ALBUQUERQUE – The head of the largest Roman Catholic diocese in New Mexico has pledged to open sealed records related to priest child sexual abuse cases as victims, attorneys and others push for more transparency.
Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester agreed to the disclosure as he and two other top church officials were questioned last week under oath as part of bankruptcy court proceedings. The Albuquerque Journal reports the public meeting included victims whose claims are now intertwined with the archdiocese’s pending bankruptcy reorganization.
While the archdiocese already has paid more than $50 million to settle sex abuse claims, Wester contends it cannot sustain the financial impact of continued litigation.
Most of the questions posed by three members of the creditors’ committee at the meeting focused on illuminating what has historically been a dark, secret legal reckoning of child sexual abuse inflicted for decades by dozens of clergy members in New Mexico.
The Santa Fe Archdiocese last year updated its list of clergy members who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. The list was made public after years of pressure from victims and their family members.
Some of the names on the list had been known for years while others had been secret. In most cases, church officials said those accused priests died before the allegations were received. Also listed were priests and religious leaders who were publicly accused but whose criminal or canonical proceedings weren’t completed.
During last week’s meeting, it was also revealed that the archdiocese pays a total of $40,000 a year to assist two priests who have been credibly accused of molesting children. The priests’ names weren’t disclosed.
Over the years, the archdiocese has released few records that might shed light on church leaders’ decisions allowing clergy child sex abusers to live and work in New Mexico parishes and schools.
Lawyers for the archdiocese typically sought confidentiality orders when lawsuits were filed alleging priest abuse and negligence by church officials. Such cases were settled out of court. Estimates on the number of cases filed against the archdiocese since the early 1990s have been as high as 300.
The chairman of the creditors’ committee asked the archdiocese officials if they understood that producing the documents about the cases is part of the healing process. The chairman also asked if the documents, with names redacted, would be made public “so that the public can never forget what happened.”
Wester pledged to do so, saying transparency was important.
But he added that he would have to check whether the archdiocese could accede to the creditors’ request to release redacted personnel files of all 79 priests identified by the archdiocese as having been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors.
Another member of the creditors’ committee asked Wester whether the archdiocese would put funds aside to provide therapy for current and future victims.
Wester said paying for therapy is something the archdiocese already does.
The next major hurdle in the bankruptcy action will be the notification of current and potential claimants and how that will occur. A date by which claims must be submitted to the bankruptcy court is likely to be set between April and June.