Aug. 21, 2017
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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Father Figures

The untold financial, emotional and spiritual cost of New Mexico’s Catholic priest sex crimes

August 9, 2017, 12:00 am

The two friends had laced up and hit the court together many times before. They’d played on the same team in an Albuquerque recreational basketball league for years. In a Bernalillo County league, too. They were in their mid-20s and their lives stretched out before them, disappearing into a horizon of possibilities.

It was the early 1980s, and Brad Hall was looking to blow off steam. He’d soon start classes at the University of New Mexico law school. The rec-league team, a rotating cast of characters, practiced on Sunday afternoons at the Queen of Heaven Catholic School in Albuquerque’s Quigley Park neighborhood.

Every once in a while a priest would wander through, padding along the court. Hall never had a reason to give him a second thought.

He couldn’t have known, though, what his teammate Clifford Esquibel was thinking at that same moment; the horror and fear he must have felt.

A quarter century after the last time Hall can recall seeing his basketball pal, Esquibel walked into his office. “I was the first person he ever told all about being an altar boy in the archdiocese,” Hall says.

Esquibel revealed that the Rev. John George Weisenborn, a priest at a different parish in Albuquerque who had a history of sexual abuse known to the church, had sexually molested him as a boy over the course of several years.

Then, Hall says, Esquibel walked outside and threw up.

One year later, Hall and Esquibel settled a lawsuit with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in exchange for a payment.

Levi Monagle’s first day on the job as an intern with Hall was attending the deposition of a priest rape survivor.
Matt Grubs
Since 2011, and as recently as this week—long after the specter of child sexual abuse by priests faded from the public scrutiny that peaked in the decade before—Brad Hall has filed 74 lawsuits on behalf of abuse survivors against priests from the archdiocese, which includes Albuquerque. The lawsuits represent what Hall and his lone associate attorney, Levi Monagle, worry is a swell of sexual abuse survivors who will keep coming forward, praying for help and pleading for accountability.

In the past 25 years, the church has faced nearly 300 civil lawsuits, according to a court filing by lawyers for the archdiocese, and a group of seven priests have accounted for half those cases. The church has a well-documented history of shuffling accused abusers from parish to parish in New Mexico and elsewhere. It insists the practice has ceased and children are safe. It’s hard to tell how critically the church has looked at itself to make sure that’s true.

None of the lawsuits has gone to court. The church has settled them all. How many more are to come depends in part on the bravery of survivors of sexual abuse by priests, but also on the efforts of an archdiocese that is now publicly apologetic about the scandal, yet legally reluctant to look into its past and reveal just how much was known about the depth and breadth of its history of sexual abuse.

Hall grew up playing basketball in a part of Montana where the ball could roll for a good 30 yards if you missed a shot on an outdoor court.

Sidney, Montana, lies in the floodplain of the Yellowstone River in the northeastern part of the state, where sugar beet fields stretch into the distance and oil rigs dot the horizon. Depending on the price of oil, the population fluctuates between 4,000 and 6,000 people. In the mid-1970s, a few years before an oil boom, Hall was headed to what was then the College of Great Falls, a Catholic school founded by the Sisters of Providence and the Ursuline Sisters. His mother, a Polish Catholic, was pleased. By the time he left home, though, Hall had already left the church.

“I left that worldview and that organizational structure at about 16,” Hall tells SFR from the conference room in his Albuquerque office. It’s painted a goldish hue of yellow. Pictures of Italy, France and Taiwan hang on the walls. From the 12th floor, the windows look south toward the Manzanos and the room is generally a pleasant place to talk about unpleasant things.

“I think I just grew up,” he says. “I evolved past the ridiculous dogma that you start seeing when you look more broadly at the world.”

He’d developed an interest in philosophy during high school. He nurtured it as he struck out on his own, and bypassed small-college basketball glory in Great Falls for California. A few years later, he was back in Montana, studying anthropology and, of course, philosophy. It may not be surprising that he soon ended up in New Mexico, studying the classics at St. John’s College.

Hall worked all sorts of jobs, including in oil fields, on his way to becoming a lawyer. Even as he stuck his nose into the Great Books at St. John’s, he worked as a cab driver in Santa Fe. Hall’s appreciation for hard work—and the kind of sensibility that leads a seasoned attorney to decorate his own conference room with $80 worth of iPhone pictures he snapped himself and got printed at Costco—has served him well in connecting to the clients who’ve found their way to his door. If you can trust a guy to set a decent pick in a pickup basketball game, you can probably trust him to listen to what you need in a courtroom.

