Attorney General Hector Balderas is demanding Roman Catholic dioceses around the state turn over piles of records on clergy accused of sexual abuse in what amounts to a sweeping outside probe of a scandal that for decades has haunted an institution with a central role in New Mexican life.
In letters dated Tuesday, the attorney general pointed to the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed details of how church officials there shuffled clergy accused of misconduct to New Mexico and that more broadly posed yet another challenge to the moral authority of the Catholic Church.
Balderas called on local Catholic leaders to live up to the denunciations and pledges of transparency they offered in the wake of the grand jury probe led by Pennsylvania’s attorney general. He demanded the three dioceses in New Mexico turn over a long list of documents — from personnel files of particular clergy to financial statements from church accounts.
“It is time to demand full disclosure and full transparency,” Balderas wrote.
The letters acknowledged that too much time might have passed to pursue criminal charges in many cases of abuse. But the letters also mentioned that the demands are “in contemplation of litigation.” And the letters offered the prospect that the public could at last get a thorough accounting from law enforcement of how the Catholic Church handled the sex abuse scandal in New Mexico.
Church leaders welcomed the inquiry and said they will cooperate.
“We look forward to working with the Office of the Attorney General,” the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said in a statement.
At the Diocese of Las Cruces, Deacon Jim Winder said he viewed the inquiry as “an opportunity, not a threat.”
The church’s moral authority has been damaged, he said.
“We need somebody the public can trust to review everything,” he said. “We got to get to the root of all this, to where the public can know nothing is being hidden.”
In a statement, the Diocese of Gallup quoted the Gospel of Luke, which says that “there is nothing hidden that will not become visible.”
The statement pledged cooperation and said church officials not only had been in contact with the attorney general in New Mexico but with his counterpart in Arizona, too, which is home to part of the diocese.
The letters demand documents dating to 1950 and provide an Oct. 5 deadline for church officials to produce the records.
Among other things, the attorney general asked for:
• Complaints of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy or other officials.
• Any documentation of how church officials responded to such allegations.
• Any records of a clergy member relocating to another diocese for any reason related to allegations of misconduct.
• Any records of clergy receiving counseling or rehabilitation for issues related to sexual abuse or any number of other issues, including alcoholism and pornography.
• Complete personnel files for clergy members accused of abuse.
• Names of clergy members or other church officials with knowledge of allegations of sexual abuse.
• Information on all financial accounts belonging to the dioceses.
• All documentation of legal settlements with survivors of abuse.
The letters also included requests for information about specific priests. For example, the attorney general’s letter to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe named 80 men — more than the 78 currently named on a list issued by the archdiocese of clergy accused of abuse over the past several decades.
New Mexico for decades was a dumping ground for clergy accused of wrongdoing elsewhere. For example, the Pennsylvania grand jury found that bishops would send predators to a treatment center in New Mexico called the Servants of the Paraclete and then ignore or cover up reports about their misconduct.
Many priests who came to New Mexico for treatment were later assigned to parishes across New Mexico and Arizona, where they continued to abuse children, according to various lawsuits, including dozens filed in the 1980s and ’90s that targeted the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the Servants of the Paraclete.
The attorney general’s demands come as transparency emerges as a major point of contention for survivors of such abuse.
In addition to the archdiocese’s list released amid mounting pressure, KOB-TV took the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to court and won the release of documents concerning three of perhaps the most infamous priests in the state.
While the sex abuse scandal is no longer anything new, survivors contend the church has said too little about how it handled allegations of misconduct.
Advocates for survivors said the attorney general’s letters represent a step toward greater transparency.
Levi Monagle, an Albuquerque-based attorney representing survivors of abuse, said he believes the letters might be a step toward impaneling a grand jury that could in turn provide a public report such as the one published in Pennsylvania.
“That’s an important step in the right direction,” he said.