Completing a settlement between victims of clergy sexual abuse and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe is crucial for Roman Catholics in New Mexico.
First, the people injured by an institution that allowed its priests to harm children are owed reparations. The damage to these victims is incalculable; money is the least the church can do to compensate for the sins of the past.
As many New Mexicans know too well, the church that nurtured their faith and fed their souls also turned a blind eye to repeated reports that its clergy were molesting children. Preserving the church’s reputation was all that mattered.
For decades, accused priests were moved from parish to parish despite credible accusations of abuse. To make things worse, pedophiles from across the nation were sent for treatment to a center in Jemez Springs; like so many before them, these priests were captivated by New Mexico. They remained here and continued to molest children.
The scandal of an institution covering up for pedophile priests became widely known in the 1990s, with lawsuits, settlements and acknowledgement of the grievous harm done to hundreds of young people.
More recently, additional cases of past abuse have surfaced, with victims seeking justice by the only means remaining — civil lawsuits seeking millions in damages.
This current settlement could be more than $150 million, according to a federal bankruptcy judge overseeing the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 case filed three years ago.
That leads us to this reality: The people helping raise funds for the settlement — current parishioners across the diocese — have little to do with the actual crimes.
They were not running the show when past diocesan leaders moved pedophile clergy from parish to parish. Archbishop John C. Wester had no hand in it, either; these abuses date back decades, some occurring before he was ordained as a priest, much less running the diocese.
Yet it is the faithful of today who must put things right.
The archdiocese is selling property and asking for increased donations to gather enough money to settle these claims. In Santa Fe, the former St. Francis Cathedral School a few blocks from the Plaza and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center near Museum Hill are being sold to help increase the settlement fund. St. Pius X High School and the archdiocesan offices on the west side of Albuquerque potentially could be put on the market. The situation is dire.
A conditional settlement is near, although any agreement will have to be approved by a federal bankruptcy court. That agreement is critical, or victims could begin suing individual parishes, putting churches, schools, parish halls and other property at risk. The sins of the past are shadowing the future.
A federal judge has ruled victims still can pursue claims that the archdiocese transferred property and cash to its 93 parishes over the past decade, making it harder for victims to access them. Those lawsuits are on hold for now but could be revived should parties fail to settle.
If there is any good news in this mess, it is this: Settling the cases generously will begin to clean the slate.
And going forward, strict protocols are in place to prevent harm to children. We’ve heard that before, of course, but it’s imperative the church ensure no children are harmed. That means its actions — or inactions — can never be hidden ever again. Claims of sexual abuse must be investigated immediately. Alleged crimes must be referred to police.
This shameful chapter could be closing. Meanwhile, the reckoning continues. It is long overdue.