Santa Fe Catholic parish picking up the pieces after arrest of popular ex-priest Balizan accused of sex abuse

Santa Fe New Mexican

July 29, 2023

By Daniel J. Chacón

Parishioners at Santa María de la Paz Catholic Community in south Santa Fe cried while others sat in stunned silence when Archbishop John C. Wester delivered the devastating news at the start of each Sunday Mass a year ago.

The head of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe informed churchgoers the Rev. Daniel Balizan, a charismatic pastor and their shepherd for the past decade, had been removed from his post amid an investigation into alleged misconduct.

“Our mouths dropped. People were crying. We were like, ‘What in the world?’ ” recalled Stephanie Roybal, director of the lector ministry and a parishioner since 2001.

“We were just like in shock,” she said. “It was extremely hard.”

Parishioners’ feelings of sadness and shock resurfaced late last month when federal authorities announced the arrest of the 61-year-old priest, accused of using text messages to coerce and entice a minor to engage in sex — the latest in a long series of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against clergy in the Catholic Church.

Though unsettling and still difficult for some to believe, parishioners say the charges against their former priest haven’t stopped the church from moving forward or shattered their faith in God.

“Personally, I believe in God and in the Catholic Church, and it doesn’t matter what goes on on the outside — my faith in God is always there,” a parishioner who declined to provide her name said before attending Tuesday’s 12:15 p.m. Mass.

In Balizan’s case, though, he is accused of misconduct not only outside the parish but within its walls.

A lawsuit filed in October by a man now living in Tennessee accuses the priest of sexually assaulting him at the parish about a decade ago, when the man was 15.

The lawsuit says Balizan cultivated a friendship with the plaintiff’s mother and cast himself as a mentor and father figure for the boy, who was estranged from his father. Balizan used the trust he had built with them to groom the boy for sexual abuse, the lawsuit alleges.

The criminal charges against Balizan are tied to the unidentified man’s allegations, according to the man’s attorney, and the text messages Balizan is accused of sending him when he was still a boy paint a picture of a priest struggling with his vocation.

“I want to be faithful to my promise of celibacy, but desire to be more intimate with you,” Balizan is accused of writing in one of thousands of texts between the priest and his accuser.

“Like I told you before, I only feel bad because of your age. … If you were 18 or over, I wouldn’t feel bad at all because I do love you,” the priest is alleged to have written in another text message.

In court documents, which identify the accuser only as John Doe, prosecutors assert the text messages exhibit “textbook sexual grooming behavior” and “represent a gross misuse of [Balizan’s] position of trust to coerce John Doe into sexual acts.”

Parishioner Mary O’Kane, who has been a member of Santa María de la Paz Catholic Community for about eight years, said she continues to grapple with the allegations against Balizan.

“I thought he was a very, very, very good person, and his homilies were just outstanding,” said O’Kane, who sings in the church choir.

“I just found him to be a very fine and a very good priest,” she said.

O’Kane said she was shocked and “just devastated” when the archbishop announced Balizan had been removed from his post over alleged misconduct.

“It was just complete silence through the whole congregation,” she said.

‘A punch to the gut’

Despite the salacious allegations, the parish has been able pick up the pieces and continue its religious devotion, said another parishioner, a man who also declined to provide his name.

“In general, I’d say we’re holding together pretty good,” he said. “We miss Father Daniel, but we have Father Darrell now, and so we’re going forward.”

The new parish priest, the Rev. Darrell J. Segura Jr., did not return messages seeking comment, and parish staff referred all inquiries to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

In an interview with The New Mexican, Wester said the allegations against Balizan evoke different reactions from different people, from those who have been abused or know someone who has been abused to those who had a close relationship with Balizan and feel betrayed.

“I think it’s a struggle we all have to go through,” Wester said. “We have the same emotions, you know. It’s a shock to us. Feeling very sorry for the [accuser], obviously, first and foremost, and hearing one of our priests has [allegedly] done this. … It’s like a punch to the gut.”

Wester noted the archdiocese has been tackling the issue of clergy sex abuse since the 1990s and that the Roman Catholic Church established a charter for the protection of children and young people in 2002, commonly known as the Dallas Charter, to address allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

“We remind the priests and the people constantly of staying alert and being careful,” he said, adding the church conducts background checks and also offers educational programs.

But the archdiocese’s history with clergy abuse remains fresh: In late 2022, it settled a $121.5 million bankruptcy case following waves of lawsuits against its priests. The agreement with nearly 400 people who’d accused priests of sexual abuse concluded years of litigation in those cases.

“It’s just hard to imagine how this can still go on, but the reality is it does go on, as we know in our society,” Wester said. “It’s not just the church. It goes on, sadly, around the country. It’s something we have to be vigilant about constantly — and we are. We’re constantly monitoring and making sure parishes are doing what they’re supposed to do and that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do according to our covenants and our agreements.”

Roybal, who leads the lector ministry at Santa María, said the archdiocese has failed to give parishioners an opportunity to talk about what happened with their former priest, leaving somewhat of a void and an inability for them to express their feelings.

“I was very upset and still am kind of upset at the archbishop because he literally came in that weekend — he was at every Mass — and told us that Father Balizan was on administrative leave and then he left and then there was no support from the archbishop at all,” she said, adding Segura, a relatively young priest, had to deal with the fallout on his own.

Segura “did a wonderful job,” she said. “He tried to bring us together and keep us going, but it was a very, very sad time when we got the announcement.”

Roybal called it a “very sad time” not just for Santa María but also the entire Catholic Church.

“Just talking with my fellow parishioners, everybody is pretty much extremely disappointed, extremely shocked,” she said, referring to the allegations against Balizan. “Some people still refuse to believe it, and some other people are just shocked that we had this evil in our church.”

Roybal said some parishioners have felt like an “alone ship” after Wester announced Balizan had been removed from his post last year.

“We actually had a meeting a few weeks ago — it was just our regular liturgy meeting — and somebody asked, and I’ve had several parishioners also ask, could we not have some sort of healing Mass,” she said. “We need something.”

Wester said the archdiocese plans to host a listening session with parishioners in late August.

“We’re just going to try to be there for the people,” he said. “We’ll probably do it again as this case goes on.

“We’re as sick as our secrets,” Wester added.

“It’s really important for the church not to have any secrets and to listen to people, to squarely face the issues and to do everything we can to bring healing, recognizing that it’s a process, it’s a struggle,” he said. “One listening session is not going to cure all, but it’s a beginning.”

‘A difficult cross to carry’

Asked if he worried parishioners would leave the Catholic Church as a result of continued allegations of sexual abuse against priests, Wester said the faithful are unwavering.

“I think people understand one priest is not the Catholic Church, that the vast majority of the priests are fulfilling their role as shepherds in a very good way,” he said. “They’re very sincere. They work hard. They’re there to reach out to the people.”

Roybal agreed.

“My faith is in God,” she said.

Wester said the church is both divine and human.

“This is the human side of it,” he said, referring to clergy sex abuse.

“It’s terrible; it’s awful what happens in abuse,” he said. “I think the key for us is to own it, to see that it’s there, to face it squarely and to do all we can to prevent it and when it does happen, to make sure that the perpetrators are removed immediately so that people are safe.”

Wester said he prays for parishioners’ well-being and that he relies on their prayers, too.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re one church, one people of God and beyond the church, we’re one city, one state — we’re all together here as New Mexicans, as Santa Feans, and we need to support one another to keep children and young people safe, also to assist those who have been affected by clergy sexual abuse. It’s a difficult cross to carry, but this is the cross we have to take up for the good of our people and the good of our children.”

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