More than a dozen abusive clergy served local parishes

By Cody Hooks
Posted 9/21/17

At least a dozen priests identified by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe as sexual abusers served in parishes in Questa, Taos and Peñasco from the 1950s to 1990s, a Taos News investigation found.

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More than a dozen abusive clergy served local parishes


Armando Martinez grew up in Questa, the village of alfalfa fields and a couple of thousand people at the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Martinez didn't look for work at the nearby molybdenum mine, like a lot of young men from the village. Instead, he went into a Catholic seminary, became a priest and headed parishes from Belen to Tucumcari, Springer to El Rito.

In May 1997, Martinez was found naked and dead, his body left in a ditch near Bernalillo. His murderer turned himself in days later.

The deep, reverberating shock of losing Martinez in such a horrific way was only made more nerve-wracking when then-Archbishop Michael Sheehan revealed in a press conference that Martinez had been restricted from his duties as a priest in 1993 after allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor were made against him.

Sheehan's revelation about Martinez came at the beginning of a tidal wave of allegations of sexual abuse and subsequent lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, in particular.

Twenty years after he died, Martinez was among the 74 priests, deacons and brothers identified by the archdiocese who were found guilty of sexually abusing a minor.

Archbishop John C. Wester, who assumed his office two years ago, released the list of priests Sept. 12. Not only had allegations of sexual abuse been levied against the clergy on the list, but they have all been found guilty in civic law, church law or both.

The list of priests isn't comprehensive, but it is largely considered a step in the right direction of transparency and accountability, a means of healing for victims of abuse and restoring trust in the church.

While The Taos News initially reported three of the named priests served in Taos County, further review of archives and an online database of credibly accused priests reveals that at least a dozen priests identified by the church as sexual abusers served in parishes in Questa, Taos and Peñasco from the 1950s to 1990s.

Furthermore, at least two priests who were not included in the archdiocese list have also been previously identified and convicted as sexual abusers in other jurisdictions.

'Transient' and beloved fathers

There's no single profile for the priests convicted as child sexual abusers.

Martinez never acted as a parish priest in Taos County, but he stands out as a native son who went into the ministry.

Most, however, were not from New Mexico.

The Rev. George Weisenborn, who was a priest in Peñasco around 1977, hailed from Rochester, New York. When he came to the secluded mountain community that's too small for a municipal government, Weisenborn was the fourth parish priest in two years. He'd just finished a stint at St. Bernadette's in Albuquerque, though "transient stays in parishes in Oklahoma and Kansas" preceded his time in New Mexico, according to a 1977 Taos News article.

Some priests became deeply embedded in their communities because of the length of their tenure. The Rev. Johnny Lee Chavez, first identified as a sexual abuser in the archdiocese list, served at San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos from 1987 until 1994, when he took an opening in Pecos.

On the other hand, the Rev. Irving Klister was the leader in Ranchos for fewer than three months.

The priests not only served in the larger congregations, but also in smaller parishes, such as Arroyo Seco's Holy Trinity. The Rev. Ed Donelan was priest of that church for less than a year around 1957; he would later run a troubled school for boys that was owned and eventually shuttered by the archdiocese. The Rev. Conran Runnebaum (identified as a credibly accused priest in 2014 by the Gallup diocese) also headed Holy Trinity, from 1982 to 1989.

And priests had all manner of responsibilities beyond Mass. Monsignor Clarence Schoeppner, for example, was briefly the leader of Taos' Catholic Central High School in the early 1960s.

The Rev. Michael O'Brien served less than two years in both Questa and Ranchos and is at the center of at least 18 sexual abuse lawsuits. He was roundly adored and known beyond the parishes as the founder of the 100-mile Pilgrimage for Vocations - one route of the weeklong pilgrimage that begins north of Questa in Costilla, an unincorporated community near the Colorado border.

'An old wound'

Knowing the contours of history and geography is paramount to understanding how the most recent news from the archdiocese landed in the hearts and minds of the faithful in interwoven communities like Questa.

Questa, 25 miles north of Taos, is the last outpost in the county going north from the Taos area toward Colorado that has more than one gas station. To the west is the Río Grande Gorge, to the east is the mine that shuttered in 2014. Questa's church, St. Anthony, is surrounded by dirt alleys. The deacon works at the hardware store, his office overlooking an aisle with spare chainsaw blades and tackle boxes. More people in the village seem to wear crucifixes than not.

Like Boston, Massachusetts, where much of the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal centered, Northern New Mexico is a tightly wound cultural milieu.

