A Journey Toward Healing

Abused as teenager at seminary, N.M. man struggles to find peace

Story by Cody Hooks
Photographs by Morgan Timms
Posted 11/15/18

Donald Naranjo was 15 years old when a priest at the seminary began to to abuse him. This is about what happened after that.

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A Journey Toward Healing

Abused as teenager at seminary, N.M. man struggles to find peace

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Donald Naranjo had gone back to the seminary campus in Santa Fe only once since he was a teenager, but driving through the city, he still knew where to turn: make a right at the midcentury house with a double garage, go east about a mile, turn left.

Naranjo, now 70, was a sophomore in high school when he convinced his parents to let him heed a calling. He started his studies to be a priest at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary on the eastern edge of the city near the foothills. For a kid from the Española Valley, a devoutly Catholic and mostly Hispanic community about an hour north of the seminary, it was the kind of choice that makes a family proud.

“If you wanted to seek a vocation in the church, it was wonderful,” Naranjo said. “You’d be right there next to God.”

Naranjo’s mom, sitting behind the wheel of the family’s Ford Falcon, dropped her son off at the seminary in August 1963.

The abuse started soon after. Naranjo was 15 years old.

Naranjo dropped out of the seminary, moved home and quit going to church. Throughout his life, that year and a half of training to be a priest was a blank stretch in his memory that was otherwise filled with a stint in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, a marriage and a divorce, drinking and sobriety, a second marriage and decades of sleepless nights.

While getting help with post-traumatic stress disorder that he assumed was caused by his time in combat, the images of repeated sexual abuse at the seminary flooded back into his mind.

That was four years ago.

Memories wrap around the body like muscles and tendons. Tense shoulders, the tempo of steps, a smile switched off.

When Naranjo walked around the shady seminary campus earlier this year, he held his hands gently behind his back, occasionally, and just slightly, bowing his head. When he walked into the chapel where he used to hear the cloistered nuns sing at midday, he dipped his finger in the holy water and crossed himself.

Nobody was around. The campus was hushed.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “The beauty of this place.”

“And then all that ugly crap that happened.”

CONFESSION

Life at a seminary for high school-aged boys was a lot like school anywhere else, with classes, homework and PE. Naranjo recalls playing tennis on courts that were torn up to make way for a lawn and running with the class up a piñon-covered hill in the mountains.

Sometimes, Naranjo and his friends met there to smoke a cigarette, the last bastion of teenage rebellion. From the top, you can see the whole city and the wide-open, high-desert landscape beyond it.

But in training to be a priest, his education and boarding school life was drenched in a Catholicism in transition — between the older norteño customs unique to this part of the country and the modernizing reforms that came out of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

The seminarians talked theology, attended Mass and went to confession.

For Naranjo, those most intimate moments of spilling his sins before a priest — God’s servant on Earth, the middleman between him and the divine — happened in a second-floor apartment on the other side of the main church.

Every week or two, Naranjo went to see Earl Bierman, a 31-year-old priest from Kentucky. Bierman was one of the many newly ordained men from elsewhere in the country stationed in New Mexico by leaders in the Catholic Church.

“He would have me kneel next to him, so I could go through my confession,” Naranjo said. “That moved into the fondling, the oral sex and the sodomy and...that stuff.”

Naranjo left the seminary in 1964 just before Thanksgiving.

When Bierman died in prison in 2005, he was serving out a 20-year sentence for pleading guilty to sexually abusing boys across three Kentucky counties while he was a priest.

SILENCE

Outside of Catholicism, disdain for the church’s history of widespread abuse rolls off the tongue as easily as the Lord’s Prayer might for one of the faithful. Yet in the communities of Northern New Mexico, places like Naranjo’s hometown, where “all the families were tightly knit,” the subject of priests abusing children is often still hush-hush.

Naranjo remembers an “unwritten rule of silence” during his semesters at the seminary.

Going home, he found that it was governed by the same insidious culture of keeping quiet.

“You don’t share this with anybody,” he said. “And if you do, who’s going to believe you?”

After Naranjo left the seminary, he stopped going to church. His mom chewed him out when she caught him, so he started grabbing a bulletin on Sunday mornings, wandering around outside until the end of the service and then handing her the false proof he’d gone.

