In priest abuse scandal, government probes and faithful prayers

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 9/13/18

That the Catholic Church has a longtime problem with priests and leaders sexually abusing children is no surprise among the faithful. But recent news out …

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In priest abuse scandal, government probes and faithful prayers

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That the Catholic Church has a longtime problem with priests and leaders sexually abusing children is no surprise among the faithful. But recent news out of Pennsylvania has prompted several states, including New Mexico, to pursue a more complete and public accounting of the church's involvement in a scandal that has undermined its global authority for decades.

In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a long and searing report on the church's systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse by its religious leaders in that state. This struck a familiar tone around the county. Now, attorneys general in at least seven states, including New Mexico, have announced they'll be mounting investigations.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has demanded the church in New Mexico hand over records spanning more than half a century related to child sexual abuse.

"It is time to demand full disclosure and full transparency," wrote Balderas in letters to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the dioceses in Las Cruces and Gallup. Since 2016, his office has investigated several priests who allegedly committed sexual abuse.

Documents demanded from the church include complaints of sexual abuse by any church official, the church's responses to those complaints, records related to parish reassignments for priests, counseling contracts and financial documents.

The scope of the request spans generations of New Mexicans. The attorney general demanded documents, including telegrams and text messages, dating back to 1950. The dioceses have until Oct. 5 to comply.

The archdiocese "intends to fully cooperate with legitimate authorities," Archbishop John C. Wester wrote in a statement.

According to attorneys at an Albuquerque law firm that represents victims of sexual abuse at the hand of clergy members, over 350 cases related to abuse have been brought against the Archdiocese.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report "lifted the lid on what was rotten and corrupt underneath," said Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Buried in more than 1,000 pages of the report were details that at least seven Pennsylvania priests spent time in New Mexico at a facility in Jemez Springs, which was used for priests who were ordered into treatment by church officials. One priest, Edmond Parrakow, admitted while at the New Mexico facility to having abused 35 boys in his previous posts.

"But what we found in Pennsylvania is no different from any diocese in the U.S…be it Oregon or Alabama or Illinois or Massachusetts. All these (investigations) are exposing the same kind of historic and systemic abuse and cover-up," Lennon said.

Several weeks ago, the organization made a call for attorneys general in all 50 states to impanel a grand jury. Several have responded with initial inquiries or document requests, including those in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Missouri.

While the seemingly swift movement toward accountability has sparked responses in some of the county's largest dioceses, it's also sent shock waves up the chain of command in the Catholic Church.

An archbishop and former Vatican ambassador to the United States publicly released a letter accusing Pope Francis, who assumed the papal office in 2013, of knowingly covering up high-level abuse in the church. The archbishop even called for Francis' resignation.

But that's going too far for the top church official in New Mexico.

The pope "has not wavered in his dedication to the poor and marginalized as he seeks to gather everyone into the kingdom of God," wrote Wester in an Aug. 31 letter. Wester warned against turning attention from supporting victims and preventing further abuse to "ecclesial politics."

Still, the church is continuing to hold space for religious and spiritual healing for victims and parishioners.

According to Wester, the church has done five "healing panels" where a victim, their family or a parishioner could speak with him and other church officials "to have a dialogue." The panels, conducted in the year since the archdiocese released a list of church officials who were "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse, were avenues for healing that were driven by lawsuits from victims.

And Wester has called for a day of "prayer, atonement and reparation for the sins of those bishops and priests who either abused children or failed to protect them." The day of special intentions, "especially for the healing of victims of sexual abuse," is set for Friday (Sept. 14).

Fr. Simeon Westerhoff, pastor of Peñasco's San Antonio de Padua parish, will be infusing those intentions into routine services and feast day celebrations.

"We have to face what has happened, the abuse and the cover-up. It's not just a crime, legally, but its a moral failure," said Westerhoff. Those moral failures have impacted the entire church, he said, even if the abuse isn't on the forefront of people's minds.

"This is just one time, but it cannot stop this Friday; it will be a topic for the foreseeable future," he said. "Pray for your shepherds, pray for each other and live your faith."

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