Hall brushes past the idea that he has some sort of mission at the heart of the scores of cases he’s filed in the past six years.

“The motivation is to help people who, through no fault of their own, manage to suppress the horrific effects of something like sexual abuse or violent rapes when they were a little child,” he explains.

Attorney Brad Hall has filed 74 lawsuits on behalf of abuse survivors against priests from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Matt Grubs
Like Clifford Esquibel, clients who call or walk through the door are often at or near the bottom. He remembers one man who told him he fell to the bathroom floor, razor in hand and face half-covered with shaving cream, as he heard the name of his priestly abuser on the news in the other room. The man told Hall he wept for hours.

“When that watershed moment occurs, many times there’s a crash. And you need to reconstitute and rebuild. First, recall and deal with what happened, and then rebuild adult coping skills and turn the corner,” Hall says of his clients; the vast majority of whom he refers to counseling regardless of whether they file a lawsuit. “Those are the people who call.”

His longtime girlfriend, Carolyn Carlson, tells SFR she’s always known him as empathetic.

She remembers the Clifford Esquibel case as something akin to Hall’s watershed moment. “It became a very, very personal issue for him at that point,” she says. “I think [for Brad], it’s creating a safe place and not like an ambulance chaser. … Brad’s not anti-Catholic. There’s no grudge. It’s truly victim-based.”

“The stories are so incredibly touching and amazing,” Carlson adds. “From clients who are well-known in the community to those we step over in the gutter could have been abused by the same priest.”

That common thread is still unraveling for the Catholic Church.

In June 2002, as the oppressive heat began to settle into a North Texas summer, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops came together in Dallas. It was the height of the child sex abuse scandal—“a crisis without precedent in our times,” as the church called it in a later report on the gathering.

Ever since the scandal broke in the final years of the Catholic Church’s second millennium, bishops in the United States had been worried about the thinning of their flock. As more survivors came forward, more questions were asked. Some bishops worried openly about losing not just eternal souls, but cash. One of them was then-Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan.

“Certainly we’ve lost some of the weaker members ... people whose faith was not very strong to begin with. It has provided an excuse for them to walk away,” Sheehan told the Washington Post’s Laurie Goodstein in December 1994. “But on the other hand, those who are really Catholics, it’s strengthened their belief.”

As the scope of the scandal in the Santa Fe archdiocese became clear, Sheehan told Goodstein the archdiocese was facing 135 lawsuits. He said settlements could eclipse $50 million. He had already made an appeal to parishioners for additional tithing. He worried about bankruptcy. Though other dioceses were eventually forced down that path, by the time of the Dallas conference, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe had avoided bankruptcy—as it has ever since.

Reams of paper records from the church and its investigations have been sealed by the courts.
In court records, the archdiocese recently acknowledged settling nearly 300 sex abuse lawsuits. Hall estimates that when suits against religious orders and other types of actions are taken into account, that number rises above 350 cases.

At the Dallas assembly, which Sheehan attended, the bishops established the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and the corresponding Safe Environment Program. It’s a promise that bishops will take steps to prevent sexual child abuse: to seek to remove abusive priests from the ministry, to report allegations of abuse to law enforcement, and to submit to an annual audit of their efforts.

But the Dallas Charter isn’t church law.

“I would say it’s morally binding. It’s a commitment bishops have made,” says Rev. James Connell, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who is a canon lawyer and an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.

All dioceses in the United States have started tracking their compliance with the promises made in the charter. The 2016 audit of the efforts says 99 percent of priests, deacons and future priests have been trained to create what the church calls a safe environment for children.

Connell says the training helps people involved in Catholic Church life identify potential grooming behavior by would-be abusers, but he wonders if it’s enough to rebuild trust. “That’s one of the big things in all of this: the trust that has been shattered. The trust that has been shattered for the victim, the victim’s family and friends, right down to the people in the pews.”

Connell and others would like to see much more disclosure by dioceses across the country. He says the annual audit, conducted by an independent consulting firm, skims the surface in too many areas. Dioceses are not required to allow auditors to review parish-level files to verify that allegations of abuse are properly investigated.

“Six weeks before the auditors arrive, they should announce the audit and allow public contact. It would help to identify the universe of allegations,” Connell says. He’s not sure auditors are even allowed to look at the abuse accusation files.

“It’s ‘Trust us, trust us, trust us.’ But there’s no reporting out to the public,” he says. “People in the pews deserve to know that.”