"The priest is one of the only people who automatically has respect in the community," said Jacobo Baca, an adjunct professor of Chicano/a studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Even in tiny communities, locals usually have a say in the selection of leaders, be they the mayor, school board or acequia association. Yet when it comes to the priest - the community's direct line to both the church and to God - "the community has no voice whatsoever," said Baca, a native of Peñasco.

When allegations of sexual abuse surfaced, the feelings of betrayal ran as deep as faith. The hurt is still obvious in the dodgy, pent-up looks from locals at the mere mention of a molesting priest.

"Like anything, there was denial in the beginning," Baca said.

The archdiocese's list was a revelation about only a handful of priests - Chavez; Thomas Wilkinson, priest in Peñasco between 1965 and 1970; and Roger Martinez, a Ranchos de Taos priest.

Most others, however, had been previously identified as sexual abusers in lawsuits from the mid-1990s and within the last five years. In that way, the archdiocese list is old news.

"This had already been scabbed over for so many years," Larry Torres, a deacon at Holy Trinity in Arroyo Seco and history professor at University of New Mexico-Taos, told The Taos News.

The listing of names, while "courageous" on the part of the current archbishop, "opens up an old wound," he said.

And it is not only survivors of sexual abuse who must deal with the jostling and triggering of painful memories. So, too, must the communities where these priests lived and worked.

"It involves the whole family and the whole family is the community," Torres said.

Torres noted that one element that's especially painful for parishioners is the fact that many of these well-liked priests are long dead, unable to defend themselves and their legacy.

Yet the legacy of the church is now undeniable.

The church had a sophisticated operation of moving priests around parishes in the archdiocese, even as allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against them.

Furthermore, some of those priests associated with Taos County, such as Weisenborn and Questa's Martinez, spent time at a secretive facility in Jemez Springs. For many decades, the Servants of the Paraclete sought to cure clergy of their sexual inclinations and brought priests from across the country to Northern New Mexico.

The Jemez Springs facility was a source of "protection and proliferation of pedophile priests," said Albuquerque-based attorney Brad D. Hall, who has brought nearly 60 lawsuits against the archdiocese, in addition to other religious organizations, on behalf of sexual abuse survivors.

Rebuilding the church

"It's important to remember that the gospel of Jesus is perfect, but the church is run by imperfect people. It's a very real human institution with a divine message," said Torres.

The church - from local parishes to the Vatican - is figuring out how to move past its very real imperfections.

Firstly, lawsuits and settlements have forced the church to pay for mental and behavioral health services for victims who come forward. According to Annette M. Klimpka, the archdiocese victims' assistance coordinator, if the victim is already working with a licensed therapist or other professional, the church foots the bill. If not, the closest services will be tracked down, she said.

Some reforms are well entrenched. All Roman Catholic Church volunteers, including walkers on the 100-mile pilgrimage, must take sexual abuse awareness training.

But the archdiocese also must chart a way forward after last week's revelation.

"We are not just dropping the information into the laps [of local parishes] and saying, 'Do what you want.' The archdiocese wants to follow it up with healing," Klimpka said.

Among the ideas she mentioned were "healing Masses" and traveling panel discussions that would visit parishes like those in Taos, Questa and Peñasco.

"We want parishioners to show up, ask their questions and also be able to take the information we're giving. Some people are only going to hear what they want to hear. ... I want people to be open to hear what the archdiocese has to say," Klimpka said. She did not know when those Masses and discussions would be scheduled.

Yet some people are skeptical of the usefulness of such moves.

Esther Garcia, former mayor of Questa and a member of St. Anthony Church, told The Taos News she shares the concern that fellow parishioners won't participate.

Even still, Garcia is not worried about the integrity of the Catholic community.

"Our faith is deeply rooted," she said. The faith she talked about, the faith she relies on in her daily life, doesn't look like a packed house for Sunday morning Mass. But it was obvious in the five-year restoration of the historic adobe church that had partially collapsed, she said. Thousands of people volunteered thousands of hours of labor to rebuild the sanctuary into a gem among parishes in Northern New Mexico.

"These parishes have survived because there's a very intense and strong parish identity," said UNM's Baca. While the people in the community of the faithful in Northern New Mexico are buttressed by fraternal organizations, such as the Hermanos, the repeated revelations of sex abuse have changed the role of the parish priest, he said.

Just as the church itself lost face, religious leaders assigned by the archdiocese don't necessarily have the wholesale trust and respect they once did.

"When people feel served by the church, then they'll serve in the church," Baca said.


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