Parishes enlisted to help pay clergy abuse victims

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

St. Therese Catholic Parish in Albuquerque’s North Valley was once the largest in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, with a holy shrine and tiled-roof church considered one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in New Mexico.

These days, the parish on North Fourth is one of the smallest and struggles to make ends meet. It is behind on its property insurance and in debt to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, owing more than a year’s worth of Sunday collection plate assessments, according to its pastor.

Its usual fundraising efforts crippled by the COVID-19 virus, the parish has taken to holding green chile roasting events to pay bills.

But sacrifice it will, as one of more than 90 parishes grappling with the archdiocese’s request to help pay a universal settlement in its Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganization.

“We have very minuscule savings at the Archdiocese Savings and Loan Program at the Catholic Center (the headquarters of the archdiocese). The Archdiocese is of course welcome to take these meager funds,” St. Therese pastor, the Rev. Vincent Paul Chávez, wrote in a letter to Archbishop John C. Wester last month.

St. Therese no stranger to clergy sexual abuse

Nearly 400 survivors who were molested as children by priests and clergy in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe have filed claims in the settlement case, which has dragged on for two years.

Even with its insurance coverage and the potential sale of millions of dollars in archdiocese property considered nonessential to its mission, Catholic parishes across northern New Mexico have been asked to determine what “sacrifices” they are able to make toward the bankruptcy burden.

While St. Therese will struggle to scrape up any contribution, the story is different across the river on Albuquerque’s West Side, at the newer St. Joseph on the Rio Grande parish.

Those attending last Sunday’s Mass learned that the archdiocese had asked the parish for a $300,000 contribution and that parish officials agreed. The money will deplete parish savings by about half, but parish finance Chairperson Frances Donio reminded those in attendance at Mass of the parish’s history of helping others.

“We give without question and without judgment,” she said.

Donio said the parish council and Monsignor Lambert Luna agreed to the contribution of $300,000, which she said won’t be needed for the bankruptcy case for another six to eight months.

The financial press on parishes over the past several months comes as attorneys for the archdiocese, the state’s largest, and victims have tentatively settled on a yet-to-be-disclosed amount to be distributed to survivors.

Archdiocese Vicar General Rev. Glenn Jones in his most recent online update reported “pretty fair progress” in raising funds, but added, “Some pastors fear the reaction of parishioners at giving such a huge chunk of parish savings, unused and/or unessential property for sale, etc.”

He wrote that the Vatican can’t help, because each diocese is responsible for its own finances. “Anyway, the Vatican can barely pay its own bills these days, with COVID reducing contributions,” he added.

“If we don’t meet certain goals soon, we risk losing the proposed settlement, and that very well may lead to lawsuits against individual parishes we’ve been worried about – maybe hundreds of them since there are just under 400 claims filed,” Jones said in his update.

The proposed total settlement amount to victims is confidential by law, but Donio said at last Sunday’s Mass, “It is substantial enough that it will require a collective effort not only by the archdiocese but also the parishes to raise the required amount.”

St. Therese and St. Joseph on the Rio Grande illustrate the stark differences among parishes when it comes to assets and ability to contribute.

“While some parishes are not able to contribute much, others will be asked to contribute on average several hundred thousand dollars,” Donio said during Mass in a video presentation available online.

Donio made her unusual public announcement, she said, “to ensure transparency.”

“Each parish is unique in its financial standing. Some are very poor and can barely keep their lights on. We are fortunate to be able to contribute and hopefully help cover for those who are not able to contribute as much.”

There are no lawsuits or claims by survivors against St. Joseph on the Rio Grande, “but that would not protect us from a suit,” she said. Parishes that don’t contribute risk being sued by victims and losing more than just their savings.

Those that do contribute would be eligible for a “channeling injunction” to protect them from lawsuits from individual survivors whose claims occurred before 2018, she said. That was the year the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, under the strain of defending at least 36 clergy sex abuse claims or lawsuits.

Luna, St. Joseph’s pastor, said last week that the response from parishioners to the announcement has been minimal. One person wrote a note to thank parish leaders for their decision to contribute.

Luna said the parish is part of the archdiocese, “and our membership teaches us that we’re one church, one body. If the archdiocese is in need, then we come to the aid of that body that we’re a member of.”

Still, he said, “It’s difficult in the sense that we have been saving this money for a rainy day, thinking the rainy day is like the roof leaking, or the stucco needs to be done. But it’s a different kind of rainy day that appeared. It wasn’t one of our choosing.”

Should the bankruptcy fail, Vicar General Jones wrote earlier this month, “Nothing is safe from liquidations for legal costs and lawsuit settlements – churches, halls, schools. Nothing. What a tragedy it would be to lose hundreds-of-years-old churches and property to legal fees and lawsuit settlements, not to mention much of New Mexico’s cultural legacy built over centuries by donations of time, talent and treasure of your families and friends.”

Property owned by St. Therese of the Infant Jesus includes the Shrine of the Little Flower and a Catholic school, pre-K to eighth grade. Chávez says those properties are essential to the mission. Donations help the school keep its tuition relatively low.

Chávez told Archbishop Wester in a March 10 letter that St. Therese Parish has been in a “dire financial situation” for years but plans to pay what it can to meet its obligations to the archdiocese.

Its largest annual fundraising event, three days of fiestas, was canceled last year because of pandemic restrictions. But this year, Chávez hopes to raise money from chile roasting in September, followed by parish fiestas in October.

Chávez told the Journal he was grateful for the response from Archbishop Wester.

“I understand the parish is in financial straits,” Wester wrote. “Please keep the intention of the bankruptcy in your prayers.”

Vicar General Jones acknowledged that the archdiocese was “well aware” that parishioners, through their parishes, have to bear the financial burden.

“We in your Church leadership, lament so very much those who have failed you so grievously in the past,” he wrote. “Yet all we can do now is move forward and look to a new day – hopefully with some healing for victims AND the people of the Christ’s Church of northern New Mexico.”

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