Pa. religious orders targeted in New Mexico clergy abuse case

Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
Survivors of sex abuse hold a cross as they gather during a twilight vigil prayer near Castle Sant' Angelo, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Pope Francis opened a landmark sex abuse prevention summit Thursday by warning senior Catholic figures that the faithful are demanding concrete action against predator priests and not just words of condemnation. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ALBUQUERQUE – Religious orders once associated with a now-shuttered Catholic boarding school for Native Americans are being accused of failing to protect students from sexual abuse by clergy and faculty.

An Ohio-based order of Franciscan Friars and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, headquartered in Pennsylvania, are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed this week in a New Mexico court by a team of lawyers that has represented dozens of abuse survivors over the years.

The accusations center on a student who attended St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe during the 1980s, but attorneys for the unnamed plaintiff say the case speaks to broader issues.

The case comes as the Catholic church wrestles with a sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has spanned the globe. New Mexico’s largest diocese is among the religious organizations seeking bankruptcy protection as a result, having spending more than $50 million over the years to settle hundreds of lawsuits.

The latest case surfaced as the plaintiff’s legal team was preparing a claim against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe as part of the bankruptcy case. While the archdiocese is currently immune from separate claims outside the bankruptcy proceedings, lawyers say civil cases can be brought against other religious organizations that might be accused of bearing some responsibility.

Attorney Brad Hall, whose Albuquerque firm has filed more than 100 cases on behalf of abuse survivors, pointed to documentation from 1987 that includes a letter from a priest to the archbishop and pope that suggested the abuse at St. Catherine’s possibly involved up to 70 victims.

“No one from the archdiocese or St. Catherine’s Indian School has ever called law enforcement about the childhood sexual abuse, but it is clear from the files that Catholic organizations have historically intervened in clergy criminal cases all over the country to protect their priest agents,” the lawsuit states.

Officials with the religious orders did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment about the latest allegations.

According to the attorneys, more than 90 Native American boys were housed each year in dormitories at the school. Friars also lived in the dorms and were responsible for the safety of the children.

The lawsuit states that school officials did nothing to stop “the harmful behaviors” of at least one former priest who was accused of abusing boys at the school. The priest was eventually removed from the school after being found naked and drunk in the boys’ shower, according to the lawsuit.

The priest, identified in the lawsuit as Christopher Kerr, “knew that parochial schoolchildren were trained to give unquestioning obedience to clerics, and he abused their trained obedience for his own sexual gratification.”

In 1997, Kerr was named in a Santa Fe police report as having molested a former student while stationed at the school during the 1980s. When the allegations surfaced, Kerr – who was no longer a member of the Franciscan order – told reporters he had no comment. His current whereabouts are unknown.

The latest lawsuit also points to other priests at the school who were accused of sexual abuse.

Lawyers for the plaintiff say despite documentation, Kerr and others were not included in a list of credibly accused clergy members that was released by the archdiocese in 2017. They have asked for the list to be updated.

Diocese officials said earlier this year they plan to update the list but offered no timetable.

Aside from punitive damages, the lawsuit seeks a court order that would make public all documents related to the litigation.

Transparency has been a chief concern among victim advocates who contend the church has tried to keep the scandal quiet through settlement agreements that include nondisclosure clauses. Church officials have argued that the agreements are meant to protect the privacy of victims.

Levi Monagle, a partner at the Albuquerque law firm, referred to the rash of sexual abuse claims as a widespread epidemic.

“The secrecy under which these networks operated is a massive part of what we’re trying to unwind now,” he said.