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New Mexico reels in wake of sex allegations against Santa Fe prelate.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Allegations by five women who claim they had sexual relations with Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez, the first U.S.-born Hispanic archbishop, have rocked the Santa Fe archdiocese to its very foundations.

Sanchez, secretary of the U.S. bishops' conference since 1991, acknowledged March 8, according to archdiocesan chancellor Father Ron Wolf, allegations that he had had relationships with three women who had earlier told of their sexual encounters with him in taped television interviews. Wolf said the archbishop did not specify "the exact nature" of the relationships.

Sanchez, who turns 59 March 20, was said to be out of the state last week on retreat. In a statement, he asked for forgiveness: "I have always tried never to be the cause of harm or disappointment to anyone, and yet today, I must say, |I'm sorry.'"

An archdiocesan spokesperson said the matter had been reported to the Vatican. Officials at the Vatican press office and the Congregation for Bishops said March 11 that they had no comment on the situation.

One unidentified official reportedly said, however, that resignation was not necessarily the automatic solution in a case like this, adding that a variety of factors must be considered, including the archbishop's pastoral effectiveness in the wake of the publicity over the allegations.

Three years ago, Archbishop Eugene A. Marino of Atlanta resigned his post after revelations he was having an affair with a 27-year-old woman (see related story).

The Sanchez allegations follow charges of child sexual abuse againsts at least seven priests involving 12 lawsuits against the archdiocese. Sanchez had been criticized for not responding strongly enough to the complaints, mostly by men who claimed that, as boys, they had been sexually abused by area priests.

In a District Court deposition involving one of the accused priests, Jason Sigler, Sanchez testified he could not remember ordering underlings to investigate those allegations of sexual misconduct. He blamed a car accident he suffered Christmas night 1983 for his lapse of memory.

Apparently, it was Sanchez's public statements concerning his memory lapse that played a role in moving three women to go public with their allegations.

Several church sources claimed Bruce Pasternack, the Albuquerque lawyer who represents clerical sexual-abuse victims in more than two dozen cases, played a role in the women's going public. They suggested Pasternack tried to barter the women's continued silence as leverage for a possible settlement against the archdiocese.

Pasternack would not comment on the charge but did say he had met with only one of the three women whose liaison stories had been taped and were hastily being prepared to appear on CBS' "60 Minutes" investigative program.

Incidents of Sanchez's alleged relationships with five women reportedly occurred when some were in their late teens during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The incidents were reported as "consensual."

The charges first came to public light March 8 when reported by local TV station KOAT. That report apparently followed a decision that day by archdiocesan chancellor Wolf, who, faced with the taped "60 Minutes" allegations and after consulting with Sanchez and Charles P. Reynolds, attorney for the archdiocese, decided to release the story.

Public reaction was immediate and widespread as shock waves of grief, disappointment and anger swept through the archdiocese. The subjects of local conversations seemed readily to shift back and forth from the specifics of Sanchez's actions to wider implications of the matter for the church.

"I'm still stunned," said Tomasita Navarro, a member of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Benalillo, N.M. "There are so many of these allegations, you wonder about the motives. You don't even trust the media."

Father Bill Sanchez (not related) of Our Lady of Sorrows said the archbishop had gained a reputation for being socially progressive and compassionate.

"I feel sad; I feel hurt, a lot of grief for the people, for the women and their families and for (the archbishop)," he said. "We've never had an archbishop who was so good for the people. He was someone we looked up to in the Hispanic community. The big fear now is, if he is forced from his position or he resigns, who will replace him."

Father Richard Rohr of Albuquerque's Center for Action and Contemplation, a local social-justice ministry, said he conducted a day of healing for all priests involved in allegations of sexual impropriety.

"We (Catholics) just follow the rest of society," he said. "During the '60s and '70s, these were considered moral problems. Now they are looked upon as addiction," Rohr said. "It's going to take us a generation to recover. He was our first Hispanic archbishop.

"I feel such sadness, such grief. The myth of celibacy is going to be exposed. Everyone admits he is a good man. The entire structure of theology discipline and expectations that sanctified not having sex is being challenged. If you don't come from a good family, if you don't have a great deal of psychological health and maturity, celibacy is impossible."

Diocesan priests who were meeting in Santa Fe the day after the allegations were made public issued a statement in support of Sanchez. "We would like to stand in solidarity with the leader who has been more than an authority figure to us, but rather a genuinely caring and gentle coworker and spiritual guide," said the statement.

Gerald Ortiz y Pino, a former Christian Brother and current director of community planning for United Way of Albuquerque, expressed great sadness.

"You can't run away from the body," Ortiz y Pino said. "We Catholics have been kidding ourselves about sexuality. This has to be dealt with. This and other incidents may accelerate the decision to open the priesthood to women and noncelibates. Perhaps it will make the church face up to these issues."

News of the allegations continued to make the front pages of local papers with Catholics expressing remorse and support for the archbishop -- even as new allegations began to crop up.

On March 9 local television station KOB-TV reported that Sanchez allegedly had had a liaison with a woman while he was a priest at Albuquerque's historic San Felipe Church. The woman, who now lives in Seattle, claimed to receive payments from Sanchez ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 either as settlement or "hush money," the station reported. It said the arrangements were made between the woman and Sanchez's attorney.

Meanwhile, at the Catholic Center, archdiocesan administrative headquarters on Albuquerque's West Mesa, the pristine blue desert skies and warm balmy weather belied a sorrowful mood. A mourning pall seemed to hang in the air as employees whispered to one another or wept quietly.

By March 10, groups associated with clergy sexual-abuse victims began calling for Sanchez's resignation. Spokeswomen for the Alliance for Justice and New Mexico Victims of Clergy Abuse Link Up said Sanchez should resign, claiming he would be unable to respond to needed archdiocesan reform.
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Title Annotation:Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez
Author:Burbank, James
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 19, 1993
Previous Article:The see-no-problem, hear-no-problem, speak-no-problem problem: sex abuse and Catholic clerical culture.
Next Article:O'Connor says sex scandals put everyone 'under suspicion.' (John Cardinal O'Connor; Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez) (Cover Story)

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