Arch­bishop agrees to open law­suit records

Sur­vivors ques­tion Wester dur­ing emo­tional bank­ruptcy meet­ing


Arch­bishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester agreed to open sealed state court law­suits in priest child sex­ual abuse cases and pay ther­apy bills for sur­vivors dur­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary pub­lic meet­ing with sev­eral vic­tims whose claims are now in­ter­twined with the arch­dio­cese’s pend­ing bank­ruptcy re­or­ga­ni­za­tion.

It was also re­vealed dur­ing the meet­ing last week that the Arch­dio­cese of Santa Fe con­tin­ues to pay thou­sands of dol­lars a year to as­sist two priests who have been cred­i­bly ac­cused of mo­lest­ing chil­dren.

Most of the ques­tions posed by three mem­bers of the cred­i­tors’ com­mit­tee at the meet­ing fo­cused on shed­ding light on what has his­tor­i­cally been a dark, se­cret le­gal reck­on­ing of the child sex­ual abuse in­flicted for decades by at least 79 cur­rent or for­mer Catholic priests in the arch­dio­cese.

Wester has said the arch­dio­cese has paid mil­lions of dol­lars in set­tle­ments to vic­tims so far, but can­not sus­tain the fi­nan­cial im­pact of con­tin­ued lit­i­ga­tion.

The meet­ing Thurs­day in Al­bu­querque pro­vided an ini­tial fo­rum for the U.S. Bank­ruptcy Trustee, abuse sur­vivors on the cred­i­tors’ com­mit­tee and a lawyer for the three dozen vic­tims who have pend­ing law­suits against the dio­cese to ask about the arch­dio­cese’s Chap­ter 11 pe­ti­tion filed Dec. 3.

Wester and two other top arch­dioce­san of­fi­cials

were ques­tioned un­der oath for about three hours.

“Does the debtor un­der­stand and agree that the pro­duc­tion of doc­u­ments is an es­sen­tial part of the ther­a­peu­tic heal­ing process for all the cred­i­tors? And per­haps even for all the Catholic com­mu­ni­ties all over this Arch­dio­cese,” asked the chairman of the cred­i­tors’ com­mit­tee.

Will the doc­u­ments, with vic­tims’ names redacted, be made pub­lic, “so that the pub­lic can never for­get what hap­pened, and use the doc­u­ments for re­search and other pub­lic pur­poses,” the chairman asked.

Wester pledged to do so, say­ing he be­lieved trans­parency was “very 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 over the past year as hav­ing been “cred­i­bly ac­cused” of sex­ual abuse of mi­nors.

On a sep­a­rate topic, Tony Sal­gado, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the arch­dio­cese fi­nan­cial ser­vices divi­sion, said the arch­dio­cese is pro­vid­ing a to­tal of $40,000 a year to two priests who have been cred­i­bly ac­cused of mo­lest­ing chil­dren. He pro­vided the in­for­ma­tion in re­sponse to ques­tions by Los An­ge­les at­tor­ney James Stang, hired to rep­re­sent the cred­i­tors. The names of the two priests weren’t dis­closed.

“We have an obli­ga­tion to pro­vide as­sis­tance for their care,” Sal­gado said. Wester added that the arch­dio­cese is bound to do so by the Canon Law of the Catholic Church.

But Stang, who has rep­re­sented more than 13 cred­i­tors’ com­mit­tees in­volv­ing sur­vivors of sex­ual abuse around the coun­try, said the bishop of the Catholic dio­cese of Wilm­ing­ton, Del., once told him that if he was or­dered by the Vat­i­can to make such a pay­ment to an ac­cused priest “he would re­sign.”

“Do you have a com­ment on that?” Stang asked Wester. “No,” Wester re­sponded. An­other mem­ber of the cred­i­tors’ com­mit­tee asked Wester whether the arch­dio­cese would put funds aside to pro­vide ther­apy for cur­rent and fu­ture vic­tims.

“Ther­apy would re­ally help some of us,” the man said. “But it takes funds and those funds need to be avail­able im­me­di­ately.”

Wester said pay­ing for ther­apy for vic­tims “is some­thing we do au­to­mat­i­cally … no ques­tions asked.” He gave the man the name of a con­tact in the arch­dio­cese and told him to sub­mit his ther­apy bills.

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 late April and early June of this year, said Ford El­saesser, an Idaho bank­ruptcy at­tor­ney re­tained by the arch­dio­cese.

Af­ter the meet­ing on Thurs­day, Wester re­it­er­ated his com­mit­ment to help vic­tim sur­vivors now and into the fu­ture.

“They’re ob­vi­ously hurt, and it’s a very dif­fi­cult thing they’ve been through,” Wester said of the men on the cred­i­tors com­mit­tee, most of whom were mid­dle-aged.

Over the years, the Arch­dio­cese of Santa Fe 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 from judges when law­suits were filed al­leg­ing priest abuse and neg­li­gence by church of­fi­cials. Such cases were set­tled out of court, with­out pub­lic tri­als, and set­tle­ments have been se­cret. Es­ti­mates on the num­ber of cases filed against the arch­dio­cese since the early 1990s have been as high as 300.

In 2017, state District Judge Alan Malott agreed to a re­quest by KOBTV to un­seal the files of three priests ac­cused of mo­lest­ing dozens of chil­dren dat­ing back to the 1960s. The arch­dio­cese at the time had ob­jected to the re­lease of nearly 1,000 pages of court records, con­tend­ing pub­lic dis­clo­sure would en­dan­ger the right to a fair trial and hurt the pri­vacy rights of vic­tims and their fam­i­lies.

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