The Truth Is Out There

By Barry Heifner
Gallup Independent
August 11, 2008

[See also the lead article on this matter, with photographs and additional links.]

The released emergency room photos taken by Gallup Police last year of former Catholic Diocese of Gallup Bishop Donald Pelotte raise more questions than they answer.

It has been obvious from the beginning the bishop was beaten up by someone. The emergency room physician thought so and called police. Police thought so and began taking photos and filling out an assault report until the bishop said he fell down stairs. Why would someone beat him up? Who could have beaten him up? Why did the bishop lie about being beaten up?

I tend to believe most people and institutions are basically good — even if they stumble once in a while. However, if I see a pattern of stumbles or misstatements, then I start questioning the motives and veracity of that person or institution.

Even the bishop himself now admits he did not fall, although he claims he does not remember what happened, and says the person who beat him will never be found. How can the bishop be sure the person who assaulted him will never be found?

The odd thing is if the diocese had been honest in the first place this whole controversy would be over and forgotten. Instead, because they failed to tell the truth to parishioners, media, police and the general public, the whole thing has taken on a life of its own. The release of these photos has made the truth apparent. A year later we are still talking about it and the incident continues to make headlines and be the focus of television investigative reports.

Still, the refusal by the city attorney to release the photos until ordered by a court to do so raises even more serious issues. Is it more important to protect someone's reputation than obey the law? It should not be. Is this an isolated incident or obvious disregard for the laws of New Mexico?

Even more disturbing was the city attorney's reaction to television station KRQE's Inspection of Public Records request to see the photos. What did he do? The city attorney filed a lawsuit against KRQE for having the audacity to ask for public records.

Michelle Donaldson, the station's news director, said she was shocked by the action.

"It was to us a routine records request. We never anticipated the city's response would be to sue us. This whole situation was thrust into court because the city put it there ... "

Donaldson said the television station is an experienced news-gathering organization, and even they were caught off guard by the city's action.

"An ordinary citizen getting sued ... that's a chilling effect. If that went unchallenged it would have been a huge mistake."

It was the chilling effect on the media and the public the city attorney was counting on. If the public and the media have no access to records, officials can do as they please and no one will ask questions. However, you do have a right to review documents created by a public body such as the police, school district or city government. It is the law.

We should not live in a closed society where secret files are kept on citizens, where governing bodies make decisions behind closed doors, where citizens are arrested and charged without being able to face their accuser or know the charges against them. All of the above are reasons our founding fathers risked their lives and put their names on a document called the Declaration of Independence. Those signatures were a death sentence.

Open government and access to public records is the cornerstone of democratic government. Without it, we can easily slip into tyranny.

I, for one, am not willing to take that chance.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.