National Catholic Reporter
September 30, 1994
DIOCESE SELLS RETREAT IN SEX ABUSE BAILOUT
SISTERS RUNNING HOUSE WERE NOT CONSULTED
By DEMETRIA MARTINEZ Special Report Writer
The Santa Fe archdiocese, struggling to pay the legal costs of more than 110 sex abuse cases, has put a beloved Albuquerque retreat house on the market, an action that has left many New Mexicans feeling betrayed.
One of 12 properties put on the market to help settle lawsuits against the diocese, the Dominican Retreat House has suddenly become an emotional symbol of the behind-the-scenes costs of the relentless clergy sex abuse scandal. The sale also indicates how deeply the archdiocese has had to cut into the fabric of religious practice in its attempt to avoid bankruptcy.
And it dramatically illustrates how divisive the sex abuse scandal can be, even among bishops, who characteristically maintain a close-knit club. Attempts to collect contributions from other dioceses whose priests are involved in Santa Fe cases have met a mixed response. Some bishops have refused to pay a cent.
'If it weren't for wanting a Catholic burial, I would leave the church tomorrow,' said a woman in reaction to the sale. 'It's like a death in the family.' The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she learned of the sale in the retreat house's latest newsletter.
Santa Fe Chancellor Richard Olona confirmed that the archdiocese was negotiating with the Norbertine congregation about purchasing the retreat.
The Norbertines serve two nearby parishes and want to establish an abbey, he said.
'It looks pretty positive,' said Norbertine Fr. Joel Garner of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary parish in Albuquerque.
The order's abbot and council, based in DePere, Wis., have approved the idea. Financing has yet to be worked out, Garner said.
The retreat sits on 70 acres of stunning desert terrain southwest of Albuquerque. It is owned by the archdiocese and operated by sisters of the Dominican Congregation of St. Catherine de Ricci based in Pennsylvania.
Olona would not say how much.the property is worth. He said, however, that church officials did not need the Vatican's permission to sell. According to canon law, church property worth more than $1 million cannot be sold without permission from Rome.
Tens of thousands of people have been trough the retreat house since its founding 37 years ago. Themes of its low-cost retreats range from the Catholic mystical tradition to counseling for alcoholism. Silent prayer and fasting retreats are also offered, along with retreats geared toward the specific needs of women, men and couples.
Sr. Margaret Mary, one of four staff members, said she did not learn of the transaction until late June in a meeting with Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan. 'We had heard rumors about it earlier this year,' she said, but the sisters were not consulted about the sale.
Olona said the archdiocese decided to sell the property last year.
Citing the prospect of bankruptcy, Sheehan last year called upon the archdiocese's 500,000 Catholics to contribute to a settlement fund. About $1.5-$2 million has been raised, Olona said. The archdiocese's 91 parishes also were asked to contribute property.
The archdiocese's high number of lawsuits has been attributed to the presence in the archdiocese of a treatment center for priests in Jemez Springs, N.M.
Since the early 1950s, the Paraclete order has provided therapy for a variety of problems, including sexual disorders. After release from the treatment center, a number of priests stayed in the archdiocese to work in parishes.
Last year, Sheehan sent a letter to the priests' home bishops, asking for money to help settle the lawsuits.
The response has been mixed, Olona said. Citing examples, he said that one diocese reimbursed the Santa Fe archdiocese for 50 percent of a victim's counseling fees. 'Others have said no,' said Olona, who said he did not know how much money had been donated by other dioceses.
Tony Salgado, archdiocesan finance director, declined to give out exact figures.
'The contributions from other dioceses to counseling have been nominal in comparison to the counseling expenditures over the last two years,' Salgado said.
So far, the archdiocese has settled 61 lawsuits. 'We have another 50 to go,' Olona said.
He said he felt confident that the end was in sight for lawsuits. 'Even though there's no guarantee, we're just hoping that everyone who may have been harmed will have come forward,' said Olona.
He admitted, however, that since he became chancellor last February, about a dozen more lawsuits had been filed.
Sr. Margaret Mary said, 'It's an insidious evil. It goes on and on.... The people who really benefit are the lawyers.'
The archdiocese, meanwhile, is battling a dozen insurance carriers in state District Court. The carriers allege they have no obligation to cover the lawsuits because the archdiocese knew about the sex abuse and did nothing to stop it.
'Why don't they file bankruptcy?' Lydia Paiz asked. 'To have it [the retreat center] go because of what these priests did ัit's not right.'
Paiz is on the board of advisers of the retreat house.
'We're poor people here' who can't afford to go to expensive retreat centers, she said. 'What are we going to do?'
The retreat has served a vital function at a time when the priest shortage has cut into parish ministry, she said. 'The [retreat] house has healed so many people,' she said.
Olona, who has conducted many retreats for the Dominicans, said, 'It's lamentable. This was not the plan. It hurts.'
'But the archdiocese is also trying to survive. It's survival. When you have a choice between losing a diocese or losing a Dominican retreat house ั we're trying to continue as a diocese so we can continue our ministries.' The retreat 'house' actually includes six buildings, three added on by the sisters. They have made extensive improvements over the years, including the establishment of hermitages for those seeking complete solitude. Stipends and donations have paid for all the improvements.
'We're not subsidized by anyone,' Sr. Margaret Mary said.