“The church was everything in rural communities, and you never spoke bad of your priest,” he said. “I knew how my grandmother was, my mom and my aunts. There was nobody to tell. There was no one to turn to. I didn’t want to cause any discord, so I buried this and shouldered it.”

The culture of silence is deafening given two factors: the reported frequency and widespread nature of the abuse in New Mexico and the more than two decades that have passed since the evidence of it was first made public. New Mexico had many of the facts even before the abuse in the Boston diocese became synonymous with the “crisis” as a whole.

New Mexico “was arguably the epicenter of 20th century priestly sexual violence,” Kathleen Holscher, a University of New Mexico professor of American studies and the Roman Catholic studies chair, wrote in an August article in Religion Dispatches.

Though multiple focal points of sexually abusive priests emerged around the country, the concentration in New Mexico is notable.

“Even a roster of ‘just’ 82 accused priests means that the (Santa Fe) archdiocese has been home to one alleged abuser for every 4,000 or so present-day Catholics living here,” she wrote.

“It’s safe to say that during the 20th century, New Mexicans were exposed to abusive priests at a rate much higher — 50 percent higher, or more — than Catholics in the dioceses named in the latest (Pennsylvania) grand jury report.”

The concentration of priests has born a concentration of sexual abuse allegations and lawsuits. Like Naranjo’s story, most of the lawsuits brought against the church deal with instances of abuse from the 1960s to the 1980s.

A 2004 study by researchers at John Jay College, prepared for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, showed that alleged abuse by priests peaked in the late 1970s and that 10,667 cases of sexual abuse had been officially reported by 2003.

More than 350 victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe have been documented, including in four lawsuits alleging abuse by former Taos County priests that were filed in the past year. At least two lawsuits allege Bierman abused young men at the Santa Fe seminary: one from 1995 and Naranjo’s from 2016.

And according to Naranjo’s attorney, Levi Monagle, “Certainly it is fair to say that... there are many more victims who remain unknown.”

For many victims, like Naranjo, it took decades to acknowledge what happened.

SURVIVAL 


After he graduated from the high school in Española, Naranjo spent about four years in the Navy as a medic. He was deployed to Vietnam and worked in a small clinic outside of Da Nang.

Though he wasn’t fighting, he wasn’t insulated from the worst of war: bodies in pieces; a boy, the same age as his kid brother, with his skull blown off; Naranjo’s own arm elbow-deep in a man’s chest, trying to restart his heart.

Naranjo came back, moved to Albuquerque and started a family.

Eventually, they relocated to Michigan for a few years, where he earned a doctorate in education. He concentrated his studies in psychology and the ways groups and institutions, such as the Catholic Church, work together.

But that time of his life was also marked by the scars of his traumas.

From the time he was a teenager in his last year of high school, Naranjo drank, so he could deal with people and fall asleep. He coped that way for a long time until an embarrassing night in 1983 at his then-wife’s work event.

He decided to get sober after that.

They moved back to New Mexico, where Naranjo ran a behavioral health organization for much of his career. But he had traded two or three cocktails before bed for a workaholic’s schedule.

Even though he came home from the clinic exhausted, he still woke up two or three times a night. To deal with the sleepless nights, he began swimming every morning at 4 a.m. But still, he was overworked and emotionally isolated. And so it went.

Naranjo’s first marriage was over by 2003 when they settled custody of their two boys, who are grown now.

Naranjo married his second wife, Simona, in 2005. The two now live in a gated community on the southwest side of Albuquerque.

Outside of their marriage, Naranjo was mostly “closed up, not letting anybody in,” Simona said.

“I pretty much know what the walls are like, the walls you build to not let anyone in,” she said. “You don’t want to deal with why all this stuff is going on. It’s too hard to deal with but, at some point, you have to.

“He told me about what he did at the time he was out in Vietnam,” Simona said. “I pushed him to go to the VA (Veterans Affairs Medical Center), to go to a therapy session and see what came of it.”

It was 2014 when she made the suggestion and 2015 when he was officially diagnosed with PTSD.

“It took a lot to open him up,” she said.

Naranjo wasn’t naturally vulnerable in a therapist’s office, at least not at first.

“They’d say, ‘You’re really wonderful at intellectualizing. You can talk about everything, but you never mention a feeling,’ “ he said. His therapist recorded their sessions, where Naranjo would relive his experiences from the war. He listened to those recordings over and over again to understand his pain and defenses.

