Bishop Apologizes for Abuse
Pelotte Speaks to Winslow Parishioners
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
September 20, 2005
WINSLOW, Ariz. — Bishop Donald E. Pelotte, the current bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gallup, traveled to St. Joseph's Church in Winslow on Sunday to deliver a frank apology for crimes committed by pedophile priests assigned to the town's two Catholic parishes.
In his homily during the 11 a.m. Mass, Pelotte specifically named former Winslow priests, Clement A. Hageman and James Burns, as being two of the "most abusive priests of the diocese." Hageman died in 1975. Burns is currently completing an 18-month prison sentence in Arizona for the sexual abuse of a teenage boy in Winslow in the 1980s.
According to church documents and admissions by church officials, several sexual abusers have served as priests in Winslow's parishes over the last several decades.
Addressing the predominately Hispanic church audience, Pelotte said he had traveled to Winslow to offer apologies on behalf of the Diocese of Gallup and the church. He had also come, he added, at the urging of members of the Gallup Diocesan Review Board for Juvenile Sexual Abuse.
"They have been asking me to come talk to you from my heart," he said.
Review board members who attended the Mass included Margie Trujillo of Farmington, N.M., Floyd Kezele of Gallup, N.M., and Father Ron Walters of St. Michaels, Ariz. Sister Mary Thurlough of Gallup, the victims' assistance coordinator for the diocese, also attended.
Pelotte compared the clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church to the devastation of a "terrible storm," not unlike the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. What made the church's sexual abuse so horrific, Pelotte added, was the fact that people trusted the perpetrators, priests who were "expected to be men of integrity."
Discipleship of healing
The Gallup bishop shared a personal story from his own childhood that indicated he and his twin brother might have had a close brush with a sexually abusive priest themselves. According to Pelotte, when he and his brother were altar servers, a local Catholic priest who served as a chaplain invited the boys into his cottage. Pelotte said he couldn't recall the details of what happened, but something the priest said or did caused the boys to report it to their mother.
"We had the courage to tell...," Pelotte said of the incident, and his mother "had the wisdom" to confront the priest. His mother's message, Pelotte recalled, involved the general sentiments of, "If you touch my boys, I'll kill you."
His mother believed her sons, Pelotte said, and he stressed the importance of parents, fellow parishioners, and community members believing sex abuse victims.
"They are almost incomprehensible," Pelotte said of the stories of sex abuse told by victims; however, the bishop urged his audience to believe the victims and offer them support in their healing. Tying his message into the service's scripture reading about discipleship, Pelotte called on his audience to respond to the "discipleship of healing" and support victims of sex abuse.
Pelotte stated that he believes there are more victims from the Gallup Diocese who haven't come forward yet, and he pledged to personally meet with any victim who desires such a meeting.
One man who has met personally with Pelotte is Joseph Baca, a former Winslow resident. Baca and his wife drove up from their Phoenix-area home to attend Sunday's Mass. Baca is a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the SNAP director for Northern Arizona and Western New Mexico. In one of life's stranger ironies, Baca's parents are buried in a Winslow cemetery plot next to the grave of the man that Baca said abused him thirty years ago: his former parish priest, the late Father Clement A. Hageman.
"He floored me," said Baca of Pelotte's apology. Baca admitted he initially thought the Gallup bishop would "sidestep" the painful reality of the sexual abuse that took place in Winslow. "I think it was the best thing in the world," he said of Pelotte's homily. "He went right to the heart of it," he added.
Baca's older brother, Leonard, also said he was pleasantly surprised by Pelotte. Leonard Baca, who lives in Winslow, said he drove to Gallup about 30 years ago to talk to the late Bishop Jerome J. Hastrich about the abuse his younger brother was claiming at the time. Nothing came of that meeting, said Leonard Baca, except for the Gallup chancery's vague promise to look into the matter.
And although Leonard Baca said he has had his differences with Pelotte and Pelotte's current chancellor, Deacon Timoteo Lujan, Baca said he was pleased with Pelotte's message. Both Joseph and Leonard Baca characterized Pelotte's apology as appearing sincere.
"I feel good with what he said," Leonard Baca said. "It takes time to heal."
After the Mass at St. Joseph's, the public was invited to meet with the review board members and the victims' assistance coordinator. However, only Joseph Baca, his wife, and one local Catholic sister attended. They were outnumbered by the three review board members, Thurlough, two media representatives, and Father Frank Chacon, the current priest serving the two Winslow parishes.
During the two hour meeting, Trujillo and Kezele said that Pelotte might travel to other churches in the future to deliver a similar message of apology. Winslow was chosen first, they explained, because about 10 victims of clergy sex abuse have come forward from the local community. Trujillo said she personally invited every known Winslow-area victim to Sunday's Mass, but she admitted that some probably did not feel comfortable attending.
Outreach to other victims and other communities was a concern to the review board, said Trujillo, who agreed with Pelotte's assessment that many victims from the Gallup Diocese have probably not come forward yet.
Kezele raised the possibility that some sexual abuse of juvenile victims may have involved the assistance of a third party who helped "groom" the victim for the priest perpetrator. When asked if there was any evidence this occurred in the Gallup Diocese, Kezele said the review board was looking into allegations involving third parties. He encouraged any victim with such information to write the review board.
Eleven priests with some sort of official or volunteer association with the Diocese of Gallup have thus far been publicly identified as sex abusers of juvenile victims. Six are now deceased. One of those priests, Santino Casimano, died last month on Aug. 8, 2005.
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