Sheehan Says N.M. Experience Proved Church Can Recover

By Frank Zoretich
Albuquerque Tribune (New Mexico)
April 27, 2002

Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan offers this word of advice to the rest of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States: "Hope."

As other archdioceses attempt to cope with revelations of sexual misconduct by priests who have preyed on children, Sheehan said, the experience of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in recovering from such a crisis shows "there is light at the end of the tunnel and it doesn't have to be a freight train.

"We had the experience of being totally shattered, but now our experience is one of coming back," he added. "There is life after terrible scandal and shame. I believe the church in this country will be stronger because of this challenge."

He offered the analogy of a tree that has been pruned, but because of being pruned it brings forth even more blossoms and fruit in the springtime.

"It's too bad the church in the Northeast did not learn from the experience we had," he said.

When he arrived in New Mexico nine years ago, Sheehan recalled, "the previous archbishop had to resign, we were faced with several hundred cases of sexual abuse, and the archdiocese faced bankruptcy."

Among steps he took: "I removed guilty priests from the ministry and did not put them back, I tried to apologize to each and every victim and I established a permanent review board, mostly of laypeople, that is still functioning."

Sheehan also requires priests and all other church employees to take sex-abuse workshops.

Men who would become priests must undergo criminal background checks, psychological testing and testing for AIDS.

"We want to make sure our priests are leading godly lives and not hurting others," Sheehan said.

"My policy has been zero tolerance," he added. "You don't get a second chance. If a priest abuses a child, he will never be back in that parish again. He can be forgiven by his God, but he will never return to his parish. He will never be allowed to serve as a priest anyplace."

Echoing the words of Pope John Paul II, who called U.S. Catholic cardinals to Rome for a conference on the current crisis earlier this week, Sheehan said a man's "betrayal of trust in his office as a priest is a crime and a sin."

Sheehan said the cardinals who were called to Rome might have had "unrealistic expectations" that the Pope would give them specific guidance on the matter.

But the U.S. Conference of Bishops is to meet in in Dallas in June, he added.

"That's where all the bishops will have a say, and where the main policy will be adopted and followed," Sheehan said.

Since the national priestly sexual-abuse scandal erupted, Sheehan said, he has has "received a few phone calls because of all the activities." But they were from people with allegations against a priest who has died since he was first enmeshed in scandal in 1993.

Another priest, in Taos Sheehan called him "an older, retired man," but refused to name him has been told "he has been dismissed and can no longer help out" at Mass because of what Sheehan called "third-party allegations."

No one claiming to have been abused by that priest has contacted the archdiocese.

"We see smoke, but not fire," Sheehan said.

Another priest, John Candido Rodriguez, who resigned as pastor of the Queen of Heaven parish in Albuquerque in 1995 and successfully went through treatment for alcoholism after allegations of sexual-abuse were made against him, has since been allowed under a form of partial restriction to assist at Mass elsewhere, as long as he had no contact with children.

But "in the past few weeks," Sheehan said, Rodriguez has been told that he will be completely restricted and is now "not allowed to do any priestly duties."

Sheehan said that since becoming archbishop, he has ordained 23 new priests and there are now 20 more candidates for priesthood in the seminary.

The archdiocese, he added, has gained 20,000 new families since 1993. Three weeks ago, during Easter, baptism of converts in the archdiocese brought 2,000 new people into the church.



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