think the people have a right to expect us to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Catholics here had that right in the early 1990s as well. The archdiocese had been through this before. If anything, the shock and humiliation seemed more palpable then, because the scope and length and often brutality of it was impossible to fathom, particularly if you were Catholic.

But embarrassment and money alone never stamp out a problem. That has to be the worry for Wester, the same as it is for any school superintendent or scouting group or any organization that deals with children: Policies are policies, but people are people.

All are fallible. A few — but it only takes a few — are criminal.

This will be the test for Wester and his successor, and probably his successor’s successor: Can words and procedure create the kind of culture that effectively blunts clergy sex abuse, or will they simply be guideposts in a civil lawsuit when attorneys wrangle over whether priests and others knew what the handbook said?

Wester, who became a priest in 1976, said he has met with many survivors of abuse over the years. He acknowledges the process is difficult, particularly for the survivor. But hearing the stories, he said, is personally painful as well.

“The anger, the raw emotion, is just there. And of course, you don’t know what to say,” he said. “I have found, frankly, that oftentimes, less is more; that if I try to say something, it’s going to fall flat and it’s not going to sound right or sincere.

“I remember I, we, used to meet with a group of victims in San Francisco every other Wednesday night from 7 to 9. And I remember one evening, one of the victims was extremely angry — shouting and just crying and shouting some more. And so I just sat there. I was just, you know, dumbfounded. I didn’t say anything. Much later, one of the other victims came up to me and they said, ‘You know, Bishop, that was really a good thing that you didn’t say anything. Because no matter what you said, it didn’t make a bit of difference — it wouldn’t have rang true, because there’s nothing you can say.’ ”

Ah, but that’s the thing: He has to say something — certainly to the Catholic community as a whole; to the faithful who troop to Mass in tiny mission churches on the plains; to large suburban congregations in Albuquerque; to those who worship in the adobe-walled sanctuaries of the North.

Wester said the archdiocese has a new effort called Rebuild My Church, a push that he hopes will reenergize Catholics around the concepts of community.

“I want people to be saying, ‘You know, we have to see where God’s calling us,’ ” he said. “And he’s clearly calling us to be a leaner church, a more humble church, a church that’s more sensitive to the needs of the people.”

Lean, humble, sensitive. The words are good; Wester sounds sincere as he says them. If nothing else, it’s a worthy goal.

But getting there will not be simple. More than the money and prestige and trust that have been lost, this is tomorrow’s question for the archdiocese and the men who will hold the title of archbishop of Santa Fe: How do you look forward while never forgetting the past?

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.