Las Cruces Diocese Says Abuse Records Were Disclosed Voluntarily, Despite New Mexico Attorney General’s Claims

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has announced plans to make public documents relating to clergy sex abuse in all three of the state’s Catholic dioceses.

State of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.
State of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. (photo: Babak Dowlatshahi)

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — While New Mexico’s attorney general has taken credit for securing Catholic Church documents on sex abuse by clergy, saying they will be released to the public soon, a spokesperson for the Las Cruces diocese said it provided the documents voluntarily out of a desire to address the “abhorrent crime” of sex abuse, not because of a search warrant or legal obligation.

“In September of 2018, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office requested documents related to the potential abuse of children by priests,” a Las Cruces diocese spokesperson told CNA June 7. “The Diocese of Las Cruces immediately began the voluntary process of providing the requested documents. Any statement claiming that a search warrant was presented to the diocese for the requested documents is incorrect, as is the assertion that the Diocese of Las Cruces only responded due to a legal obligation.”

“In fact, the Diocese of Las Cruces fully and freely cooperated with the attorney general's request due to a sincere desire to address any failures from the past and to ensure that future errors would not occur,” the spokesperson said. “Sexual abuse of minors is an abhorrent crime and the Diocese of Las Cruces has no interest in hiding the sins of the past.”

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has announced plans to make public documents relating to clergy sex abuse in all three of the state’s Catholic dioceses.

Balderas had said that a criminal investigation and the warrant to force a search was crucial to securing the documents, which might not have been released otherwise.

“A law enforcement office had to get involved and had to bring search warrants of which we had probable cause to get these documents in order to intervene on behalf of citizens,” he said.

The Las Cruces diocese’s account differs from that of Eyewitness News at the news station KOB 4. According to Eyewitness News, in 2018 Balderas ordered the Santa Fe archdiocese, the Las Cruces diocese, and the Gallup diocese to turn over documents about clergy sex abuse, with the goal of investigating whether any living priest could be prosecuted.

He portrayed the investigation as a safety assessment. The shift from criminal prosecution to civil litigation is the best way to achieve this goal, he said.

“We feel like now we have evolved over to a civil approach," said Balderas. “And providing those records to these families is also an important step for healing”

The Las Cruces diocese said it is “committed to transparency.” The documents on alleged clergy abuse have been reviewed while maintaining privacy and information that might identify victims.

“In addition to immediately reporting to the police any and all allegations of the sexual abuse of minors, the Diocese of Las Cruces maintains a citizen’s review board comprised of professional men and women who examine every accusation of the sexual abuse of a minor pertaining to clergy,” the spokesperson told CNA.

“We have done our best to identify those responsible for the abuse of minors, to publish their names on our list of credibly accused persons, and to bring justice to their victims, the spokesperson continued. 

“Bishop Peter Baldacchino has made accountability and rebuilding trust with local Catholics a priority since arriving in the Diocese. In line with the provisions of Pope Francis, he is committed to ensuring every accusation is heard and investigated and every victim cared for. The Diocese of Las Cruces will continue to cooperate with the attorney general’s office in order to do what is just and with the hope that some peace might be brought to victims who suffered abuse at the hands of clergy.”

Suzanne Hammons, communications director for the Gallup diocese, said the diocese could not comment because the attorney general is still conducting an active investigation.

“For now, I can say that the Gallup Diocese takes all allegations of abuse seriously, and as for a response from Catholics - support and prayer for survivors,” she told CNA June 4. “It’s vital that all Catholics, from the hierarchy to the laity, commit to not repeating our past failures and sins.”

The Gallup diocese filed for bankruptcy in November 2013 in response to sex abuse claims. It first made a list of workers against whom there are credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor in December 2014. Bishop James Wall of Gallup began holding healing services across the diocese in November 2016.

Balderas said the safety assessment report will examine any cover-ups and make recommendations to prevent abuse.

He said the document release is “fast tracking this safety assessment of what went wrong.”

“In New Mexico, we're also doing a national review, because New Mexico is a dumping ground for many of these priests, they evaded jurisdiction in other states. As soon as we expedite that, we will then be producing that information to all your requesters," said Balderas.

Paul Linnenburger, an attorney representing a sex abuse victim, used a state law governing inspection of public records to seek the diocese’s records.

“This seemed like the perfect instance to be able to open the door so that the people of New Mexico could finally learn the true extent and what it is that happened here,” Linnenburger said according to Eyewitness News.

Balderas said he initially wanted to protect the records from abuse victims’ attorneys in case they could be used for criminal prosecution. He later decided to hand over the Diocese of Las Cruces records.

CNA sought comment from the Santa Fe archdiocese but did not receive a response by deadline. The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late 2018. At the time, Archbishop John Wester said there were between 35-40 active sexual abuse claims against the archdiocese. Today, there are at least 400 active claims. 

In October 2017, following a judge’s order in response to a request from KOB-TV, the Santa Fe archdiocese released court records related to sex abuse allegations against three Catholic priests.

The documents were related to three priests “credibly accused of sexual misconduct with minors” in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the archdiocese said. Among the documents were hundreds of pages of court records that concern allegations against the clergy. They included letters indicating that Church leaders knew of sex abuse allegations that had been made against three priests.

Arthur Perrault, a former Catholic priest later convicted of sexually abusing priests in the 1990s, served in the Santa Fe archdiocese from 1973 to 1992. Prior to that, he had been accused of molesting minors as a priest in Connecticut. In 1965, Perrault had spent time at a treatment center for sexually abusive priests run by the Servants of the Paraclete religious order in Jemez Springs, N.M.

In 1966 he was released from the treatment center after a psychologist recommended him for a teaching position at St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque. 

Nearly 40 people have come forward claiming to have been victims of Fr. Perrault and a mother of a young man has claimed he committed suicide after abuse by the priest.

In April 2021 CNA reported that the Santa Fe archdiocese intended to sell over 700 properties by late July to help pay for sex abuse settlements.