There are a host of internal measures designed to prevent child sex abuse at the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, including a Permanent Review Board that reports to the archbishop. But the archbishop isn’t required to follow the board’s recommendation. Little is made public.

To Hall, Monagle and other attorneys who have sued the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and seen the damage secrecy has caused, it’s the fox guarding the henhouse.

“The church is at once divine and human. And this is the sad side of things.”

Archbishop John Charles Wester was speaking to KUNM radio host Stephen Spitz in June when he uttered those words about the sex abuse scandal. He’s sounded similar notes of apology during the two years he’s headed New Mexico’s largest diocese, which includes Albuquerque, all of Northern New Mexico and rural areas as far-flung as Fort Sumner.

Archbishop John Wester has been on the job as head of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe for two years and has issued a public apology for sex crimes.
Mark Woodward
“This is a terrible, terrible sin and a terrible, terrible affliction that we must deal with—the whole crisis and sexual abuse crisis—and it’s one we have to be vigilant on,” Wester told reporters who gathered ahead of his installation as the 12th Archbishop of Santa Fe in 2015.

“As you know, we’re human beings and it’s very easy for us to get careless,” Wester added later in the news conference. “We don’t allow that in this at all.”

Part of Wester’s job, as with all bishops in this era, is to make sure Catholics believe him when he says getting careless isn’t an option. The archdiocese has pledged strict attention to the safety of children in its pews and parish halls, classrooms and confessionals. However, a spokeswoman did not answer questions about how closely the archdiocese examines its own efforts, who it hires to investigate new claims of sexual abuse by priests, and how—or whether—it lets parishioners know about the results of those inquiries.

Wester has met privately multiple times with some of Hall’s clients, but was unavailable for an interview with SFR prior to the publishing of this story.

Levi Monagle remembers standing in Mass with his mother at the Aquinas Newman Center on the University of New Mexico campus. They were saying the Nicene Creed.

Recited aloud during church services by Catholics and many Protestants, the creed unites Christians the world over. But the part that says “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” didn’t sit well.

“When we got to that part, my mom would always purse her lips,” he says. In the creed, most theologians hold that “catholic” has a universal meaning and does not mean Roman Catholic. Still, saying those words is powerful. And Monagle’s mother seemed to prize her son thinking for himself.

Monagle believes in God and considers himself a Christian, but he’s no longer Catholic. “The church places itself as this necessary buffer between the people and God. I didn’t believe that.”

A 28-year-old attorney with an undercut hairstyle, a neatly trimmed mustache and a curated collection of tattoos, Monagle has moved through life so far in a purposeful, if somewhat unorthodox fashion. He dropped out of high school, but immediately got his GED. He went to community college, then finished undergraduate studies and law school at the University of New Mexico, both with high honors.

He met Hall in his third year at UNM Law.

“My first day on the job was the deposition of a survivor,” he says. “You can’t teach that in a classroom.”

Monagle has immersed himself in the work, in measuring the societal cost of the sex abuse for Northern New Mexico towns; places that were relatively isolated and, especially before widely available internet service, didn’t connect with parishes in other towns. Las Vegas, for example, saw a string of pedophile priests move through its two parishes. Monagle and Hall take turns naming them.

What kind of damage does that do to a community?

“We think it’s an ongoing crisis. We don’t think of it as something that’s stopped,” Monagle says.

“The trauma bleeds outwards,” Hall explains. “People can’t connect, they have no relationships with their children, they become workaholics or they have a distrust of institutions.”

Alcoholism, domestic violence, further sexual abuse of others—all can have many causes. Being sexually abused as a child by a priest is one.

Monagle and Hall have begun to include a public nuisance count in many of their lawsuits as they try to tally the cost of a scandal that’s gone on for decades.

“‘Generation’ is absolutely not too broad of a word to use,” Hall says.

Healing the scars of child sexual abuse using the law is a difficult thing.

Marci Hamilton has made it her business. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the CEO of CHILD USA, a think tank dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect, the attorney says not every abuse survivor is ready for court. Some never will be.

For starters, relatively few priests go to prison. In part, that’s because prosecutors often learn about potential crimes long after the deadline for filing charges has passed. Recent studies show more than 30 years are likely to elapse before survivors disclose sexual abuse by priests.

Instead, survivors are seeking civil justice—they want the church to pay. Sometimes it’s money, though Hall and Monagle insist outright money-hunting isn’t the case. More often, they say, it’s acknowledgement that what happened was wrong. Survivors weren’t alone, and aren’t alone. There were and are others. And they want the church to say it to them. But that quest, like their journey to come to grips with the abuse, is not easy.

