Priest admits being a whistleblower - Albuquerque Journal

Priest admits being a whistleblower

Father Vincent Paul Chávez

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A longtime New Mexico Catholic priest announced to parishioners on Sunday that, despite his “vow of loyalty” to the church, he has been a “whistleblower” who has privately assisted victims of clergy sex abuse and their attorneys “seek justice” for more than two decades.

Most recently, Father Vincent Paul Chávez said he has been assisting two agents from the state Attorney General’s Office in their investigation of clergy sex abuse and how the church has responded to it.

Chávez, pastor of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Parish and Catholic school in Albuquerque, said during his homily at Sunday Mass that it was time to “talk about the elephant in the room” after learning on Saturday that the planned construction of a new cafeteria for his St. Therese school would have to be postponed indefinitely because of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy action filed by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in late November.

Archdiocese officials, in citing the financial burden of priest sex abuse litigation, said in late November that parishes likely wouldn’t be affected by the bankruptcy reorganization.

Chávez told more than 100 people who attended the 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday morning, “I felt the Chapter 11 would not affect the day-to-day operation of our parishes and schools.”

But Chávez said he learned otherwise in an email Saturday from a top official of the archdiocese who told him that bankruptcy counsel advised putting the cafeteria project on hold.

Chávez said he sent back a reply that said, “This is MOST disgusting to me. Your decision sickens me. This project has been in the works for a long time. None of the monies have been borrowed or loaned from the Archdiocese.”

Construction was to begin in a few weeks, Chávez said, adding, “I cannot help but realize and admit my personal role in the Chapter 11 status of the Archdiocese.”

A spokeswoman from the archdiocese could not be immediately reached for comment on Sunday.

During his 27-minute homily Sunday, Chávez said his “active work” to help survivors and their attorneys “with knowledge, documents and strategies” began decades ago when a victim of priest sexual abuse sat in his office after attempting suicide.

Chávez said he arranged for the man to receive psychological therapy, and he encouraged the mother of the family to write a story of the abuse of her children by “a notorious monster of a priest” from Connecticut.

“He was the priest that would keep live piranha in fish tanks and further terrorize the kindergarten-age boys by threatening after a sexual molestation if they told anyone what just happened he was going to stick their fingers and hands into the fish tanks,” Chávez said.

“My experience of the archdiocese of Santa Fe at the time was that they considered the (victim’s) family ‘opportunists,'” he said.

“What set him off on the suicide was that the archdiocese had told the family that the priest was already dead,” Chávez told those at the Mass. The victim hired a private investigator and found out that the priest was still alive and living in Los Lunas under a different name.

“Certainly the archdiocese at the time would have known the status of a priest,” Chávez said, adding that “this was the first person I ever arranged to meet with a lawyer to pursue the justice issue with the archdiocese.” The lawyer was the partner of now-deceased attorney Bruce Pasternack, who brought a wave of litigation against the archdiocese in the early 1990s.

Chávez on Sunday voiced strong support for current Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester, whom he called a “brave shepherd.”

But Chávez said he realized the impact his public statements could have and asked for prayers from his parishioners.

“I expect to be in great trouble for this presentation/homily with the church after I read it at Masses this morning – even my job, position and livelihood are in jeopardy. My public admission of assisting and cooperating with attorneys for years in their civil lawsuits against priests of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the Institution of the archdiocese may be seen by the church as clearly against ‘the Vow of Loyalty to the Church’ instituted by Pope John Paul II.” Chávez said he was made to orally read and sign the vow before he was ordained 27 years ago.

He said then-Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan ordered him more than 16 years ago to be “silent” regarding the issue of clergy sex abuse of children. He said Sheehan summoned him to his office when Chávez worked as a priest in Las Vegas, N.M., and said, “I order you under your Vow of Obedience to me to silence.” “I did this and I can certainly live with my conscience on this matter,” Chávez added.

Sheehan, who served from 1993 to 2015, is retired and couldn’t be reached for comment Sunday. He acknowledged in August that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

After Mass, Chávez told the Journal he believes there is a safety issue in continuing to use the current school cafeteria, although no accidents involving school children have occurred.

He questioned whether other projects at other parishes, such as Saint Joseph on the Rio Grande or at San Jose, will also be halted.

“Those projects are luxuries. Our cafeteria project is to secure that children at Saint Therese Catholic School do not have to cross two city streets to and from the current cafeteria location every day.” Construction was to begin in a few weeks.

When the archdiocese filed the paperwork to make each of its parishes its own legal entity several years ago, Chávez recalled reading a story in the Journal in which Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall was quoted as saying the move was a device used by dioceses around the country to shield or protect assets from going to victims.

“On the day I read this article, I looked up the address of Brad Hall’s offices and drove Downtown, walked into his offices and presented my identification card, saying “Mr. Hall might be interested in the contents of this file.”

Since then, he has given information to Hall, whose office has filed about 100 clergy sex abuse cases against the archdiocese since 2011. He said he has also worked with agents from the state Attorney General’s office, who in recent months have stepped up an inquiry into clergy sexual abuse and how church officials responded to it.

At the end of his homily, parishioners applauded Chávez, who has been assigned to the parish for more than a decade.

“I support and respect him,” Julia Archibeque said after the Mass. “Here is somebody who is brave and strong enough to state his convictions.”

Hall told the Journal on Sunday that his office routinely “gets information from lots of sources and we evaluate it and give it the weight it deserves.”

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