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New Mexico AG asked to impanel grand jury on priest abuse

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A local law firm that has represented more than 100 survivors of clerical sexual abuse is requesting that Attorney General Hector Balderas follow the lead of the AG’s Office in Pennsylvania and impanel a grand jury to investigate “the institutional cover-up” of child sexual abuse by clergy in New Mexico.

In a letter to the Journal, attorney Levi A. Monagle of the Law Offices of Brad D. Hall, LLC, said Balderas can “seek to answer the unanswered questions that continue to linger in the minds of this state’s many Catholic citizens, and allow the grand jury to point the way toward key reform.”

In an interview, Monagle told the Journal there is no precise way to know how many clergy-involved sexual abuse incidents may have occurred in New Mexico over the years, “but there have been close to 350 claims brought to the attention of the archdiocese beginning in the early 1990s,” he said. “For every one case reported, there are many, many victims who haven’t come forward and remain silent, and many others who have committed suicide along the way.”

Earlier this month, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report saying that more than 300 “predator priests” from six Catholic dioceses in that state were credibly linked to the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 child victims dating back to 1947.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report also said that for decades, Roman Catholic bishops there sent clergymen accused of sexual abuse to the Servants of the Paraclete, a treatment center in Jemez Springs, N.M., using it as a “laundry” to recycle priests so they could return to their home parishes.

David Carl, spokesman for New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, said Balderas “has not ruled out any avenues toward seeking justice for victims,” including a grand jury.

He noted that the Office of the Attorney General has been investigating priest cases since March 2016. “And while we are encountering statute of limitations problems, as in Pennsylvania, we are encouraging families to come forward and partner with our office.”

Carl said that Balderas was “very troubled” by additional evidence in the (Pennsylvania) investigative grand jury report, “which reveals that the diocese participated in a broader conspiracy to hide priests or cover up sexual abuse, resulting in victimization of New Mexicans.”

Because of that, he added, the OAG “is working closely with the Pennsylvania attorney general to identify gaps in legal protections and will increase efforts to prioritize strengthening laws and reporting requirements aimed at preventing these large-scale tragedies moving forward.”

The Journal attempted to reach Archbishop John Wester to ask if he would support a grand jury investigation. However, Celine Radigan, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, said Wester was out of town and she was unable to reach him.

In an email response Thursday, Radigan said the Archdiocese of Santa Fe continues to be committed to transparency.

“We have published a list that contains the names of priests, deacons, religious and seminarians credibly accused of sexual abuse of children in the archdiocese, along with the respective name of the (arch)diocese or religious order and the parish, school and ministry assignments. The list is updated as needed and may be located on the archdiocesan website, www.archdiosf.org/victims-assistance.”

Wester on previous occasions has expressed his “sadness and shame over the betrayal of trust by members of the clergy who were supposed to love and protect our children and young people, and for the pain and suffering endured by victims of this abuse.”

The Pennsylvania grand jury described the church’s methods there as “a playbook for concealing the truth” after FBI agents identified a series of practices they found in diocese files.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,” and did so for decades, according to the grand jury report. “Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected,” and some of them were later promoted.

“Certainly, the Vatican has been aware of this issue for decades and decades,” Monagle said. “Whether specific allegations of child sexual abuse in New Mexico made their way to the Vatican as they were occurring here is unknown at this juncture,” but the Vatican plays a role in the laicization, or defrocking, of priests, and there were priests in New Mexico who were removed from the clergy as a result of child abuse allegations.

Because the procedure for defrocking priests goes through the Vatican’s administration, Monagle said, it stands to reason that the Vatican “must have been aware of credible abuse allegations when they were defrocking some of those priests.”

Dozens of lawsuits naming priests in New Mexico were filed in the early 1990s, and dozens more have since been filed alleging that the archdiocese played a role in covering up the behavior of pedophile priests.

The Santa Fe Archdiocese last year published a list of 74 clergy members who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children in New Mexico.

Last October, District Judge Alan Malott approved a local media request to unseal court records related to former priests Sabine Griego, Jason Sigler and Arthur Perrault, who has fled the country. Under a court order in connection with a civil lawsuit, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe released documents showing that by 2017 the archdiocese had reached settlement agreements with 32 New Mexicans who alleged that Griego sexually abused them as children.

Monagle contends archbishops in New Mexico were working in close concert with the Servants of the Paraclete from the time of the Servants of the Paraclete’s inception as an order in the 1940s until the treatment center’s closure in the 1990s.

“That’s the crux of the matter: How much did the bishops in New Mexico know? And when did they know it?” – questions that could be answered with a grand jury investigation, Monagle said.

By impaneling a grand jury, the attorney general has subpoena power and can require witnesses to testify under oath.

As in Pennsylvania, statutes of limitation in New Mexico make criminal prosecutions unlikely, although there is “some chance for victims to pursue remedies through the civil courts,” Monagle said.

Despite the expense that may be incurred by such an investigation, and even if criminal prosecutions are precluded, “The cost is certainly worth it,” Monagle said. “We’re talking about a multidecade conspiracy by one of the largest and most important institutions in our state; we’re talking about a fundamental breach of trust between the church and its followers. This is not the time to be sparing expenses.”

Further, he said, a grand jury can compel transparency and make priests and the archdiocese accountable.

In his letter, Managle said Balderas could give New Mexicans a chance to know the truth about the “crucial role that New Mexico played as an epicenter of the clergy abuse crisis in the United States, and how it housed maybe more predatory priests per capita than any other state in the country.”

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