Fallout of the abuse settlement: The note comes due at individual parishes

·9 min read

Jul. 3—Freshly planted pink lilies adorn the sculpture of a young Jesus on the west side of Santa Fe's Santuario de Nuestra Señora, one of the oldest churches in the country.

The inscription at the statue's base — "Dejen que los niños vengan a mi," ("Let the children come to me") — urges the Roman Catholic faithful to encourage their children to seek the company of Christ.

The words pack an irony that cannot be ignored as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and its parishes begin to dig their way out of debt stemming from a bankruptcy spurred by a $121.5 million settlement with 375 people who say they were sexually abused — most as children — by Roman Catholic priests.

In a letter issued last month, the archdiocese asked its churches to contribute a combined $12 million to help bridge the gap between what insurers will pay and the $75 million the archdiocese is responsible for covering.

As 93 individual parishes learn what they must put forward to help the archdiocese, and rank-and-file Catholics come to grips with the knowledge that even the crown jewel of the faith in New Mexico will be mortgaged to help pay the debt, even Archbishop John C. Wester acknowledges the fallout is profound.

But the ripple effect is just now being felt at the ground level, where churches and church members are absorbing the news — and the cost.

Though many priests in Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico would not comment publicly on the settlement's effects on their parishes last week, the Rev. Vincent Chávez, pastor at St. Therese of the Infant Jesus in Albuquerque, said it's wrong for devout and active Catholic families to be asked to contribute large sums to help satisfy the settlement.

"Catholics all over the Archdiocese should be angry," Chávez wrote in an email Friday. "... Basically the victims [family members of the victims] in various parishes are being asked to pay for their own settlements."

Chávez — a whistleblower who said he cooperated with investigators on criminal cases against pedophile priests and connected victims with civil attorneys when the abuse first began coming to light in the 1990s — said in an interview he supports compensation for the victims. He said own parents donated $40,000 specifically earmarked for the settlement last year.

But Chávez, 59, added he doesn't think the $12 million the archdiocese is asking individual churches to contribute is fair. He noted his parish already owes the archdiocese about $150,000 for a loan St. Therese had to take out to finish replacing its roof years ago.

"Now they are bleeding us for a further $104,727," Chavez wrote in an email.

St. Therese finance council director Liza Baca said in a phone interview she's worried about how the parish, located in an aging part of Albuquerque's North Valley, will continue meeting its other obligations if forced to take out a loan to help pay the settlement.

"We are barely staying above water right now," she said. "Our parishioners have given above and beyond to the parish and our church community can't give a whole lot of money. It's going to put us further in debt."

Baca said she's also afraid of what will happen if the parish doesn't pay.

"Is our parish going to be shut down?" she wondered aloud. "Several letters have said if we refused to pay it, they could get in to our savings and take it from there. Then how are we going to keep the lights on?"

Baca said the archdiocese has advised churches to obtain loans to cover their portion of the debt but acknowledged she's unsure of what would happen if her parish couldn't meet its obligations under the loan.

"If we default, what happens?" she asked. "Are they going to split up our parish? There are a lot of unanswered questions."

Depending on cooperation

Wester, who has headed the Santa Fe archdiocese since 2015, agreed to two separate interviews with The New Mexican to discuss the settlement. He dismissed the notion the archdiocese would force a parish to contribute.

"Most of our Catholics are very loving and forgiving people," he said. "No one is holding a gun to them saying they have to give."

Wester said the amount each parish was assigned to pay was calculated using a formula which takes into account each church's assets and ability to pay.

It didn't take into account how many victims may have come from the parish, he said.

He said that while some priests and parishes may not fully understand the settlement, he was adamant about the need for parishes to help.

"Sometimes there may be an initial misunderstanding of the connection," he said. "The pastors, they're their own corporation. And so we have to ask them to cooperate willingly, voluntarily, and we're finding that they really are. And I think even those — the very few that may not understand — that once we explain the situation to them, then they seem to go along just fine.

