BY HUGH DELLIOS Chicago Tribune

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Jason Sigler sat down across a table last month from 16 young men he had not seen in over a decade. In a low voice, without looking up, he told them he was sorry.

The apology was part of a settlement in which the men dropped their lawsuits against Sigler, whom they accuse of sexually molesting them as children when he was a Roman Catholic priest here in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The exchange was a small step toward healing a sexual abuse crisis in the church that has landed especially hard in this heavily Catholic state now trying to balance its rich religious heritage with a more recent label as a "dumping ground" for problem priests.

Since 1991, more than 40 lawsuits have been filed in New Mexico against at least a dozen priests who at one time served in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Those cases contain a fraction of the charges leveled at some Catholic priests in the United States since the late 1980s. But church members have been appalled to learn that at least seven priests allegedly abused children here after being sent from other states to New Mexico for treatment of their sexual problems.

Among the priests were Sigler and James Porter, the former clergyman sentenced last week to 18 to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to 41 counts of child sexual abuse in Massachusetts.

Four New Mexico residents have filed civil suits against Porter for allegedly molesting them while he was being treated for pedophilia in the 1960s at the Servants of the Paraclete treatment center near Jemez Springs, where priests from around the country are counseled on various problems.

The efforts to settle the many lawsuits have only deepened a sense of sorrow and suspicion among New Mexican church members. Many still are lamenting the resignation last March of Robert Sanchez, the archbishop of Santa Fe, who admitted having sexual relationships with several women.

Officials of the Santa Fe archdiocese, like their counterparts in other areas of the United States, have been struggling to deal with the sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the church since the late 1980s. The officials say at least a dozen lawsuits have been settled out of court here, and it is negotiating at least 11 others.

The archdiocese has spent $409,000 on counseling services, and new Archbishop Michael Sheehan has begun trying to meet with the alleged victims. In addition, archdiocesan officials say they are screening priests more thoroughly and have refused to accept any priests being treated at the Servants of the Paraclete center.

However, the archdiocese has not accepted legal responsibility for the abuse cases, maintaining that there is no way to know if former church leaders knew how difficult it was to cure pedophilia and other sexual disorders when they accepted problem priests into their parishes.

The archdiocese's straightforward approach has been praised by some alleged victims. But, as in different parts of the country, others say church officials are not doing enough to help victims or to investigate and remove problem priests from the ministry.

The Catholic Church and its priests have played a central, authoritative role in New Mexico's heavily Hispanic communities since Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries in the 1600s. Today, approximately 40 percent of the state's 1.5 million people are Catholic.

The depth of Catholic devotion in New Mexico is shown each year when 30,000 pilgrims walk up to 90 miles to celebrate Easter at a small church in rural Chimayo that was built in 1816 and is revered as a place of healing. A Catholic group here known as the "Hermanos" demonstrates its faith with long fasts and even flagellation.

Abuse victims and their supporters believe the strength of the church and its members' faith may have contributed to the problems the archdiocese faces. Reverence for the priest, especially among Hispanics, may have prevented the reporting of incidents until recently, said Bruce Pasternack, an Albuquerque attorney representing about 30 of the abuse victims.

Sandoval filed a lawsuit against the church and a former priest who she said repeatedly molested her when she was 15 after he was treated at Servants of the Paraclete. A judge later threw out the suit because of statute-of-limitations restrictions.

The Servants of the Paraclete treatment center, founded in 1947, provides a retreat and counseling services for priests from throughout the United States who suffer from various disorders, including alcoholism. Church leaders say less than 6 percent of the center's residents are treated for sexual problems.

Most of the priests return to their own diocese when they leave the center. But abuse victims allege that some problem priests were allowed to serve at New Mexico parishes during their treatment or were reassigned to the Santa Fe archdiocese when their counseling ended.

Porter was sent to Servants of the Paraclete in the mid-1960s from the Diocese of Fall River, Mass. He is accused of molesting the four youths while doing part-time work at a parish and a hospital in the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences and another parish in Albuquerque.

Sigler was sent to the Servants of the Paraclete three times in the 1970s from a parish in Lansing, Mich. He subsequently was accused of molesting the 16 young men at parishes in Albuquerque, Ft. Sumner and Las Vegas, N.M.


Transmitted: 93-12-15 23:26:14 EST