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Priest sex abuse victim challenges ‘culture of secrecy’

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Brian Gutierrez, 46, said he filed a lawsuit last year against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to spare others the anguish he has endured for nearly 30 years and promote a “new era of openness” in the Catholic Church.

A key goal is to require the archdiocese to publicly disclose records that he says reveal the facts of his alleged rape by a priest in 1986, when Gutierrez was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of New Mexico.

The Catholic Church still keeps too many secrets, he contends.

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And, in fact, few records ever have been released by the archdiocese in the hundreds of clerical abuse cases that have been filed and settled, or in the 18 now pending.

Depositions and other records, including the personnel files of 48 “credibly accused” priests, are sealed under a confidentiality order sought by archdiocese lawyers and approved by District Judge Alan Malott.

Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall, who represents Gutierrez, said the archdiocese has made a practice of marking “confidential” virtually all records it produces in the lawsuits.

“I’ve seen them take the position that photocopies of Albuquerque Journal news stories are confidential,” he said. “Whatever they stamp confidential, the court order says we have to go to court to make it public.”

The archdiocese was provided with a list of questions for this story, but declined to comment.

“The culture of secrecy prevents not only healing, but also accountability and might preclude the safety of children in the future as well,” Gutierrez said in an interview.

His case, which is set for trial in August, is one of 53 lawsuits filed in 2nd Judicial District Court by Hall on behalf of alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests. Of those, 18 cases remain active and at least 10 are scheduled for trial next year. Another 35 cases have been settled for undisclosed amounts of money, Hall said.

The cases have been assigned to several judges. But, in all the cases, Malott is handling discovery – a legal term for any records and documents produced either by the archdiocese or the plaintiffs who filed the suits.

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Malott handed down an order last year that seals any records deemed confidential by the archdiocese or the plaintiffs. The “confidentiality and protective order” prohibits public disclosure of records that include the archdiocese’s personnel files of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Since Hall began filing the lawsuits in 2011, he has obtained from the archdiocese at least 65 personnel files of priests, including those of 48 priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. All the files are sealed under Malott’s order, he said.

New Mexico became ground zero for the pedophile priest crisis in the early 1990s, a decade before news reports of priest abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston attracted national attention and prompted policy changes by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Documents released as part of settlements in California and other states showed that some of the nation’s worst accused pedophile priests – including James R. Porter, Arthur Perrault, David A. Holley and Bernard Bissonnette – were sent to a treatment facility for priests in Jemez Springs and, from there, to New Mexico churches, where they sexually abused more children.

But despite the extent of the crisis here, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has released few records that could shed light on decisions made by church leaders that allowed pedophile priests to live and minister in New Mexico.

Albuquerque attorney Bruce Pasternack, now deceased, initiated a series of priest sex-abuse lawsuits in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, more than 180 sex-abuse claims had been filed against the church by Pasternack and others.

In 1993, a four-judge panel sealed all pretrial discovery in those cases. A judge later allowed the release of large portions of former Archbishop Robert Fortune Sanchez’s 1994 deposition testimony after the Journal and others sought to make the document public. The deposition is available on the Journal’s website at ABQjournal.com.

Hall estimated that the archdiocese quietly has settled at least 300 clergy sex-abuse claims to date. No civil cases have been tried in court and confidentiality agreements have kept church records out of public view, he said.

The archdiocese vigorously opposes any public disclosure of church records during settlement discussions, said Levi Monagle, an attorney in Hall’s firm who works with abuse claimants.

“A lot of these (claimants) aren’t even interested in money,” Monagle said. Many claimants enter settlement negotiations seeking the public disclosure of church records, he said. “The archdiocese is not interested in those sorts of requests from our clients.”

Former Archbishop Michael Sheehan told parishioners in a 2004 letter that 44 priests and two deacons in the archdiocese had credible allegations made against them prior to 2002 of sexual abuse of minors. The allegations spanned a period of 50 years, he said.

At that time, Sheehan estimated that the archdiocese had paid out $25.3 million in settlements with victims, of which $7.7 million was paid by the archdiocese and the remainder by insurers. Another $4.7 million was paid in attorney and investigative costs.

Hall estimated that 48 credibly accused priests were employed by the archdiocese from 1969 to 1991. He has also taken depositions from more than 400 people, including Sheehan, all of which remain sealed under Malott’s order.

Many motions filed in the civil cases, which presumably contain information drawn from confidential records, also remain under seal.

Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said court records are generally available for public inspection, and that confidentiality and protective orders are granted “in limited and narrow circumstances.”

“That does not appear to be the case here,” Boe said in a written statement. “Although the diocese is not a public body, clergy abuse is an important matter of public concern affecting many New Mexicans. Further secrecy compounds the problem.”

The archdiocese contends that it has “the right to produce certain types of information under the protection of a confidentiality/protective order,” according to an April 2014 motion.

Information deserving confidentiality includes “financial information, personnel and employment records, medical and psychological records,” according to the motion by Albuquerque attorney Robert P. Warburton.

Warburton also noted that 2nd Judicial District Court judges in prior clergy abuse cases approved confidentiality orders to protect the archdiocese from “coercion” that could arise from public disclosure of information.

Warburton cited language from three 1996 cases saying that the orders were needed to protect the archdiocese’s “interest in a fair trial, the need to conduct settlement negotiations free of coercion that could arise from threats to disclose information,” and individual privacy.

Gutierrez said he is among those seeking truth, not money, from the archdiocese. Nearly 30 years after his rape, Gutierrez said he still has many questions about the attack.

“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any release of documents by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe,” he said. “Public disclosure of documents might be able to answer those questions.”

Gutierrez contends that the archdiocese attempted to deceive him last year.

Gutierrez said he was inspired by Pope Francis to seek reconciliation with the archdiocese. When he approached the archdiocese early last year, an official told Gutierrez that his alleged attacker, former priest Sabine Griego, was dead, he said.

But when the Sandia National Laboratories engineer searched the Internet for his attacker’s obituary, he quickly learned that Griego was alive and lives today near Las Vegas, N.M.

Gutierrez said he again felt betrayed by the archdiocese.

“I was angry,” he said. “As a result, it gave me the resolve to seek justice.”

Gutierrez sued the archdiocese in May 2014.

Griego has been identified as an abuser in previous lawsuits. A 1993 lawsuit alleged that then-Archbishop Robert Sanchez transferred Griego to Albuquerque in 1979 after allegations surfaced that he had molested boys in Las Vegas. Griego served as pastor from 1979 to 1991 at Queen of Heaven parish in Albuquerque, where Gutierrez alleges he was raped in 1986.

Griego could not be reached for comment. The archdiocese responded in a written statement that Griego is no longer a priest and that the archdiocese does not know his whereabouts.

“Sabine Griego is laicized (no longer a priest) and has no connection with the archdiocese,” the Rev. John Cannon, the archdiocese’s chancellor, said in the statement.

Sanchez himself was the subject of a scandal, acknowledging that he had had sexual relations with at least five young women in the 1970s and 1980s. He resigned in disgrace in 1993 and died in 2012.

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