Victims Recoil at Revelations from Former Archbishop

By Jessie Milligan and Shonda Novak
Albuquerque Tribune (New Mexico)
September 19, 1996

Years after the abuse at the hands of Catholic priests ended, victims and their families still wonder why former Archbishop Robert Sanchez didn't seem to care about the victims and has not come forward to take responsibility for his role in keeping the scandal quiet.

Victims reacted Wednesday to Sanchez's remarks about the sex-abuse scandal in a 1994 civil-lawsuit deposition of Sanchez that was released Tuesday.

Sanchez, 62, testified that he kept sex-abuse cases quiet to avoid gossip and scandal in the parishes and because he didn't know sexual abuse was a crime.

"A personal apology to every member of the archdiocese, past and present, is what's called for," said Steve Armijo, 48, who says he was abused by a priest at age 15 in Santa Fe in 1963 and '64.

"At a minimum, a letter should be read from the pulpit at every Mass on every Sunday in every parish. That's the least he (Sanchez) could do. He was a jerk," Armijo said.

"It's about time that this comes out," Armijo said. "It should have been made public to begin with. The church was just protecting itself. It's time that the church takes full responsibility -- not partial responsibility -- for the action of their employees, because it is a corporation. . . ."

Jerome Nelson, a former altar boy who first said in 1993 that he was sexually abused more than 30 years ago at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Albuquerque, said: "If they (church officials) were really sincere about solving the problem, they would make a clean breast of everything.

They would publicly admit all they know and then publicly ask for forgiveness.

"What they have to do is deal with the offenders instead of hiding and protecting them."

But, Armijo said: "Unfortunately, it (the church) is a large bureaucracy and survival is the first thing. They always want to make sure the church survives. It's not the church that's important, it's the people."

The mothers of three boys who said they were molested by priests said they reported the abuse to Sanchez. But they said the former archbishop showed more concern for covering up the acts than he did for the physical or spiritual welfare of the children.

"What I found the hardest to understand is that when I told the archbishop about the abuse of my son, he never asked how my son was doing. He never was concerned about my child's soul," said an Albuquerque woman who said she told Sanchez of the alleged sexual molestation in 1992. She asked that her name be withheld to protect her son.

"(Sanchez) never made any comment to help (my son) understand that this was an act of a man and not an act of God," she said. "I think he just wanted to protect the church."

Not everyone welcomed the news that the former archbishop had acknowledged having affairs or that he knew of the child sex abuse.

"What we need is prayer and forgiveness," said Rosie Andrade as she left the noon Mass on Wednesday at Immaculate Conception Church Downtown.

Her husband, Eddie Andrade, said: "I think it is a certain amount of persecution by the news media. There's no compassion in our society anymore."

Albuquerque attorney Bruce Pasternack, who represented 62 reported victims of clergy sex abuse whose lawsuits were settled out of court, said the way the archdiocese handled the scandal was typical of "entrenched bureaucracies."

"When they (institutions) find out about child abuse, they deny it happened and don't reach out to the victims," Pasternack said. "They lie and deny. That's unique to human beings -- it's not unique to the archdiocese. And we're hoping people will learn not to do that stuff."

Marlene Debrey-Nowak, the mother of two sons who she said were molested in 1974 by an Albuquerque parish priest in her home, said her family has since left the Catholic Church and has been unable to get its counseling bills paid.

Michael Sheehan, the current archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, declined interviews Wednesday but said he would meet with reporters today.

The archdiocese released a statement saying it has spent more than $1 million in counseling expenses for victims of sexual abuse by priests. About 140 sexual-abuse lawsuits have been filed against the archdiocese, and most are now settled.

In his deposition, Sanchez said child sex-abuse cases in the archdiocese were kept quiet not only to prevent scandal, but also, he said, because he did not recognize pedophilia as a crime.

"I have a hard time believing he didn't know it was a crime to molest children," Debrey-Nowak said.

She said she went to Sanchez and received little help, although she said the priest involved was sent to counseling.

In the deposition, Sanchez says he has no recollection of Debrey-Nowak's visit.

