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Send priest sex abuse cases to a grand jury

As an attorney for victims of clerical sexual abuse, and as someone who was raised as a Catholic here in New Mexico, it is encouraging to see the renewed interest in the past, present and future of the clergy sexual abuse crisis generated by the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. However, those calling for anything more than words from the Catholic hierarchy are misdirecting their efforts. Their energy would be better spent contacting their attorney general and calling for the replication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s efforts in their own states.

I work at the Law Offices of Brad D. Hall LLC, and we have represented over 100 survivors of clerical sexual abuse over the past seven years. For each victim who comes forward, it is a fresh, brand new case, where we combine present-tense litigation and present-tense therapeutic goals, even if the childhood abuse was often 30 or more years ago, but was “successfully” suppressed that long. A fair number of survivors have gone to Attorney General Hector Balderas, and have pleaded with him to investigate and prosecute the still-living priests that sexually abused them as children, many of whom remain at large. Despite the good-faith investigative efforts of Balderas’ office, prosecution of those priests appears barred under our state’s criminal statutes of limitation. But even if Balderas is barred from prosecuting the perpetrators themselves, he can impanel a grand jury and shine a harsh spotlight on their crimes and the institutional cover-up that went on for decades and decades, spreading tentacles even into state and local government. He can give the people of New Mexico 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. He 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. Deep-rooted reform won’t come from the Church or from litigation; it must come from an outside agency that can obtain and release documents that describe the criminal cover-up of pedophile priests. This can be done without using any of the hundreds of redacted victims’ names in those documents.

The breach of trust between the Catholic laity and the Catholic hierarchy is the result of an institutional policy of deception: the cover-up of unimaginable sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests against children. In his recent letter to the people of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Archbishop John Wester referred to an historical “lack of transparency” from Catholic leaders, which is a serious understatement that nonetheless hints at a solution. What the laity has seen from its leaders prior to John Wester is unprecedented deception. What the laity should demand from its leaders, moving forward, is unprecedented transparency – either in cooperation with a grand jury, if it is willing, or in compliance with its subpoenas, if it is not.

The truth will be extremely ugly, but we must trust our civic institutions to present it fairly, and trust ourselves to stomach it and force “reformation-level” changes, if necessary. All the attorneys and staff in our office, on behalf of so many survivors of clergy abuse, known and unknown, hereby call on Balderas to follow the lead of his counterparts in Pennsylvania and possibly Missouri or Illinois, and impanel a grand jury to fully investigate this dark chapter of our state’s history that is still producing fresh victim-survivors every month. Of the over 350 lawsuits in the past 25 years, 30 percent or more are recent claims from those who had blocked it away, until they couldn’t, and they need help. Those who do not learn and study history are doomed to repeat institutional failure. Let us learn about the roots of this crisis at this opportune time, so that it might never be repeated. Let us make all documents public, through a thorough grand jury study.

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