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New legal troubles for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe

Former priest John Feit, center, appeared in a Hidalgo County, Texas, courtroom on Dec. 7, 2017, where a jury found him guilty of the 1960 murder of Irene Garza, a parishioner and schoolteacher. A new lawsuit filed in Albuquerque says Feit became a leader at the Servants of the Paraclete treatment center in Jemez Springs after the crime. (Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/AP)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Seven years after he murdered a female parishioner in Texas in 1960, Father John Feit found refuge in Jemez Springs, where he was a supervisor at the Servants of the Paraclete center for Catholic priests with psychosexual problems.

According to a new lawsuit, Feit documented an agreement with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1967 to supply pedophile priests to New Mexico parishes without telling parishioners or other working priests in the archdiocese about the potential danger to local children.

The ramifications of that alleged secret pact – and decades of child sexual abuse inflicted by Catholic priests in New Mexico – are unraveling in the newest chapter of public reckoning for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

The archdiocese, New Mexico’s largest Catholic district, encompassing 92 parishes, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last week, opening the books into its finances. Liabilities, including payouts to current and future abuse claimants, were an estimated $10 million to $50 million.

From left, Arthur Perrault, Robert Malloy, Ronald Bruckner and Sabine Griego.

Days earlier, state attorney general agents executed a search warrant that required an 80-year-old ex-priest who lives in the Las Vegas, N.M., area to strip naked and be photographed as part of the AG’s Office’s effort to corroborate one victim’s account of her abuse three decades ago.

With more than a dozen state attorneys general and federal law enforcement launching investigations into clergy sex abuse this year, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office has ramped up its own inquiry, including targeting at least two former Catholic priests. AG’s Office agents, in part, are looking into what a former archbishop described in 2004 as an “abhorrent” case of a 9-year-old girl who alleged she was violently raped by an Albuquerque priest on multiple occasions.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese told the Journal last week that the archdiocese doesn’t comment on pending litigation and is cooperating fully with the attorney general’s inquiry.

‘Sex parties’

In the new civil lawsuit, which was filed just before the bankruptcy was announced, a former Albuquerque altar boy is alleged to have been a “boy toy” of a trio of priests who filmed “sex parties” with children in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The lawsuit filed by “John Doe 94” contends that he was repeatedly sexually abused from the age of 10 to 16 by three priests who acted with “complete impunity and immunity … completely fearless of the law, even going through the KAFB (Kirtland Air Force Base) gates with the children in their cars.”

The priests “partied” with booze and drugs, and “their ‘boy toys’ (like altar boys) had the children, both boys and girls provide sexual performances (some of which were even filmed),” the lawsuit alleges.

Their conduct went unchecked by then-Archbishop of Santa Fe Robert F. Sanchez, because he was already compromised, the lawsuit alleges.

Sanchez could do “nothing to stop” the rape and abuse of kids, in part because pedophile priests in the archdiocese “all possessed compromising information on the Archbishop’s own sexual proclivities and misconduct, which they threatened to use against him, if necessary.”

Sanchez resigned as archbishop in 1993, after three women accused him of sexual misconduct and taking advantage of them as teenagers.

One of those accused in the new lawsuit, Father Arthur Perrault, is facing federal sexual assault charges involving a different alleged victim in the early 1990s on federal property. Two others referred to in the lawsuit are Father Robert Malloy and Father Ronald Bruckner, who were both schoolteachers and administrators at Our Lady of Assumption School in Albuquerque, the lawsuit states.

Malloy, reached by the Journal last week, denied any wrongdoing, adding, “Unequivocably, that absolutely didn’t happen.”

Bruckner couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

The “John Doe 94” lawsuit uses the term “pedophile,” which is defined as the fantasy or act of sexual activity with children who are generally age 13 years or younger. Other claims over the years against the archdiocese have alleged clergy sexual abuse of minors over the age of 13.

‘House of cards’

This is the main building of the Servants of the Paraclete property in Jemez Springs that used to treat priests accused of child sexual abuse. (Rose Palmisano/Albuquerque Journal)

The John Doe 94 lawsuit provides new allegations about Feit, who was convicted last year in Edinburg, Texas, of the 1960 suffocation of 25-year-old Irene Garza, a schoolteacher and former Miss South Texas. Feit, now 86, is no longer a priest and is appealing his sentence of life in prison.

While a suspect in the murder, Feit arrived at the Servants of the Paraclete in 1964 and had become one of its leaders by 1967.

According to the lawsuit, Feit took minutes of a 1967 meeting involving the archdiocese and the Paracletes in which the two entities agreed not to tell parishioners of the potential danger to local children when they supplied pedophile priests to New Mexico parishes.

He and then-Archbishop of Santa Fe John Davis jointly placed Perrault as a teacher at St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque. Perrault, who has been accused in dozens of sexual assaults on children, later became a pastor at St. Bernadette’s parish in the Northeast Heights. But Perrault abruptly left the parish in 1992 as allegations about his misconduct surfaced. He relocated to Morocco, where he taught school.

John Doe 94 came forward after “his psychological ‘house of cards’ collapsed upon news of the FBI’s arrest and extradition of Fr. Perrault” in late September, the lawsuit states.

To survive the trauma of abuse by Perrault, Malloy and Bruckner, the lawsuit alleges, John Doe 94 “suppressed everything as a child with drug abuse, minimization, compartmentalization, and other forms of denial and told no one about the organized, systematic sexual abuse and exploitation by these priests until 2018.”