"I've been so pleased," Wester added, "because I know that I've talked to other brother bishops, and that's not always the case."

If a parish were excused from paying its part of the settlement, it could become responsible for paying its own settlements to individuals who sought claims, Wester said. But he reiterated the archdiocese couldn't act against an individual parish.

"There is nothing I could do," he said. "It's their choice, and they're a separate corporation.

"I don't think that'll happen," he added, "but we would have to get more money from other parishes to make up the difference."

Wester declined to provide an accounting of the amounts each parish has been assigned to contribute.

For his part, Chávez said it would be "an interesting legal test within the church" if, as the chief executive officer of the St. Therese Church corporation, he decided not to pay its share as determined by the archdiocese. But he said he intends to go along — in part because he took an oath of obedience when he joined the priesthood, and in part because he doesn't see a clear avenue to appeal.

"Yes, we are going to do it," he said. "We are going to do it reluctantly, and we are going to do it begrudgingly."

Cost of the fallout

But just how the question of debt will play out among parishioners from Socorro to Questa and Las Vegas to Belen is an unanswered question. Many reacted with shock at the news the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, considered the "Mother Church" in the archdiocese, was being mortgaged to pay the debt. Wester acknowledged the emotion as he discussed making the decision.

"We don't get to choose the crosses that God asks us to bear," Wester said. "It would be nice if we did. Of course, we would choose not to have any if we could help it. But the point is, we have the cross to bear and this is the cross that the church has been asked to carry to pay for the sins of the past and to help people who have been victimized by priest pedophiles.

"Is it fair? No, it's not fair, but it wasn't fair for the victims either to be victimized, and so we have to make it right to the extent that we can, conscious that it's never going to be fully compensated. But we do our best, and I think the parishes know that."

On a quiet Friday morning outside Nuestra Señora, a woman emerging from the 7 a.m. Mass said she and other parishioners are not pleased they are being asked pay for the past sins of the church's priests.

"Of course we don't agree with what's going on, because [the abuse] wasn't our deal," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "We are here for our own reasons, to pray to God."

The woman said she and other parishioners are changing the way they give now, donating specifically to certain causes as opposed to simply putting money in the collection plate.

"Why doesn't the Church pay it?" she asked. "The Church has lots of money. The churches belong to the people."

But Wester, who said his own residence was sold to help pay the debt, said the perception the church is rife with funding is a misconception.

"The church does not have a lot of money," he said. "We have a lot of land. But the land is to come together to worship God."

Wester said laypeople also often confused about the relationship between Catholic churches of the world and the Vatican in Rome. The organizations are connected in spirit and philosophy, he said, but not legally or financially.

"I can't call Pope Francis and say, 'Sell The Pietá for me; I need some money,' " Wester said, referring to the iconic sculpture at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Chávez said the lingering bitterness of the pedophile scandal remains fresh for some in the archdiocese, in part because of the way he said the first victims were treated when they came forward.

"They were told 'sorry' and given 16 counseling sessions, but 'If you see a lawyer, don't bother coming back to us.' ... That would anger the victims," he said.

Wester said money alone will not heal the victims, stressing the financial settlement is only one part of the equation. The archdiocese has held healing services and implemented significant reforms aimed at ensuring the abuse doesn't happen again.

"We have our priests and deacons and lay leaders and everybody renewing their safe environment program certification regularly, and we have audits yearly and we have all kinds of things in place to remind us and help us to keep children and young people safe," he said.

When asked if the abuse scandal would be a permanent stain on the church, Wester said it probably would.

"But I think at the same time, it can be a grace if it reminds us that we are sinners," he said. "That we need God's grace, that we have to be vigilant, that we can't get complacent, that we can't think that we've solved this problem once and for all.

"Historically, it's always going be there," he said. "But at the same time, I think it's a reality. It's the church as it is, and this is the church that God is redeeming. And so we go forward."