The Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s decision to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection is the latest twist in a long and often sordid story of individual abuse against children, protected by one of the most powerful institutions in New Mexico.
That the bankruptcy announcement came just before Advent, the beginning of the church liturgical year — the countdown to the birth of a savior, the light of the world — brings an ironic touch to the whole proceeding.
In New Mexico, the ugly scandal of decades of abuse by predatory priests, the institutional church’s role in covering up crime and sin and the long suffering of thousands of victims is a lingering, open wound.
While this is a scandal across the U.S. church, indeed the world, New Mexico first faced it as a state back in the 1990s. We are facing it still. Even now, the future of the worldwide Catholic Church will be diminished if leaders do not correct the sins of the past. Patience is fast running out.
In the ’90s, the faithful and others watched with horror as numerous stories of pedophile priests surfaced, lawsuits were filed and settled and a new archbishop, Michael J. Sheehan, was brought in to clean up the mess. At least on the surface, it appeared that the zero-tolerance policy for dealing with offenses worked, that the church was setting things right with victims and that — blessedly — few new claims of abuse came to light.
The local church seemed determined to put the safety of the people in the pews ahead of its reputation. Finally.
Over the past several years, however, it has become apparent that the rot in the church was more entrenched than realized. More lawsuits were filed. Again, they were from incidents decades in the past, but it still meant more crimes against children had to be set right. The breadth and depth of the abuse would mean more millions in settlements; this is after 300 claims already resolved, with the archdiocese paying out millions. The bankruptcy will protect church assets, setting up a process to handle claims equitably.
On the national scene, the news from Pennsylvania brought the shame of the church to the forefront once more. There, a two-year grand jury investigation detailed decades of abuse, focusing on 301 “predator priests” the jurors stated had abused some 1,000 children over seven decades. After the release, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said that the phone in his office has been ringing steadily. More victims are coming to tell their stories.
For New Mexico Catholics, the scandal that had been dealt with — or so it seemed — is front and center once more.
Replicating what happened in Pennsylvania, Attorney General Hector Balderas now is investigating how the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and other New Mexico dioceses handled the claims. As difficult as such scrutiny can be, it is necessary to make sure that church officials, at least since the abuses came more broadly to light, were not party to a cover up.
Already, Balderas is warning diocesan officials they must cooperate, even serving search warrants last week to seek records on credibly accused abusers — that’s a sign the information was not turned over in a timely fashion. Archdiocese of Santa Fe leaders must understand that their credibility is gone. The investigation deserves complete cooperation, even if it puts the archdiocese in legal jeopardy. Survivors deserve a full accounting.
That brings us back to Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is one of a number of steps the archdiocese has taken in recent years to protect itself. Individual parishes have been incorporated as separate nonprofit organizations, a move designed to reduce liability for actions of the archdiocese or other parishes. A real estate trust, set up in 2012, now controls the land holdings of the archdiocese.
In a letter to Catholics, Archbishop John C. Wester wrote, “We have tried to resolve these claims outside of litigation, seeking to treat all of those who have been harmed by workers of the Church in a just, equitable and merciful manner, while at the same time continuing the mission of Christ, the preaching of the Gospel and involving ourselves in charitable works.
“Unfortunately, we are no longer able to resolve these claims in a manner that is just to those who have come forward and to those who will come forward in the future.”
That this historic center of faith in the Southwest has come to such a place is tragic — for the believers who love their faith but no longer trust their shepherds and most of all, for all the victims waiting for justice. Only by being honest, just and truthful will the Catholic Church regain lost trust and good will. These are dark days, with the light still out of reach.