“I remembered it all, everything,” he said — except for the year and a half at the seminary. Other than running, tennis and the faces of a few classmates, he couldn’t recall anything else.

The blank unsettled him.

“Why? What could it have been that I couldn’t remember?” he asked.

One of Naranjo’s few friends cautioned him about the stress of finding whatever was hid- den in the back of his memory. What if Naranjo couldn’t handle it, with everything else he was uncovering about the war? He didn’t worry about that.

“I needed some closure in my life.”

REMEMBERING

During the deepest part of sleep, the brain processes all the events of the day. Trivial details are thrown out, useful information is stored and the upsetting things — the trauma, the seeds of a life with anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD — are buried.

It’s how a person moves on with their days after something like a rape. It’s how Naranjo moved on with his life.

After months of talking with his VA therapist, Naranjo decided to take his treatment a step further. He went to a professional trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, what Naranjo calls his rapid eye movement therapy.

During a session, the patient moves their eyes back and forth for half an hour or more. Or they get some other type of bilateral stimulation, such as a sound that alternates between either side of a pair of headphones. The treatment mimics what happens during REM sleep and through that process, the brain peels back the layers of the decades, shedding light on the traumas that couldn’t be seen.

He did the therapy for about two months. Naranjo finally started to remember.

That priest, his confessor, Father Bierman. Being called into his second-floor apartment, 50 yards from where all the guys were standing.

The room. The chair in the middle of the room. The starched, black cassock that hung down to the priest’s ankles. His socks.

The priest saying why it had to happen: “I was going to have to experience certain things, so I could deal with my parishioners.”

The abuse.

And after it was over, outside the window, the mountains.

He found the answer he was looking for, filling in the blank spot in his memory.

He didn’t sleep any better.

As the memories of the early 1960s abuse came into focus, so did small moments throughout his life that now looked like ripples from the trauma. As his own sons were growing up, he took them to church in Albuquerque’s St. Bernadette’s parish.

He always told his sons to never go anywhere alone with a priest. They agreed, but didn’t understand why. Once Naranjo told them about Bierman, they said, “Dad, that makes a lot of sense.”

Even though Naranjo could articulate the “logical” reasons he didn’t say a word about the abuse as a teenage boy — the power of the church and its leaders, and what it might have done to his family — he couldn’t stop asking himself questions laced with blame: Why hadn’t he told someone? Why didn’t he stop it? What more could he have done?

Simona watched as depression and anger crept over her husband. “I knew it hurt,” she said. “You could see it in him. He would cry. I had seen him cry once before, when his son went to Iraq. I knew it was bad.”

“It’s just going to eat you, and it will,” she said.

Bierman had been dead for a decade, about as long as the seminary was shuttered, but Naranjo wanted whatever justice he could get.

Since 2012, the Brad D. Hall law firm has mounted dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese and through that process won victories of transparency and accountability for survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

Naranjo walked into their Albuquerque office to talk through his options for a legal remedy.

The criminal statute of limitations in Naranjo’s case had long since passed, so they decided to file a civil lawsuit against the seminary and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Though Bierman was a priest from a diocese in Kentucky, they argued it was the church’s top leaders in New Mexico who knowingly let an abuser into the seminary to have free reign over young men.

Naranjo became John Doe 60.

A KNOWN ABUSER

For all the years of suppressing his trauma with alcohol and work, for all the therapy, and for all the courage it took to finally file the lawsuit, it’s so light in his hands. The complaint, his version of what happened, is just seven pages. The whole public record of the case is only 22 pages , front and back.

“In April of 1962, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe inexplicably assigned Fr. Bierman — a known sexual abuser of high school age boys — to serve as a teacher at (the) seminary,” the lawsuit reads.

Bierman, who worked at the seminary until 1965, had an extensive profile as an accused and convicted abuser.

A 1995 lawsuit stemmed from one man’s experience at the Immaculate Heart of Mary campus, where Bierman reportedly “molested numerous children there,” according to a Santa Fe New Mexican article from the time. And according to a 1995 news report about a civil trial in Kentucky, where Bierman served for three decades, the Covington diocese received as many as 73 abuse complaints about the priest.

