Archdiocese of Santa Fe on Mend after Lawsuits

By Isabel Sanchez
Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
January 13, 2002

Church now out of debt from defending, settling sex-abuse allegations against priests

It's been more than a decade since Susan Sandoval filed her lawsuit accusing a priest of sexual misconduct, triggering a landslide of accusations against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

And it's been nearly 10 years since then-Archbishop Robert Sanchez resigned under fire for his own alleged sexual improprieties and for ignoring a problem with other priests that was far from isolated.

While not everyone involved in those tormented cases would agree that time has healed the wounds, there are signs of recovery.

And the church has confronted a problem that was once cloaked in secrecy.

Church officials say that potential priests are now screened and that seminaries offer programs in sexual and celibacy issues.

A priest whose "trouble was boys" would be handled differently today, said the Rev. Peter Lechner of St. Louis, who heads the Servants of the Paraclete, an order that works with troubled priests.

Last month, the Vatican issued a letter from the pope setting new policies on dealing with pedophile priests. The accusations are to be reported immediately to Rome; proceedings will be in secret; and a 10-year statute of limitations will be imposed, starting when the victim turns 18.

The Vatican urged local church officials to act swiftly where there is "at least probable knowledge of a grave crime."

Closer to home, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced in December that it was out of debt after being on the verge of bankruptcy due to dozens of lawsuits claiming improper sexual behavior by priests.

"We got through all the lawsuits with God's help and the generosity of many people," Archbishop Michael Sheehan wrote in "People of God," the monthly newspaper published by the archdiocese.

While critics disagree, church officials have said they addressed concerns in the lawsuits to protect all parishioners even the most vulnerable.

It's not known how much the archdiocese or its insurance carriers paid to settle the lawsuits. But the financial strain was severe.

"When I came as your new archbishop in 1993," Sheehan wrote in the December newspaper, "there were terrible scandals and the archdiocese was on the verge of bankruptcy."

The archdiocese has prospered in other ways, too.

Sheehan, who did not return calls seeking an interview for this story, said in the same newspaper that the number of registered Catholic families in the archdiocese had grown from 70,000 in 1994 to just under 87,000.

"God is truly blessing our church," Sheehan said in his message.

'From one spark'

At first, disbelief.

Priests accused of preying sexually on children; the church accused of knowing about the problem and ignoring it.

Sandoval's lawsuit in the summer of 1991 against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe was the first glimpse New Mexicans had into the shocking allegations.

"We wanted to shine a light on this dreadful, dreadful cancer, this disease in the Catholic Church," Sandoval said in a recent interview. "From one spark, there was a firestorm. That's my only satisfaction in this, I guess."

In addition to Sheehan's letter, there was another event last month that recalled memories of those troubled times.

Bruce Pasternack, whom Sandoval hired more than a decade ago and who eventually filed almost 40 lawsuits against the church and individual priests, died at age 51.

"It was difficult to let go of Bruce," Sandoval said after Pasternack's unexpected death on Dec. 18. "He was always the knight in shining armor for us. ... As long as he was around, everything was OK."

Ultimately, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe settled with about 150 plaintiffs.

By August 1993, 17 priests in New Mexico not including Archbishop Sanchez had been accused of sexual impropriety, ranging from child rape to fathering a child.

"That's low," Santa Fe attorney Stephen Tinkler said of the number of priests suspected of abuse.

Tinkler's firm handled about 100 sex abuse claims against the archdiocese and various orders.

Of the 17 named priests, six were convicted of sex crimes; two were arrested but not convicted. Eight had been sent at least once to the Servants of the Paraclete, a congregation that operates a retreat for priests in Jemez Springs.

The congregation answers directly to Rome, independent of any local diocese.

Bishops all over the United States sent troubled priests to the haven in New Mexico, including some pedophiles who were reassigned to New Mexico parishes.

Pasternack called the retreat a "pipeline for perverts."

One of the most infamous was James Porter, who stayed with the Paracletes twice. After he left the priesthood and married, he was convicted of molesting his children's babysitter in Minnesota.

Ultimately, Porter was charged with molesting more than 100 children in Minnesota, Massachusetts and New Mexico.

"His trouble was boys," the bishop in Fall River, Mass., said in a 1968 letter to then-Archbishop James Davis of Santa Fe.

Porter pleaded guilty to 41 counts of child molestation in Massachusetts and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.

The Servants of the Paraclete center no longer treats pedophile priests, said Lechner, and the church has changed how it accepts men for the priesthood and how it treats those with problems.

If they want to continue to live as a priest, they must accept certain conditions. Such priests are told they may not return to ministries where they have access to children.

Many of the lawsuits alleged sexual abuse by priests in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Not many knew what to do with pedophiles" then, Lechner said.

It was thought that such a priest could be gradually reintroduced to the ministry after gaining emotional stability at the Paraclete retreat.

"The thinking was that maybe this man can be healed," Lechner said. "That's a very dangerous assumption."

