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Editorial: Archbishop’s Life Like a Tragic Hero

Archbishop Robert Fortune Sanchez was interred Thursday, ending a chapter in New Mexico history that featured both great hope and a great fall.

The life and death of Sanchez in many ways mirrors Aristotle’s tragic hero, like Oedipus of ancient Greece or Samson of The Bible. Remember that a hero in this sense does not mean a superman, but the protagonist of a story.

Though from humble beginnings, Sanchez rose to a position of high status and responsibility. He was not perfect, and his downfall involved both errors of judgment and character flaws. His fall was not based entirely on his own actions and his punishment was great — loss of position and a life of solitude, ending in death in a place in Albuquerque for people with Alzheimer’s disease — though some would argue his punishment should have been harsher.

While many were seriously harmed, the outcome was not without seeds of hope: The Archdiocese of Santa Fe pioneered a serious policy for dealing with a problem that had been swept under the rug by the Roman Catholic Church in many places — though the problem is in no way unique to the church. And the scandal increased awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse in America.

On a personal level, after making some very weak excuses ranging from memory loss to the evolving understanding of child sexual abuse, Sanchez eventually asked for the public’s forgiveness “as I have of my God.”

When the New Mexico native was named archbishop of Santa Fe in 1974, the first Hispanic American to achieve such a post, he quickly became a national figure and a source of hope and pride to Hispanics and Native Americans in the Southwest.

More than 13,000 people attended a joyous installation ceremony at The Pit. And that year Time magazine included him among 200 young Americans expected to be part of a new generation of leadership in the United States.

He quickly set about making a difference in the archdiocese, providing a new focus on minority participation in the church at all levels, more than tripling the number of men studying for the priesthood, creating new parishes and overseeing a major spiritual revival, especially among young Catholics.

His embrace of the Penitente brotherhood, attendance at Pueblo feast days and annual pilgrimages to El Santuario de Chimayó increased his popularity.

Some of his actions were controversial, such as his apology to the Pueblos for negative encounters with the church dating back to 1598; his renaming of La Conquistadora as Our Lady of Peace; and his involvement in Central American politics.

But overall, his leadership was considered in a positive light — until scandal erupted involving pedophile priests, many of whom transferred here after committing the crime elsewhere. This led to the discovery of Sanchez’s inability to adhere to his vow of celibacy.

The archdiocese’s initial reaction to allegations of child sexual abuse by priests — denial and cover-up — was by far the greater of Sanchez’s failings, but it was his sexual encounters with young women, revealed on “60 Minutes,” that led to his resignation in 1993.

After his resignation, Sanchez was reported to have spent his life in prayer, contemplation and service to religious communities that offered him shelter in various places across the nation, with quiet stops in New Mexico to visit his family.

The archdiocese was left to deal with a demoralized membership and 140 sexual abuse lawsuits, which it paid for by selling church property and through the tithes of its parishioners.

Yet Sanchez remained a beloved figure to many in the archdiocese. More than 1,000 people attended his memorial services Wednesday and Thursday. The focus, as could be expected, was on his faith and accomplishments, but Archbishop Michael Sheehan told mourners that they should “pray also for those who suffered because of the sexual scandals of the past.”

Aristotle’s final condition has yet to be determined: Though the tragic hero’s story arouses emotion, it should not leave its audience in a state of depression. Rather, it should be a catharsis that leads to improvement among those who hear it.

If the attention brought to a horrible, criminal problem and the actions eventually taken to fight pedophilia in the Catholic Church and elsewhere are successful over the long term, perhaps the story of the “people’s archbishop” will in the end be one of hope.

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.