Like hundreds of other priests from around the country, Bierman came to New Mexico through a facility in Jemez Springs where clergymen could get treatment for alcoholism. But the facility became infamous as a dumping ground for sexually abusive priests from other dioceses.

The facility was run by the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order established in New Mexico and with close ties to both the church hierarchy and the local parishes. The order eventually separated from the archdiocese.

Multiple lawsuits, as well as court documents such as those from the Pennsylvania grand jury report, detail how sexually abusive priests were sent to the facility and then farmed out to parishes and schools around New Mexico as part of their treatment.

From the 1990s onward, the stream of lawsuits against the archdiocese also claimed a widespread cover-up by church officials.

The archdiocese and seminary “failed or refused to report Fr. Bierman to law enforcement at any time, knowing he was abusing minors, which should have been done prior to the abuse of (Naranjo),” according to his 2016 lawsuit.

“As a result of these failures to report, the sexual abuse of children by priests like Fr. Bierman continued unabated and unchecked for many years, only because the perpetrators were priests, and because their supervisors were priests and bishops,” it reads.

The archdiocese denied many of the allegations in its response to the complaint.

It wasn’t money Naranjo wanted out of the process, but transparency, and therefore heal- ing, for other potential survivors, he said.

“I wanted the archdiocese to go through their records, ID my classmates and send a letter telling them the abuse was happening and there’s help available,” he said.

The response was a firm “no,” he said.

“They told me they could set up a meeting with the archbishop, and he could shake your hand and say he’s sorry. Well, after everything that had happened, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the idea,” Naranjo said.

The church’s lawyers didn’t question if the abuse happened but attacked him for not remembering the abuse, especially given his background in behavioral health, he said.

“It’s almost like what you hear in the news about rape victims, where the defense attorneys attack the victim. They don’t claim it didn’t take place. They just say... you should have known,” he said.

“I explained to them that when I left the seminary I drank to be able to socialize because I could not trust anybody. I lived a life of not really having people I could trust outside of my sister and brother and my spouse,” he said.

“That takes a big toll on a person,” he said.

‘MY CROSS TO BEAR’


After about four months, the day finally came when Naranjo and his lawyer would hammer out the settlement agreement with the archdiocese.

The setting: a generic office, each party in a separate room. The action: lawyers walking back and forth with offer and counteroffer. This was the whole day, from morning to evening.

Simona remembers the hours passing by without that many words being spoken. “They said yes; they said no. We said no; they said yes. They said this much...It wasn’t really talking about what happened and what they actually did,” she said.

With his one demand rejected outright and the negotiations dragging on, Naranjo was ready to pass on a settlement and get his day in court.

Simona didn’t like the idea.

“I knew what this was doing to him, with the crying, the hurt, the depression,” she said. “It was like, do you really want to keep this on the back of your mind for the next two months, three months, six months? Let’s get on with it, so we can work on you getting better.”

Ultimately, Naranjo backed off a trial for a different reason.

“I didn’t mind agreeing to go to court, but they said ‘Fine, we’ll have to depose all your family members,’” he said. His wife — his rock through this whole ordeal — would be questioned, and so would his brother and sister, both his kids and maybe other family.

“That’s not going to happen,” Naranjo told them. “I’m not subjecting my family to it. I’m not bringing them in here. This is my cross to bear.”

He still hadn’t shaken the rule of silence that kept him quiet and isolated decades ago.

“So we settled it,” he said.

He can’t say how much money was involved in the settlement because of a nondisclosure agreement. But after two years, this he can say for certain: the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the church at large haven’t been held accountable, not really.

He’s still angry about that.

“I don’t get upset about Vietnam because I asked to go. I volunteered to join, to be a corps- man to take care of people who were hurt. It still haunts me, but that was my decision,” he said.

“What happened at the seminary was not my decision.”

RECKONING AND REFORMS

Almost every time a new piece of information has surfaced in the past year about the church’s history of child sexual abuse — from the Pennsylvania grand jury report that connected the abuse and cover-up in that state to the Servants of the Paraclete, to the New Mexico attorney general’s demand for more than 50 years of church records — the archdiocese has quickly responded. It focuses on survivors’ healing and agrees to cooperate with the state.

Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester said in an August interview with The Taos News that the institution and its leaders have “learned a lot in the past 20 years” about how to make the church “as safe an environment as humanly possible.”

