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Santa Fe archbishop agrees to open lawsuit records

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester agreed to open sealed state court lawsuits in priest child sexual abuse cases and pay therapy bills for survivors during an extraordinary public meeting with several victims whose claims are now intertwined with the archdiocese’s pending bankruptcy reorganization.

It was also revealed during the meeting last week that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe continues to pay thousands of dollars a year to assist two priests who have been credibly accused of molesting children.

Most of the questions posed by three members of the creditors’ committee at the meeting focused on shedding light on what has historically been a dark, secret legal reckoning of the child sexual abuse inflicted for decades by at least 79 current or former Catholic priests in the archdiocese.

Archbishop John C. Wester

Archbishop John C. Wester

Wester has said the archdiocese has paid millions of dollars in settlements to victims so far, but cannot sustain the financial impact of continued litigation.

The meeting Thursday in Albuquerque provided an initial forum for the U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee, abuse survivors on the creditors’ committee and a lawyer for the three dozen victims who have pending lawsuits against the diocese to ask about the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 petition filed Dec. 3.

Wester and two other top archdiocesan officials were questioned under oath for about three hours.

“Does the debtor understand and agree that the production of documents is an essential part of the therapeutic healing process for all the creditors? And perhaps even for all the Catholic communities all over this Archdiocese,” asked the chairman of the creditors’ committee.

Will the documents, with victims’ names redacted, be made public, “so that the public can never forget what happened, and use the documents for research and other public purposes,” the chairman asked.

Wester pledged to do so, saying he believed transparency was “very important.”

But he added that he “would have to check” whether the archdiocese could accede to the creditors’ request to release redacted personnel files of all 79 priests identified by the Archdiocese over the past year as having been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors.

On a separate topic, Tony Salgado, executive director of the archdiocese financial services division, said the archdiocese is providing a total of $40,000 a year to two priests who have been credibly accused of molesting children. He provided the information in response to questions by Los Angeles attorney James Stang, hired to represent the creditors. The names of the two priests weren’t disclosed.

“We have an obligation to provide assistance for their care,” Salgado said. Wester added that the archdiocese is bound to do so by the Canon Law of the Catholic Church.

But Stang, who has represented more than 13 creditors’ committees involving survivors of sexual abuse around the country, said the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Wilmington, Del., once told him that if he was ordered by the Vatican to make such a payment to an accused priest “he would resign.”

“Do you have a comment on that?” Stang asked Wester.

“No,” Wester responded.

Another member of the creditors’ committee asked Wester whether the archdiocese would put funds aside to provide therapy for current and future victims.

“Therapy would really help some of us,” the man said. “But it takes funds and those funds need to be available immediately.”

Wester said paying for therapy for victims “is something we do automatically … no questions asked.” He gave the man the name of a contact in the archdiocese and told him to submit his therapy bills.

The next major hurdle in the bankruptcy action will be the notification of current and potential claimants and how that will occur. A date by which claims must be submitted to the bankruptcy court is likely to be set between late April and early June of this year, said Ford Elsaesser, an Idaho bankruptcy attorney retained by the archdiocese.

After the meeting on Thursday, Wester reiterated his commitment to help victim survivors now and into the future.

“They’re obviously hurt, and it’s a very difficult thing they’ve been through,” Wester said of the men on the creditors committee, most of whom were middle-aged.

Over the years, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has released few records that might shed light on church leaders’ decisions allowing clergy child sex abusers to live and work in New Mexico parishes and schools.

Lawyers for the archdiocese typically sought confidentiality orders from judges when lawsuits were filed alleging priest abuse and negligence by church officials. Such cases were settled out of court, without public trials, and settlements have been secret. Estimates on the number of cases filed against the archdiocese since the early 1990s have been as high as 300.

In 2017, state District Judge Alan Malott agreed to a request by KOB-TV to unseal the files of three priests accused of molesting dozens of children dating back to the 1960s. The archdiocese at the time had objected to the release of nearly 1,000 pages of court records, contending public disclosure would endanger the right to a fair trial and hurt the privacy rights of victims and their families.

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