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Threat halted release of priests’ files in abuse cases

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The Diocese of Gallup threatened to withdraw a monetary settlement that included $21 million for victims of clerical sexual abuse if claimants insisted that the church publicly release the personnel files of accused priests, attorneys for the claimants said.

Public disclosure of priest files became a “significant issue” during the final months of the diocese’s 31-month bankruptcy case, said James Stang, a Los Angeles attorney who represented the 57 people who filed claims against the diocese.

“We asked that (the files) be published or be delivered so we could publish them if we wanted to, and they said no,” Stang said. “We were told that it was a package deal.”

Faced with the possibility of losing the financial settlement after more than two years of legal wrangling, a committee representing claimants in the case felt they had little choice but to withdraw their demand for records, he said.

The Diocese of Gallup in November 2013 became the ninth U.S. diocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in response to a growing number of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse of children by clergy in the diocese. To date, 11 dioceses and two religious orders have filed for bankruptcy.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David T. Thuma of Albuquerque approved a final settlement plan in June.

Diocese of Gallup spokeswoman Suzanne Hammons responded that public disclosure of church records could harm people who had no responsibility for acts of abuse.

As the diocese said in prior news reports, “those files don’t just include the names of priests or clergy, but a lot of the time there is sensitive information concerning other innocent parties who have nothing to do with abuse cases, and who do not deserve to be brought into public scrutiny,” she said.

Hammons also noted that the $21 million settlement marks one of the largest given the number claimants in the case.

The settlement set up a tightly controlled system that provides each abuse victim with a one-time “eyes only” access to a single file pertaining to that victim’s abuser. The plan sets out strict prohibitions against sharing or duplicating the contents.

The personnel files will be stored electronically under Stang’s control for one year, and then they will be destroyed, according to court records. The files “will be password protected, and may only be accessed by the intended recipient,” it said.

“To be clear, any duplication,” including copying, printing, saving or scanning, “will be strictly forbidden by order of the Court” and violators are subject to court sanctions.

One claimant said he will not access the file of his abuser, the Rev. James Burns, because he fears the threat of court sanctions should he speak publicly about his abuse.

“Even if you are talking about stuff you didn’t get from that website that they set up, they could still accuse you of that,” said Criss Candelaria, an Arizona attorney and one of 57 claimants in the case. Candelaria chaired the claimants’ committee.

“If I never click on to that site, they can never prevent me from talking to the press or anybody,” he said.

Candelaria, 56, said he was sexually abused in the early 1970s by Burns, who pastored a church in Candelaria’s hometown of Springerville, Ariz. Candelaria was about 11 at the time, he said.

Burns served as a priest in the Diocese of Gallup from 1962 to 2002. During that time, the diocese assigned him to more than a dozen parishes, including three in New Mexico.

Burns pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts of sexual conduct with a minor in Winslow, Ariz., and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison in New Mexico. He died in 2010.

A heavily redacted copy of Burns’ personnel file became public as a result of a 2007 settlement in California. More than a third of the 555-page file was entirely blacked out. The file is available on the website www.BishopAccountability.org.

Another file available on that website is that of the Rev. Clemment Hageman, who was accused of sexual abuse by 18 people who filed claims in the Gallup bankruptcy case. Hageman’s file became public in a civil lawsuit unrelated to the bankruptcy case.

One member of the claimants’ committee said in court that she had opposed the settlement because it did not require the Diocese of Gallup to release files on abusive priests.

Prudence Jones described as “immeasurable and lifelong” her suffering from sexual abuse she experienced as a child.

“Healing has become a monumental process for me, since I am also trying to heal my daughters and unify our fractured family,” Jones told Diocese of Gallup Bishop James Wall at the hearing.

Jones alleged in a 2013 lawsuit that Mark Schornack, a Franciscan brother, sexually abused her at a Catholic mission at St. Michaels on the Navajo Nation. She was younger than 15 at the time. Schornack died in 2012 at the age of 96.

“You can help further this process by releasing the documents on Brother Mark and the other abusing priests,” she said at the hearing. “When these documents become public, it will be justice served, not only for me, but for all victims.”

Journal staff writer Maggie Shepard contributed to this report.

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