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AG: Church And State Must 'Come Clean' About Clergy Abuse

Hannah Colton / KUNM
The Diocese of Gallup sold the old chancery building in 2016 and downsized after declaring bankruptcy due to a group settlement with survivors of priest abuse.

On Tuesday, Sept. 4, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas ordered the state’s three Roman Catholic dioceses to give up decades’ worth of church records relating to allegations of sexual abuse and cover-up. Church leaders in Santa Fe, Gallup and Las Cruces have all said they'll cooperate. KUNM sat down with Balderas to talk about the investigation.

KUNM: You’ve given the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the Dioceses of Gallup and Las Cruces until Oct. 5 to produce records on dozens of priests accused of sexually abusing children. What kinds of information does your office already have on these priests? And what are you hoping to find?

BALDERAS: Well, we began an investigation in March of 2016. We quickly realized that the magnitude of the problem really needed to be addressed through a full-scale review of the dioceses in New Mexico. 

Listen to an extended version of KUNM's interview with NM Attorney General Hector Balderas.

KUNM: Specifically, what kinds of records are you hoping to obtain?

BALDERAS: Financial records, personnel records. Starting from top to bottom, I need to gauge not only how much the cover-up played a role in this tragedy, but more importantly, truly getting a sense of the victims. The numbers just don’t add up right now. We studied the amount of civil disclosures through litigation and lawsuits, and I believe there are many more families that have been impacted negatively. 

So we’re requesting a vast amount of documentation to really gain an understanding from 1950 to the current state of affairs. I wanted to make sure that I started with a sample that is not only concrete but really gives me a full gauge of multigenerational abuse that clearly has been confirmed.

KUNM: The majority of the sexual abuse that could be uncovered by this investigation likely happened many years ago – too long ago for criminal prosecutions?

BALDERAS: That’s correct. Most of the conduct we are going to be investigating probably will lead us to very limited criminal remedies, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have an honest conversation with the Legislature about re-opening up the civil statute of limitations to maybe create a treatment fund, or some kind of public health funds necessary so that victim families can draw these funds down.

I think it’s absurd that you can file a uranium claim, but you can’t file a treatment claim if you’ve somehow been harmed by the church. These may be some of the recommendations we come forward with.

KUNM: Attorneys and advocates for abuse survivors have also called on you to enlist a grand jury, like the one in Pennsylvania that worked for two years and recently released a massive report on priest sex abuse there.  Will you impanel a grand jury here? And what would it have the power to do?

BALDERAS: There may be a grand jury impaneled for the clergy abuse system, but right now I believe the cover-up is probably too widespread, and I want to come out first with some type of report. We are starting very broadly, much larger than a grand jury would be focused on if they were impaneled today. For instance, the Las Cruces Diocese has never had a disclosure. So we want to make sure we cover all four corners of the state.

I’m not saying we won’t impanel a grand jury. What I’m saying is that I believe the level of abuse is so horrific that you do not want to give direction to your law enforcement unit by itself, or impanel a grand jury, with limited information.

KUNM: The Catholic Church is beloved to many in New Mexico and deeply embedded in our state’s culture. The church is also historically secretive about their internal affairs. How can your office push for protection for children now and into the future when it comes to such a powerful institution? What lasting changes would you like to see?

BALDERAS: Well, the first is that we’re using the rule of law on an organization that lives off of trust. I’m a former altar boy and a Santa Clara member of one of the most rural church communities in northern New Mexico, so I totally understand the conflict and the mixed feelings that New Mexicans feel about this type of investigation. But one thing that I will have very little patience for is not speaking the truth in terms of where all the failures were.

Yes, the church covered up and failed, but we’re also going to use a lot of this documentation to investigate the environments surrounding the church. There was a legal environment and a political environment, and turning a blind eye may have been something that was occurring in these environments.

These are the conversations I’m having with these 40- and 50-year-old victims that are very angry with the system. They don’t trust the system. There were local [District Attorneys] who got letters in the '80s and '90s. Where are those letters today? So when we investigate within the church, I think we’re going to find leads that lead to other areas of analysis.

We truly have to come clean as a state. Why was New Mexico allowed to be a dumping ground? Was it just the church within, or were there other legal institutions that were dramatically failing that need to have an honest conversation about clergy abuse in New Mexico?


If you want more information about this investigation or need to access resources for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy members, you can reach a victims' advocate at the Office of the Attorney General at (505) 717-3512.


Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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