Priests are more trained today than they’ve ever been to assist abuse survivors, he said, though they’re are also told to refer those cases when its “beyond their scope.”

Furthermore, priests in training undergo multiple rounds of background checks and psychological evaluations, he said.

And unlike the church’s historical handling of sexually abusive priests, Wester said that if someone reports abuse by an active member of the clergy, they’re removed from the ministry, and investigations are conducted alongside law enforcement and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

The church takes a backseat in those probes. “They guide us,” Wester said. “They’re the professionals in that.”

Wester says the church has made steps to reckon with the past as well.

A major undertaking was creating a list of more than 70 priests, brothers and members of religious orders who were “credibly accused” of sexually abusing a minor, meaning they were convicted in public courts, by canon law or both.

The list was published in September 2017 and updated with parish assignments in August and November of this year.

Though it is not the first list of its kind, advocacy groups give survivors the credit for its creation, arguing they are the force behind more honesty and accountability.

At least 16 of the priests named in the list served in Taos County communities.

The list is populated with names of some long-time and well-liked priests, religious leaders who were beacons in rural communities.

Among them are Fr. Michael O’Brien, a priest who served Taos County in the 1960s and is the center of at least 17 abuse lawsuits in the Taos, Ranchos, Questa and Peñasco parishes. He started the Pilgrimage for Vocations, an annual, 100-mile trek that still draws hundreds of Catholics nearly half a century later.

Also on the list is Fr. Ed Donelan, who in the 1950s established a boys home that was eventually shut down by the state due to rampant abuse. Donelan even used The Taos News to recruit local boys for his school.

The archdiocese did not respond to a request for a follow-up interview about Naranjo’s case, nor did it respond to questions about the history of the seminary, the number of abusive priests removed from active ministry, the number of lawsuit settlements or the amount of money spent on lawsuits related to sexual abuse.


FOR JUSTICE, A START

When Naranjo heard one New Mexico story about an abusive priest in September, it hit especially close to home.

Fr. Arthur Perrault, a priest accused of sexually assaulting minors who went into hiding in the 1990s, was extradited from Morocco back to New Mexico for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old child while a priest at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Prosecutors were only able to file charges because the most recent allegation, from the 1990s, fell within a narrow federal statute of limitations. At least three dozen people have named Perrault as an abuser.

He was the priest at St. Bernadette’s in Albuquerque when Naranjo still took his sons to church.

Perrault is in jail and facing trail. That, Naranjo said, “is a start.”

But considering how fiercely the Roman Catholic Church will try to protect its assets, he said, victims need more.

That’s why Naranjo worked with Sen. Mary Kay Papen to pass legislation in 2017 that modifies the civil statute of limitations related to sexual abuse crimes against minors. Under the new law, even someone Naranjo’s age has three years to file civil actions after they first document the abuse with a medical or behavioral health professional.

Still, New Mexico has an “ambiguous” statute of limitations when it comes to criminal prosecution, said Monagle, one of the attorneys in Naranjo’s case: that there is a limit on bringing those cases forward, he said, is unjust.

Despite that, Naranjo has hope for survivors like himself.

HOPE AND HEALING
Now that Naranjo is retired, his therapy done and his lawsuit completed, he has his routine down. He still wakes up every morning before dawn to go to the pool. Hanging out with his kids, grandkids and his wife’s family fill his days.

He and Simona are closer because of everything that’s happened in the past four years. And he’s sleeping better now.

Though Naranjo doesn’t go to Mass, he does pray. He asks for guidance and patience most of all. “I do believe in God. I just have a hard time buying anything from the corporate side.”

But what about the people who haven’t come forward, who haven’t had the chance to heal?

“My fear is people feel so guilty and responsible they don’t seek help,” he said. “They have their whole lives ahead of them. I’m at the downward swing at 70. But there are kids out there in their 20s and 30s and 40s that aren’t enjoying a good quality of life. They deserve a chance to do that.”

He also hopes to reach his classmates from the seminary, old men who were once devout but vulnerable boys. He wants to reach other abuse survivors, the folks who’ve made it this far in their lives despite the trauma.

And he wants to reach parents, hoping they can have the conversations with their kids his parents never had with him.

Unlike the culture during his adolescence, when you’d never talk back to your parents or question the demands of a priest, young people today “question a lot, which is good,” he said.

“You should ask and not give blind obedience to anyone.”

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