Nelson, the former altar boy, said he finds it "outrageous" that Sanchez didn't realize that molesting children was a crime.

"I don't buy that at all," Nelson said.

"How could he not know it was a crime? And why did he think a little bit of confession and forgiveness would be all that it would take to deal with this problem? That's absolutely absurd," Nelson said.

Armijo said Sanchez's statement that he didn't know child sex abuse was a crime was "very self-serving."

"I think he's still fooling himself," Armijo said. "Maybe he didn't know, but maybe that's only because he didn't want to think about it too much."

In the court document, Sanchez admits to having physical or sexual contact with 11 women during his 18 years as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

He also details what he says he knew about allegations of priests molesting children. He said he took action in some cases to remove priests from parishes.

But other times, he said, he did not investigate the complaints, contact potential victims or alert parishes where known pedophile priests had served.

"My question is, What was he doing instead of reading the reports, asking questions, talking to people or just trying to find out what was going on in the parishes?" Nelson said. "What was he doing instead? Was he just chasing women?"

Nelson said he found it hard to believe that Sanchez said he did not learn until the early 1990s that pedophilia was incurable.

Nelson said that in the 1960s, the founder of Servants of the Paraclete, a treatment center for priests in Jemez Springs, considered buying an island where pedophile priests who couldn't be cured could live out their lives.

A 1993 Tribune article about the island proposal said it was unknown whether Sanchez, who became archbishop in 1974, knew about the idea.

As for Sanchez's statement that he was unaware of "any extensive and continued damage that a child might suffer" at the hands of a pedophile priest, Armijo said: "I really truly believe that the church, in its infinite wisdom, believed that this was just a moral failure that could be corrected with moral fiber -- that if you buck up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can cure yourself and go on. I'm a little appalled that there were instances of reports several times before anything was done."

Armijo said he also was appalled that Sanchez didn't check the personnel file of former priest Jason Sigler. Sigler's file contained allegations of sexual improprieties with boys at a parish in Michigan.

"That's a poor administrator, if that's true," Armijo said, "especially when you're in the business he was in. You're shepherding the flock, your people."

Several civil lawsuits against the archdiocese alleging abuse by Sigler were settled out of court in 1994.

Armijo said he was a victims' representative on a 10-member review panel established by Sheehan in mid-1993 to review allegations of clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Armijo said Sheehan told the group in December 1995 that "our big job was pretty much over, and we would only be called if there was any ongoing abuse. He said if there was something new that came out, we'd be called immediately."

The panel made recommendations to the archbishop about what to do with alleged or admitted sex offenders, Armijo said.

The panel reviewed the cases of 200 people who alleged clergy sex abuse in New Mexico dating to the mid-1950s, Armijo said.

Many of those cases involved lawsuits, which Armijo said were settled out of court for a sum of up to eight-figures, Armijo said.

Those lawsuits included cases filed by Pasternack. Pasternack said Wednesday that he could divulge settlements in only two of his 62 cases, and that those two settlements were for about $600,000 each.

The two victims' mothers interviewed Wednesday and a victims advocate said it's good the public has learned more about Sanchez's knowledge of sexual abuse within the church and about his acknowledgement of his own sexual affairs with women.

Debrey-Nowak said the release of the deposition was important because it gives victims some credibility.

"Victims can now say, 'We told you it was bad,'" she said.

The mother of the boy who reported abuse to Sanchez in 1992 said she wasn't expecting the church to "fix" all the problems.

"All we were waiting for was for them to acknowledge that it was evil, that he had done it and to remove him from proximity to youngsters and from serving Mass," she said. "We wanted to work with the issues of right and wrong."

She said a criminal suit was never filed because the incident had occurred when the boy was traveling with the priest through Europe.

The deposition came as a relief to victims-rights supporter Susie Sanchez, no relation to the former archbishop.

"I am glad the archdiocese made the deposition public. By admitting things, the healing begins," said Susie Sanchez, a member of a local citizens' group called Victims Of Clergy Abuse Linked. "Part of our faith is truth. If we don't face the truth, are we living our faith?

