“Not now, not ever.”
Those were the apropos words of Archbishop John C. Wester after the Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced a $121.5 million settlement last week with nearly 400 survivors of sexual abuse.
The settlement, which could never erase the horrible stain of clergy sexual abuse but was nonetheless necessary, is one of the largest clergy sexual abuse cases involving the Catholic Church in the United States, where about 31 Catholic dioceses or archdioceses have filed for bankruptcy as a result of abuse claims.
Accusations of clergy sexual abuse have been a scourge on the Catholic Church for decades, nowhere more so than in New Mexico, where some 80 priests or clergy in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe have been credibly accused of sexual abuse dating back to the 1940s.
Vicar General Rev. Glennon Jones of the archdiocese has said almost all of the accused offenders are dead and can’t be questioned, but given past lawsuits and specifics in the survivors’ claims, “most, if not all, are very credible.”
Court records show the archdiocese sometimes transferred priests to other parishes when accusations of abuse surfaced. That only compounded the crimes.
The Servants of the Paraclete in the Jemez ran a now-defunct treatment center for troubled priests and was accused of furnishing the archdiocese with priests and other clergy who preyed on children and teens.
Burying the evidence no longer appears to be the church’s strategy, based on the contrite and sincere statement Wester issued Thursday.
“This is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance and which has no place in the Catholic Church: not now, not ever,” the archbishop said.
A key part of the settlement is the disclosure of documents by the archdiocese that will help the public understand how the sexual abuse crisis occurred in New Mexico. The terms of the settlement require the establishment of an “unprecedented” public archive of documents showing how “decades of widespread abuse occurred” in New Mexico. The archdiocese says the document disclosure to the UNM Southwest Special Collections Archive at Zimmerman Library is “unprecedented across the country.”
“It is highly significant that documents are included in such a massive way to be made available to everyone who wants to read them,” said Terence McKiernan, president of the nonprofit BishopAccountability.org. “I feel the documents are absolutely a huge victory for transparency and accountability.”
The bankruptcy reorganization plan is the result of years of legal wrangling that effectively halted more than three dozens civil lawsuits in state court that led to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe filing for bankruptcy on Dec. 3, 2018. The lawsuits alleged clergy sexual abuse of children and negligence by church hierarchy in handling complaints.
According to Archdiocese attorney Thomas Walker, all but seven of the 376 survivor claimants cast ballots in favor of the settlement plan.
Payouts to survivors could begin in months. Tragically, some of those children who suffered sexual abuse are no longer alive, having committed suicide.
“As for the actual survivors, it is our hope that some small compensation, however inadequate it might feel like to some of them, will help with a sense of closure and some accountability,” said Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall.
There is also a recommendation for the archdiocese to set up a $2.5 million separate fund to pay future claims.
Wester expressed his “most profound sorrow and contrition for those who have endured clergy sexual abuse,” and said the archdiocese has put safeguards in place to prevent future abuse. Those safeguards include making prompt responses to allegations of abuse, cooperating with authorities and disciplining offenders, “all the while maintaining our zero tolerance for clergy sexual abuse and any other abuse of children and young people.”
Zero tolerance, indeed, is the right path forward, as well as transparency.
Wester added the archdiocese would publicize more details of the agreement in the weeks ahead, “since it is our desire to assure everyone that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has learned from past errors and is solidly on board to maintain a safe environment for children and young people …”
The archdiocese encourages anyone who was sexually abused as a child or who knows about sexual abuse of a minor to report it immediately to authorities and to the Archbishop of Santa Fe through the Archdiocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator at (505) 831-8144, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After decades of denial, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has taken the accusations head-on and addressed them, while keeping the archdiocese solvent.
The Archdiocese sold numerous properties, including Wester’s house on Albuquerque’s West Side, to come up with the settlement amount. Aided by contributions from its parishes, the archdiocese will put up $75 million toward the settlement fund, with insurance companies paying $46.5 million. The archdiocese also took out a mortgage on the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.
Wester’s words are encouraging because they appear to grasp the gravity of the scandal and provide the church a viable path forward in its mission.
“While I hope and pray that the bankruptcy outcome will bring a measure of justice and relief to the victims of clergy sexual abuse, I realize that nothing can ever compensate them for the criminal and horrendous abuse they endured,” the archbishop said. “I pledge that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe will remain vigilant in protecting children and young people from clergy sexual abuse, doing all we can to assure them of a safe and protective environment in the Catholic Church.”
Let’s hope Wester is correct that similar abuse and coverups will never occur again.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.