Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s Sexual Abuse List Brings Relief — and Questions
By Andrew Oxford
September 13, 2017
As the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal burst into the nation’s collective consciousness in the 1990s, two brothers filed lawsuits against a church order, charging that some of its members had molested them while they were growing up in Santa Fe.
Tom McConnell, a teacher at St. Michael’s High School, had been one of their tormentors, they said, accusing him of repeatedly abusing young boys.
The brothers, full-grown men by the time they spoke out in 1995, depicted in their lawsuits a betrayal by the religious figures their parents had entrusted with their childhoods and their education during the 1950s and 1960s.
McConnell’s order, the Christian Brothers, which continues to operate St. Michael’s, settled the suits. The allegations were among the first in a yearslong series of cases that revealed a nationwide crisis covered up by Catholic leaders. New Mexico, where the Catholic Church is deeply ingrained, was at the center of the cover-up. Many priests accused of sexually abusing children in other states were sent to a retreat center in the Jemez Mountains and later assigned to parishes throughout the state, endangering more children.
Archbishop John C. Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe took a big step toward accountability Tuesday by publicly identifying 66 priests, six brothers and two deacons who he says have faced credible accusations of sexual abuse involving children in the past several decades. Many survivors of abuse said the list was a long time coming.
But one name that didn’t appear on the list was McConnell’s.
Vicar General John Daniel of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe told The New Mexican in an interview Wednesday that the omission was an oversight that likely occurred because the lawsuits naming him were filed against the Christian Brothers rather than the archdiocese. Still, he said, McConnell should go on the list.
“You found one that we did not have,” Daniel said. “… That is someone we need to add.”
Other prominent names also have been excluded from the list, which raised countless questions even as it brought relief to many who suffered abuse. Why, for instance, are certain priests named while others are not — and who decides? The announcement Tuesday demonstrated the messiness of what is just one step in accounting publicly for a scandal that long has been mired in secrecy. Those questions serve as what advocates hope will be a reminder that the list is a start, not the last word.
“We’re not saying, ‘This is all we’re going to give you,’ ” Daniel said. “This is being open to working together.”
Former Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan issued a letter to parishioners in 2004 stating that a review found 44 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse in the 50 years leading up to 2002 — far fewer than the 66 priests on the list. Sheehan did not provide names.
Daniel said the most recent allegations stem from the 1990s, which fell under Sheehan’s review, while the oldest might stretch back as far as the 1930s.
There was no immediate explanation for the difference between the list released Tuesday and the number of accused abusers cited in Sheehan’s letter to parishioners. Daniel said he is not entirely sure what methodology the archdiocese used to reach the earlier number.
To some, the difference reflects the archdiocese’s handling of the scandal through the years.
“This reflects the history of the archdiocese being reactive, only adding names of clergy to their list if credible allegations are made, with credibility determined by them,” said Brad Hall, a lawyer who has represented numerous victims of sexual abuse by priests.
“Maybe the 2017 list reflects a more proactive era to begin, where the archdiocese will reach out to the survivors still in the shadows,” Hall said. “We’ll see.”
So far, priests, deacons and brothers who have been accused of sexual abuse but were never fully or properly investigated may not be included on the archdiocese’s list.
The list includes clergy found guilty either by the church or a court of sexually abusing minors and priests stripped of their duties following allegations of sexual misconduct involving children.
No one on the list is in active ministry, according to the archdiocese.
But even if the archdiocese has settled a lawsuit involving a priest accused of sexual abuse, he may not be included on the list, Daniel said, because that would depend on the archdiocese’s review of the allegations by a separate independent review board.
The archdiocese also has said the list is specific to sexual abuse of children within its boundaries. A priest who may have worked here but is only known to have been accused of sexual abuse elsewhere would not be included.
The list does not, for example, include Jose Superiaso, who served as a priest at what is now called the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi before his arrest in California in 2003 on suspicion of molesting children. He pleaded guilty in 2005 to six counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under the age of 14, but the allegations against him originated in California, where he had previously worked.
Sheehan said at the time of Superiaso’s arrest that he had not been accused of misconduct in Santa Fe.
Daniel said Superiaso is not included on the new list because the charges stem from elsewhere.
Dennis Fountain does not appear on the list, either.
A grand jury in Santa Fe indicted Fountain in 1987 on allegations that he sexually abused students at the former St. Catherine Indian School, but the case fell apart because a prosecutor was reported to have tampered with the grand jury. The district attorney took him to court again later that year but ended up dropping the charges.
Former Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez, who died in 2012, is not listed, though he had sexual relationships with young women in their teens. The allegations against him were enough for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, to pull an invitation for him to assist with services there during the end of his career.
For some survivors, the list, the explanations and the apologies cannot restore their trust.
“What would Jesus do? He wouldn’t hire a bunch of lawyers and convene private review boards, that’s for sure,” said Jay Nelson, a survivor of sexual abuse by clergy and an advocate for abuse survivors.
Meanwhile, calls likely will continue to mount for the archdiocese to release more information about cases of sexual abuse on its watch, such as personnel files of priests who have been accused of misconduct.
The archdiocese said Tuesday it will release each listed priest’s assignments, such as the parishes where they worked. And the archdiocese will update the list.
“Regardless of discrepancies, we believe the current archbishop has taken a step in the right direction,” Hall said. “And that he recognizes there’s still a long ways to go.”