Priest Scandals Recall Santa Fe Cases

ByNils Kongshaug

May 26, 2002 -- To many Americans, it seems the Catholic Church is only now waking up to the reality of sexual abuse of children by priests.

But in New Mexico, Catholics are asking why the church needed to be woken up twice.

Nearly a decade ago, the archdiocese of Santa Fe was one of the first in the nation to face a public scandal of abuse by priests. At the height of the scandal, in 1993, some 20 priests stood accused of preying on children.

Treatment Center Drew Pedophiles

Many had been sent to New Mexico from other parts of the country. At that time, the church ran a treatment center for troubled priests in the mountains outside Santa Fe. Among the problems it treated was pedophilia and after treatment some priests were assigned to parishes in the area.

Ultimately, 187 settlements were paid to victims. The cost to the archdiocese is unknown since the settlements were secret, but estimates range upward from $25 million.

The archdiocese came close to bankruptcy. It appealed to parishes for donations and was forced to sell some of its property.

The scandal got the attention of the Vatican and of the national media when the then archbishop, Robert Sanchez, was forced to resign after being accused of carrying on sexual relationships with three adult women.

Zero Tolerance Adopted

Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who took over in 1994, adopted what today would be called a zero-tolerance policy.

"Immediately when I arrived I removed those priests who were truly guilty of misconduct with minors and did not give them ever an assignment," he says.

Sheehan set up a permanent review board composed primarily of lay people to review every allegation of priest abuse. The archdiocese even hired detectives to seek out victims who had not come forward.

Sheehan hired a former lieutenant-colonel in the Army, John Carney, who was newly ordained, to recruit and screen candidates for the priesthood.

"My job includes being a bit of a detective," says Carney, "searching for information they would not be willing to give me."

Some Priest Applicants ‘Weird’

Carney says two out of three candidates don't get past the first interview.

"Some of them are, frankly, weird, and you know there's no way this man could get up in front of 1,200 families every week and preach the gospel."

Carney says candidates for priesthood are older than they used to be, which makes his job easier because there are employment histories and school records to check. Candidates also are sent for psychological testing, including psychosexual testing, but Carney says he relies largely on instinct.

"Many of the perpetrators, when I met them, I knew they were flaky," he says. "Now, some were very devious and had a great façade. But the majority of the ones I knew were really not healthy guys, so I don't think it's that complicated."

‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’

Today, Archbishop Sheehan says the archdiocese is healthier than it was before the scandal.

"I guess my message would be that there is light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "It doesn't have to be a freight train."

The archdiocese finally emerged from debt this year. Twenty thousand new families registered with the church during Sheehan's tenure, and 20 men are studying to be priests in the archdiocese.

In this, Santa Fe may be a model for how the American church as a whole could emerge from the current scandal. But Santa Fe also raises a troubling question: How come the lessons of Santa Fe weren't learned a decade ago?

"Where were they?" Carney asks. "What planet were they on when we were here suffering and dealing with the truth, finally?"

Some Remain Angry

If Santa Fe is now healed, there are still scars. Many victims remain deeply angry and permanently alienated from the church.

Marlene Debrey-Nowak's two sons repeatedly were molested in her own home in the 1970's by a priest she had invited to live with them. She blames her sons' later emotional trouble on that abuse, and says the settlements for them to get counseling and remake their lives as adults were insufficient.

"I will never be active in the Roman Catholic Church again," she says, "because you have to have respect and trust for any organization you function in. I have no respect and no trust."

Next month, American bishops will meet in Dallas to draft a strategy for dealing with priest abuse. They are likely to adopt many of the remedies used a decade ago in New Mexico.

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