New Mexico archdiocese to file for bankruptcy over sex abuse

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced Thursday it will soon be filing for bankruptcy protection, as the Catholic church in New Mexico has settled numerous claims of sexual abuse by clergy over the years and is close to depleting its reserves.

About 20 dioceses and other religious orders around the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy protection as a result of clergy sex abuse claims, according to lawyers representing the archdiocese.

Archbishop John Wester said he had been contemplating the action for years but that the archdiocese had reached a tipping point and he wanted to ensure there would be resources to provide compensation for victims.

"I wish to make clear that our first and foremost concern is the victims of sexual abuse and our desire to do all we can to provide for their compensation," he told reporters. "Reorganization helps us to provide in an equitable manner, especially for those who could come forward in the future as well as those who have already taken the courageous step of making a claim."

Wester acknowledged a charged atmosphere, pointing to the clergy sex abuse investigation in Pennsylvania and other cases that have garnered national attention. He said the archdiocese has about three dozen cases and he said there will likely be more.

The announcement came as the state attorney general's office served a pair of search warrants on Wednesday, seeking documents related to two former New Mexico priests who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.

The warrants, made public Thursday, describe in graphic detail the sexual abuse endured by children years ago at the hands of the two priests.

The warrants were based on the statements of two unidentified victims and a confidential informant who provided information about the church not following through on settlements and giving ultimatums to victims. That included threats of stopping paid treatment if victims went to authorities with their claims or sought help from doctors that weren't referred by the church.

Brad Hall, an attorney who has represented more than 100 victims of Catholic clergy abuse in New Mexico, said survivors could be helped by the bankruptcy system to get closure and more transparency.

Calling the archdiocese one of the epicenters of clergy sex abuse in the U.S., Hall suggested the bankruptcy petition is not about money but rather about stopping future claims and trying to control access to past records.

New Mexico has a long history with clergy sex abuse because many priests from around the country were sent to the state in the 1960s to get treatment for pedophilia. Victims, lawyers and church documents show the priests were later assigned to parishes and schools across the state.

Numerous lawsuits resulted over the years, and the church was forced during the 1990s to begin publicly addressing the problem.

Wester outlined some of the changes that were made, from adopting a zero tolerance policy and establishing an independent review board to requiring background checks and regular training.

He also said the church has done its best to provide support and healing for those who have been harmed by abuse.

Church officials could not immediately estimate how many millions of dollars have been paid out to settle claims.

"It's a tragedy this ever happened in the first place," he said, adding that he believes the Chapter 11 reorganization is a good way to go forward and will have the most promising outcome for everyone.

As part of the process, attorneys said survivors who have filed claims will be represented in bankruptcy court and notice will be put out for those who have yet to file claims. Once all the claims are filed, the archdiocese will try to reach a collective settlement with all the plaintiffs, a process that could take a year or more.

As for future claims, the court can approve an amount that would be set aside in a special fund for victims to seek recourse.

The archdiocese was first to announce Wednesday that it had provided the state attorney general's office with records related to former priests Marvin Archuleta and Sabine Griego. The two are on the archdiocese's list of clergy members who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.

Church officials said their staff would continue to cooperate with prosecutors and law enforcement, but prosecutors said the records were only provided after serving a search warrant.

Attorney General Hector Balderas in a letter accused the archdiocese's legal team of delaying and creating barriers to records that he described as vital to his investigation.

Wester denied that allegation.

Letters exchanged between prosecutors and lawyers for the archdiocese show they have been at odds over access for months.

State prosecutors in September asked to review personnel records for any material that might be related to past or present allegations of abuse. Letters seeking "full disclosure and transparency" were sent to the archdiocese as well as church leaders in Las Cruces and Gallup.

The request came in the wake of a grand jury report that said more than 300 Catholic priests abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. That report said senior figures in the church hierarchy systematically covered up complaints.