“It really depends on where they are psychologically in dealing with the issue,” Hamilton tells SFR in a recent afternoon phone call. “For many, it’s empowering. This is the way that they can actually move on. For others, they’re just not ready for the rough-and-tumble of the legal system—even when it’s supposedly there to help them.”

For example, New Mexico lawmakers just changed the law to say survivors have three years to file suit after they disclose abuse to a medical or mental health provider. Previously, the clock started when a provider discovered indications of abuse.

Monagle, who worked on the change in the law, says that’s a big difference.

“If you can’t really ever tell anyone what happened, it’s not fair to preclude you from bringing a lawsuit, right?” he says.

Hamilton says New Mexico’s experiment with its statute of limitations could bring more lawsuits, but it may not open the floodgates.

“These cases require these victims to produce all of their medical records. And so this now puts on a new weight of, ‘Is there evidence in there that the victim said something to the therapist?’ It’s not an easy case for any victim to bring,” Hamilton says.

Records, both medical and otherwise, have played a critical role in the priest sex abuse scandal, in part because of what’s at stake.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the 2016 cost to USCCB dioceses related to sexual abuse allegations eclipsed $125 million. Added to the cost of programs like Safe Environment, the yearly pricetag jumped to more than $175 million.

As hard as it is for survivors to open up their records, getting the church to do it has been nearly impossible.

“More and more, the archdioceses are arguing to the courts that everything should be confidential during the litigation. And the courts are listening to them,” Hamilton says.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe routinely asks the court to seal many of the documents it submits in lawsuits. An upcoming hearing could begin to pry open some of those files.
As a legal strategy, it’s not surprising to her. In fact, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe is currently battling an effort by Hall to unseal what could be tens of thousands of pages of church records that were handed over as part of a series of lawsuits. Hall and Monagle wouldn’t comment on that effort specifically, as hearings for the case are happening over the course of the next several weeks.

“The reason they want to keep it private is they don’t want the rest of the victims to get that information and come forward to them,” Hamilton says. “It’s a very lawyerly thing to do.”

But that flies in the face of the reconciliation bishops like Wester have talked about. And it’s a difficult dynamic for many parishioners to understand.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Hamilton says. “Because of course the people can’t judge how safe their children are without having this kind of information.”

For Hall, the priest sex abuse scandal is inextricably tied to New Mexico.

Who knew what was happening? Did any of the seminarians from the Immaculate Heart of Mary next to St. John’s during Hall’s college years have an idea? Probably not. But he can’t be certain.

His mind wanders back to the gym at Queen of Heaven, too, where Hall would later learn that a priest named Sabine Griego was a prolific abuser. The timelines his team has pulled together for cases show they may have crossed paths.

Griego kept a recreation room at the parish, court records say. He’d get alcohol for young men, then encourage them to stay instead of venturing tipsily out into the night. Hall’s third client—the one Monagle met on his first day—says Griego raped him in that rec room. That case settled, too.

“We’ve had a number of clients abused there. It’s very strange to think that I was there,” Hall says.

It’s unclear how much priest sex abuse has cost the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The Dallas Charter prevents bishops from demanding confidential settlements. Yet, most of Hall’s clients decide to at least keep the amount of money secret, anyway. It’s safe to say the total is well into the tens of millions of dollars. The true cost, though, may be the exposure; the anger and heartbreak of survivors who find it so hard to forgive an institution that has forgiveness at its very core.

“These people—when you think about it taking maybe 32 years to come forward—they embody the word ‘survivors’ because of the nature of abuse as a child. When it happens, when they disclose, it’s a real challenge to the law to help them,” Hall says. “This is not a car wreck with broken bones, this is a soul. And it’s barely alive. How do you heal that?”

Now into his fourth decade of being an attorney, he’s seen the law do all kinds of things. It’s forced crooked cops off the streets and held large corporations to account. Hall may have left the dogma of the Catholic Church behind many years ago, but he believes in the power of the law to help and to force change.

“The Archdiocese of Santa Fe didn’t change on its own,” he says. “This was because victims and survivors came forward and found attorneys to file lawsuits.”

He gets philosophical for a moment, as both he and Monagle are prone to do.

“The church is a human institution,” he says. To some, it represents the divine presence of God on Earth. But if the church is human, Hall says, “that means human beings can fix the problem.”


 

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