Hard lessons, truths for Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
November 2, 2017
When the Diocese of Gallup’s Chapter 11 case was officially closed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court earlier this year, a related clergy sex abuse lawsuit filed in Flagstaff, Arizona, began to heat up. And when it started heating up, it revealed some hard lessons and ugly truths.
Although the case — Jane L.S. Doe v. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and St. Michael Indian School — was filed in 2015, it was halted by bankruptcy proceedings. Once those proceedings were over, the lawsuit began to move forward. But the only reason the case could move forward was because the Sisters and their local school, St. Michael Indian School, made the decision to not participate in the Gallup Diocese’s plan of reorganization and not contribute any money to the settlement fund for clergy sex abuse claimants.
That was a foolish decision.
We don’t know if the Sisters received good legal advice and recklessly ignored it, or if they received bad legal advice and followed it. Had the Sisters and their school chosen to contribute funds to the diocese’s plan of reorganization, they would have become legally protected from further clergy sex abuse lawsuits and claims stemming from past abuse. As a result of their decision, the Sisters have been paying attorneys to defend them in the Doe case. In addition, they may face future lawsuits if any other former St. Michael’s students come forward and file abuse claims.
Like all clergy sex abuse lawsuits, the Doe case is wrapped up in some hard lessons and ugly truths.
The Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist in Cincinnati, Ohio, accepted credibly accused pedophile Brother Mark Schornack into their religious order while he was a patient at Via Coeli, the notorious treatment center in Jemez Springs. This astounding fact only came to light after Coconino County Courthouse staff mistakenly allowed pages from Schornack’s confidential Franciscan personnel file to be placed in the public court file. Although those pages were supposed to be filed under seal, we are grateful for the error. However, it makes us wonder: How many of the one dozen credibly accused Franciscan friars who worked in the Diocese of Gallup and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe were patients accepted out of Via Coeli?
Catholic dioceses and religious orders continue to keep a tight lid on the secrets maintained in the personnel files of their pedophile clergy. Unless a judge eventually orders Schornack’s entire personnel file released, the public will never fully know the extent of his criminal actions. During its bankruptcy case, the Diocese of Gallup vigorously fought clergy sex abuse claimants who wanted the diocese to publicly release the files of all its credibly accused abusers. Bishop James S. Wall and his attorneys threatened to withdraw the settlement fund for abuse claimants if they persisted in their fight for the records.
Attorneys for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament chose to personally attack plaintiff Doe through hardball tactics. The plaintiff in this case, is a Navajo woman whose abuse claim was deemed credible in the diocese’s bankruptcy case. Her parents, who were Catholic, enrolled her at St. Michael Indian School when she was a young child, presumably to provide her with a high quality Catholic education. The Sisters’ Phoenix attorneys, Peter C. Kelly II and Jesse M. Showalter, had every right to legally defend the Sisters under the statutes of the law. However, they chose the low road and attempted to bully and intimidate the plaintiff by publishing her name, along with personal and confidential information, in the public court file.
We are sympathetic to the legal predicament of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and St. Michael Indian School. Certainly no evidence has ever suggested the Sisters knew Schornack was a child molester when they allowed him to drive their school bus. Ever since St. Michael Indian School was founded by St. Katharine Drexel in 1902, the Sisters and the school have made countless positive contributions to the local community, particularly in the lives of their graduates. The Sisters’ mission is to serve African American and Native American communities across the country, and they have done that well.
Nevertheless, through their decisions regarding the Doe lawsuit, the Sisters have blemished their own reputation. They foolishly turned down the opportunity to legally protect St. Michael Indian School by failing to participate in the Gallup Diocese’s Chapter 11 reorganization, and they allowed their attorneys to attack the confidentiality and privacy of a clergy sex abuse victim who is one of their former students.
Not only do the Sisters owe the plaintiff an apology for their attorneys’ hardball tactics, they owe current St. Michael’s students and their parents an apology for their poor decisions.
In this space only does the opinion of the Gallup Independent Editorial Board appear.