The harm and suffering of many victims, including John Doe 94, “could have been at least partially alleviated or ameliorated by earlier professional intervention, which the Defendants’ policies of secrecy and non-disclosure of documents and information to the public prevented from the early 1990s until very recent small steps toward accountability,” states the lawsuit – which is seeking “tens of millions of dollars” in damages.

Protect the church

The lawsuit alleges that the Catholic church in New Mexico found that “denying everything” usually worked. Decades of cover-up was justified in part by the practice of “mental reservations,” which the lawsuit states is allowed by Catholic doctrine in order to protect the church “on the theory that the Church generally does good in the world, and needs to be protected from scandal.”

Archbishop John C. Wester, assigned to New Mexico in 2015, has pledged to help abuse survivors and stressed that he views the bankruptcy action as the best way to ensure equitable financial compensation to current and future claimants.

“It’s kind of turning the page and moving forward in a responsible way,” Wester said.

The bankruptcy petition effectively halts 36 pending clergy abuse lawsuits from proceeding in state court, but how the claims will be handled in bankruptcy court is uncertain for now. Some fear the bankruptcy is a vehicle to protect release of records that could prove damaging to the archdiocese. Others say the filing eliminates some of the defenses asserted by lawyers for the church who have resisted payouts in mediations of abuse claims.

“We expect this diocese has plenty of assets to finally help all these survivors obtain some kind of closure and transparency,” said Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall, who has filed more than 100 cases against the archdiocese since 2011. “We’re looking forward to getting to the real value of our clients’ claims in this forum because the threat of bankruptcy no longer exists.”

In the John Doe 94 lawsuit, filed by Hall, Bruckner is alleged to have sexually assaulted the altar boy for a few years. Then Bruckner’s roommate and assistant pastor of Our Lady of Assumption church in Albuquerque, Malloy, also began abusing him, the lawsuit alleges.

Malloy pleaded no contest in 2002 to misdemeanor charges of sexual exploitation of children by prostitution and contributing to child delinquency, but originally faced 42 felony counts. He received five years of probation.

Bruckner, who has retired, in 2005 denied allegations of sexual misconduct in an earlier case but had his duties as a priest restricted.

All three priests named in the John Doe 94 lawsuit are on the archdiocese’s list of 78 priests, deacons or seminarians against whom credible allegations have been made.

The lawsuit alleges that Malloy, a former volunteer chaplain at the Albuquerque Police Department, and other abusive priests had “unchecked powers over Catholic children and teens.”

For example, Malloy is alleged to have been able to put notes on the inside of (John Doe 94’s) school locker “demanding sexual acts, even though Plaintiff never gave his combination out to anyone,” according to the lawsuit.

The years of childhood sexual abuse occurred on church properties and in rectories and sometimes involved trips to Kirtland Air Force Base, where Perrault was a chaplain, the lawsuit states. Bruckner was a chaplain with the New Mexico National Guard.

Finally at age 16, devastated by psychological harm, his soul “veritably shredded” and his religion destroyed, John Doe 94 ran away while attending St. Pius X Catholic High School, “where he was essentially a prisoner of constant sexual exploitation by the three priests.” He lived homeless as a runaway in the East Mountains for a period of time, the lawsuit states.

In the intervening years, the “evasion of transparency” and the “institutional” secrecy by the church, which insisted on sealing lawsuits alleging clergy abuse, only exacerbated John Doe’s damages, the lawsuit states. He has not yet realized the nature of his injury, “even with the early help of professionals.”

Whether they had direct knowledge of any specific priest, officials in the archdiocese knew “there were pedophiles in their midst,”the lawsuit contends.

Wester said recently that the archdiocese strives for transparency, but has been bound by court-imposed confidentiality agreements of lawsuits and the need to protect the privacy of victims.

‘Abhorrent’

Some 14 years ago, then-Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who replaced Archbishop Sanchez, signed a confidential letter that provided “direct evidence” of the criminal sexual penetration of a child by ex-priest Sabine Griego, according to a search warrant affidavit filed by the AG’s Office.

Sheehan, in a September 2004 letter, stated, “Particularly abhorrent is the case of female victim … who was nine in 1990 at the time of the alleged abuse,” which included vaginal, oral and anal sex by Griego, according to search warrant documents.

The Attorney General’s office interviewed the alleged victim, identified only as Jane Doe A, in October of this year. It was the first time she had spoken to law enforcement about what occurred. She said the abuse began when she was 7 years old, attending Queen of Heaven Catholic School in Albuquerque. She was also an altar server at church, where she encountered Griego.

The woman alleged that, beginning when she was 7, Griego would force her to perform oral sex, then smack her when she choked. During one rape, when she was 9 years old, he slammed her face into a table, breaking her nose, but continued his assault despite her profusely bleeding.

The injury required her nose to be reset at the then-Lovelace Hospital. She told her mother she was injured during physical education class.

According to the search warrant affidavit, the woman said that Griego had told her he would kill her if she told anyone, and threatened to cut out her tongue and harm her mother.

Her fear of him led to her wetting her pants when she would see him approach her classroom in school.

She then intentionally wet herself to try to keep him away. The practice became so regular that it prompted her mother to pack a change of clothing for her daughter to take to school. Jane Doe A said she never saw Griego again after she entered the fourth grade.

At the age of 13, after having nightmares and engaging in “self harm,”Jane Doe A told her family about the abuse for the first time, but blamed herself for what happened.

She gave AG’s Office agents specifics about Griego’s “nude body markings,” which were cited in the affidavit as the legal grounds for the strip search.

Griego has been the subject of more than 30 civil lawsuits filed on behalf of survivors.

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