Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For decades, Leigh-Anne just wanted someone, anyone, to listen.
Instead, she said, she was placed in a mental hospital, silenced and ignored until she fell into a yearslong spiral of drug addiction, self-doubt and destruction.
The 39-year-old was finally going to get her chance to confront Sabine Griego – the former priest who she says raped her repeatedly from ages 7 to 9.
But six weeks before he was to go on trial, Griego was found dead on a bathroom floor in a home near Las Vegas, New Mexico. Paramedics determined the 82-year-old had been lying there for hours, and the cause of death was listed as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
“At first, I felt like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And then, I just got really sad,” Leigh-Anne said, choking up. “… Because I never got to stand up in front of a room of people and say that he did this and it was wrong. And he never fully got to be held accountable.”
Attorney General Hector Balderas shares the sentiment.
“I am angered that the survivors of his abuse will not get their day in court, but our office will continue to advocate and investigate institutions and individuals who inflict abuse and harm to others,” he said in a statement.
Griego was accused of sexually abusing dozens of children, but Leigh-Anne’s was the only criminal case authorities pursued because it had no statute of limitations. The AG’s Office found Leigh-Anne through a lawsuit she filed against the church, and the office sought her help in prosecuting Griego.
She said she was hesitant – at first.
“There were 38 other victims, and none of them had the opportunity to press charges. And I did. … I felt it was my moral obligation,” she said.
The Journal doesn’t generally publish names of sexual assault victims, but Leigh-Anne, who contacted the Journal to tell her story, asked to be identified by her middle name.
Griego was charged in 2019 with eight counts of first-degree criminal sexual penetration. The alleged crimes occurred when Leigh-Anne was a student at Queen of Heaven grade school in Albuquerque .
The Attorney General’s Office alleges that Griego repeatedly raped the girl. In one instance, she told agents, he “became angry with her and broke her nose.”
Griego, who hadn’t practiced as a priest since the 1990s, denied the allegations. His trial was set to begin Nov. 16.
Former Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan called Griego’s abuse “abhorrent” and “heinous” in a 2004 letter to the Vatican asking that Griego be stripped of his authority. Griego is one of 79 clergy members identified as “credibly accused” by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Archbishop John C. Wester said in 2017 that of the 74 people then on the list of clergy members who had been accused, those who were still living had been permanently restricted from public ministry or removed from the priesthood.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Leslie Radigan said the archdiocese continues to pray for healing for all abuse victims, “especially for those who suffered at the hands of former priests and members of the religious community.”
‘Nobody heard me’
Leigh-Anne said she once saw church as a safe space.
There was a time when she loved singing hymns on Sundays and looked forward to her first Communion. Then, she said, that was all ripped away.
“Now, there is no God. I mean, I got that taken away from me,” she said.
She said she started having “extremely bad nightmares” at 13 and began using heroin to avoid them.
Leigh-Anne said she finally told her parents about the abuse a year later.
When they didn’t believe her, she cut her wrists and downed a whole bottle of pills she had stolen from a guidance counselor’s purse.
“I didn’t want to die; I just wanted the nightmares to stop. If death happened … whatever,” she said.
Her parents admitted her to Charter Heights, a behavioral health center, for three weeks. She mentioned the abuse to her parents one other time, but their attitude was “you need to get over it,” and she fell silent again.
At 19, Leigh-Anne said, she turned to the church for help.
“I figured that if I could just get someone to listen to me and believe me, I’d be OK. No one was listening at home,” she said, adding that she thought the church would take her seriously.
Leigh-Anne said she approached a priest at Risen Savior and “told him everything.” She said the priest was “blasé” about her account but said he would talk to the “higher-ups” and see about counseling.
“The only thing he said before hanging up the phone was that he didn’t want me accusing him of anything,” Leigh-Anne said. She later added: “I felt awful, and then I was questioning myself – ‘Was it as bad as it was?’ ”
Leigh-Anne said an archdiocese chancellor met with her afterward and asked why she didn’t report the abuse when it happened and told her that if it really happened and was as bad as she claimed, she “would have come forward sooner.”
She said the chancellor set her up with a therapist who consistently steered Leigh-Anne away from discussing the abuse. She said she brought it up “at least once a session” for three years but was “shot down every time” by the therapist.
“Basically, it was just like, I needed to not talk about it ever. It was made abundantly clear that … it was something I wasn’t to bring up. And it was casually swept under the rug,” she said.
Leigh-Anne quit therapy and confided to a religious sister at Risen Savior that she was considering a lawsuit. Word got out, and the congregation turned on her, she said.
“When I filed my … lawsuit, I was the criminal,” Leigh-Anne said.
With the help of attorney Bruce Pasternack, Leigh-Anne got a $1.5 million settlement payable over 40 years and was required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. But she said money didn’t solve her problems, and without therapy, her life took a turn for the worse.
“I was trying to get to like the core of it, and just to work it out. And I really needed to talk about it, and nobody heard me,” she said. “… It was like, ‘Well, nobody wants to hear me – I might as well just not say anything.’ And I went on a really bad downward spiral after that. I’m not proud of it.”
At one point, Leigh-Anne said, she was contacted by a social worker with the archdiocese due to her “acting out.” This time there was no therapy offered, just the message: “You need to knock these behaviors off.”
Radigan wouldn’t say whether any of the church officials Leigh-Anne sought help from were still employed by the archdiocese. But she issued a statement from “leadership” noting that the archdiocese has changed the way it handles accusations of abuse.
As for the allegation that the church failed to provide Leigh-Anne with the help she needed, Radigan said, “Twenty-one years ago, church employees would likely have … considered that, as an adult, she would have reported to authorities had she desired to do so, if her recollection of not being specifically advised to do so is accurate.
“And while there was no mandated reporting requirement at that time, with societal advances of understanding traumatic stress and how memories of such violations can be suppressed, we now report all abuse to the authorities, regardless of who is reporting and when the abuse took place.”
Radigan said the church welcomes “any conversation” with Leigh-Anne “should she choose to speak with us.”
Leigh-Anne said the way the church treated her led to years of questioning her mental health, if the abuse was as bad as she thought, and wondering whether she was “absolutely crazy.”
In the years that followed, Leigh-Anne said, she stopped talking about the abuse, got married, then divorced, replaced drugs with binge drinking and moved to Chicago.
What could have been
An arrest for identity theft in 2017 changed everything.
“I had gotten to a really, really, dark, low period. … It was mandatory that I had to have counseling twice a week. And honestly, that saved my life,” she said
Since getting help, Leigh-Anne said, she is living a “much happier and productive” life. She is using her archdiocese settlement to go to law school and become an attorney. She wants to be able to help others when nobody else will listen.
“I think in any environment when somebody comes to you, telling you that anyone hurt them … they do need help, and it does need to be reported,” she said.
Leigh-Anne thinks back to the 7-year-old girl whose life could have been different. Then she thinks about the adolescent and adult who “came forward for years” and who had nobody who would listen to her.
“Honestly, if somebody had reported it to the authorities from the get-go, my life would have gone in a completely different trajectory,” she said. “I’m still in therapy, and I’ve been working this (expletive) out. I’ve been having to deal with a lot of (expletive) after Griego died, and this is like the one thing I can’t wrap my head around … why nobody said anything.”