Lechner said the founder of Servants of the Paraclete the word means one who comes to the aid of another, and also refers to the Holy Spirit was cautious about accepting pedophiles at Jemez Springs.

But, "We were very concerned about the harm that could be done by priests if they were pedophiles," so treatment was provided for them.

"Unfortunately, some of the priests who had been at Jemez Springs reverted to some of their old habits," Lechner said. "I, as much as anyone, regret that very much."

zIn 1989, the Servants of the Paraclete started using a therapeutic program that included both spiritual and psychological components, Lechner said.

None of the priests treated for pedophilia between 1989 and 1995 relapsed, he said.

He said the order decided in 1995 to give up the therapy "because the facility got to be associated with pedophilia."

A public cause

Susan Sandoval lost her case: A District Court judge ruled that she had waited too long to bring her claim.

Sandoval's alleged abuser was Robert Kirsch, a priest in the small town of Abiquiu who she said began having sex with her when she was 15.

Kirsch admitted in a deposition to having sex with Sandoval when she was 19. It wasn't a violation of his vows, he said; there had been "no passion, no kissing, no nothing."

He called it an allowable "reserved embrace."

Pasternack and Sandoval made their lawsuit a public cause. And Pasternack was pointed in his criticism of the church.

"The New Mexico tragedy had to be exposed in order to stop," he said.

"Most attorneys don't get that involved," said Sandoval. "It's time-consuming; it's painful. It takes someone with courage, honor and integrity who will get right in and do what has to be done."

Sandoval is not satisfied with the church's response, which she said was "not about what we do for kids. It was about stonewalling, it was about denial. That's what makes it painful to this day."

More lawsuits followed Sandoval's, and other attorneys took similar cases. Increasing news coverage revealed startling accusations against priests.

Pasternack came in for plenty of criticism. He was accused of manipulating the news media, of bashing Catholics, of attacking the church in order to enrich himself.

He was accused of using coercion and intimidation to pressure clients to sue.

His style left few in the middle. He was either admired or despised.

There is no question where Sandoval stands.

"I want to make sure that the community understands that Bruce deserves a courageous advocacy award," she said.

Speaking for the church

While Pasternack's name became associated with lawsuits against the church, the Rev. Ron Wolf became a leading spokesman for the archdiocese.

Wolf was appointed chancellor, the second in command, soon after the first lawsuits were filed.

Archbishop Sanchez abruptly left his post and moved out of state, leaving Wolf virtually in charge until Sheehan arrived.

As chancellor, Wolf instituted the archdiocese's first sexual-abuse hot line, established a counseling fund for victims and started a lay/clergy review board to examine claims of sexual abuse.

Wolf, who died in 1995 of complications from kidney and lung disease, was often criticized by parishioners and fellow priests for being harsh and unforgiving toward sexually abusive clergy.

"As the church's 'point man' in the abuse crisis, Wolf clashed publicly with plaintiffs' attorneys, victims' advocates and the archdiocese's insurance carriers who refused to pay for sex-abuse claims," according to his obituary.

But his efforts were recognized at his death.

Sandoval praised his work, and Pasternack said, "Father Wolf was a righteous man."

'It will never be over'

Marlene Debrey-Nowack doesn't believe that attitudes in the church have changed. She said her two sons were molested, at ages 9 1/2 and 11, for almost a year in the mid-1970s.

Like Sandoval, she went public. Like Sandoval, she has found little comfort from the church, and, like Sandoval, she is now an "inactive" Catholic although she has friends in the church, goes to Catholic Bible study and reads Catholic newspapers and books.

"I have not been able to find any healing within the church community at all," said Debrey-Nowack, of Placitas.

Many in the church believed the children were liars, she said, and that "they made up these stories ... that they made up the stories for money, that it never happened."

Arthur Perrault, the priest accused of molesting her sons, was sued by seven victims and disappeared when Albuquerque police were looking for him in connection with another molestation case in 1992.

The family's settlement, an amount she said she is not allowed to reveal, was "pathetic," Debrey-Nowack said.

One of her sons is making a new life, she said. The other is having more difficulty.

Tom Nowack, 38, said that, at times, he wondered if they should not have come forward people interviewed on TV news broadcasts were so angry, accusing the victims of lying for money. That hurt, he said.

He said he is living at home, isn't married and doesn't have a career.

"I don't feel like I've gotten over this," he said. "There are days when all I think about is suicide."

"It's not over for the people who've gone through this," Sandoval said. "It will never be over."

Stopping the abuse

The Rev. Lechner of the Servants of the Paraclete said the church didn't realize at the time how much abuse victims had suffered.

"It was not fully understood, the pain that the abused go through. There was kind of a conspiracy of silence about this."

Tinkler agrees with Pasternack's assertion that exposure was necessary to stop the abuse.

"The best thing that came out of all these lawsuits is that, as a result, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe did implement new procedures for screening priests, and eventually took appropriate action to try to keep pedophile priests out of this diocese," he said.

"We haven't heard of any new cases, so maybe it worked."


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