Priest Scandals Recall Santa Fe Cases

ByABC News
May 26, 2002, 1:25 PM

May 26 -- 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."