"This is a turning point for the victims. Now they know more about what he knew and what the church knew," said Susie Sanchez, a lifelong Catholic and a parishioner at St. Jude's parish.

Armijo says that increased awareness about clergy sex abuse will make it more difficult for potential offenders to molest.

"If nothing else, they'll be looking over their shoulder more," Armijo said. "I hope they feel uneasy for the rest of their lives if they need to be. Even if they still go on being perpetrators, chances are excellent they'll be caught or someone's going to speak out. When you take the cover off of something like this, it can't help but be better in our society."

But Armijo said he "knows too much about humanity" to believe that clergy sex abuse will ever be eradicated.

"Things like this have been going on for God knows how long and are usually covered up. Unfortunately, this is one of the darker sides of the human condition," Armijo said.

In the deposition, Sanchez said he was receiving psychiatric counseling. He remains in seclusion at an unknown location.

Archbishop Michael Sheehans remarks today.

On church credibility: Guilty priests were removed from office and forbidden from functioning again. Victims were given counseling in a very generous way and the cost amounted to over $1,000,000.

I also sought to provide spiritual assistance to them and their families. I have spoken personally to over 100 victims, apologizing to them for the harm done to them by the guilty priests.

We have sought to settle claims against the Archdiocese, and in fact have completed over 150 settlements. It has been a most painful and trying experience for me personally.

On the future: Some have asked, what are we doing to keep these things from happening again? Well, I can say, plenty. A sexual abuse policy has been carefully prepared and adopted, giving the procedures for responding to any future accusations.

(I should add that all the accusations involve matters going back many years, except for one in 1992, the year before I came.) Sexual Abuse Prevention Workshops were begun immediately to inform all employees, priests, religious and lay, of matters relating to sexual abuse and harassment. These workshops are required of all employees and will continue to be required in the years to come.

A Permanent Review Board is in place to deal with any issues, accusations and this is a part of our sexual abuse policy.

Any priest who comes here from the outside to assist us is carefully checked out with his bishop or religious superior to be sure that he has not had any problems that would make him a threat to a minor or anyone else. Any perspective seminarian is given a battery of tests to make sure he is psychologically healthy and free of these kinds of problems. Background checks, physicals, even an AIDS test, must be undergone.

I have spoken many times to our priests urging them to keep up their personal prayer life and to be holy men faithful to their vows. . . .

We have any perspective seminarians go to the psychologist for a series of psychological examinations and we talk to this pastor and his employer if he was employed before coming and we also check if he was in the military service that he had a positive military discharge and we have his grades checked with his academic performance, his job performance and any other things we can find out about him. In addition, our vocational director John Carney interviews him over a period of months and I myself talk to him so that I know personally that I'm happy with him.

On the health of the church: The church is like a big family. Every family has its problems which it deals with and tries to move on. Despite the difficulties our church is flourishing.

And despite these difficulties our churches are filled and our programs are well attended, the Sunday collections are up and the Archbishop's Annual Appeal has been very successful. And our number of seminarians has tripled in the last three years. It seems as though God is going to help us with His Grace and strength through this trying time.

On breaking celibacy vows: I think it is most uncommon and it is a sad reality that in this case this was true. But I think the vast majority of priests, and our deacons and sisters are committed to living good and decent holy lives.

I think when you read the deposition the archbishop (Sanchez) was referring not only to the challenge to priests to live decent lives but also the challenge to married people to live decent lives. He said that yes it is a great challenge to live as a faithful priest today but also to be faithful to one's marriage vows is a challenge in a promiscuous society like the one we have. I think it means that all of us, whether we're priests or whether we're married persons, Catholic or not, are challenged by the want to have some self-discipline and self-control in their lives. And we, as Catholics, believe it is not possible without God's help, and without a life of prayer and commitment to doing what is right. So that applies not only to priests but to married people as well.

In a promiscuous society like we live in certainly it is not easy and that is the reason we have priest retreats, spiritual retreats every year that last for about a week and days of recollections and gatherings for our priests to assist them to be faithful to their prayer life and to have some self-control and self-discipline.


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