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The Secrets of Archbishop Sanchez

Disgraced Ecclesiastic's Testimony Partially Released

In full glory : His former Excellency, the Most Rev. Robert Fortune Sanchez,
Tenth Archbishop of Santa Fe, in happier days.

THE WORLD finally got to know what the Archbishop of Santa Fe knew about the sex-scandals that disgraced him along with many of his priests. The release of the 760-page deposition of former-Archbishop Robert Sanchez, heavily edited by a judge, was fought in court by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe's lawyers against the local news media up until the last minute. The deposition, taken over four days in January 1994, concerned what Sanchez knew about pedophile priests in the Archdiocese in general, his own history, and specifically how it all related to cases involving ex-priest Jason Sigler and the still-missing Fr. Arthur Perrault. It was later edited by Judge Susan Conway for "privacy concerns."

The Albuquerque Journal, one of the leaders in the efforts to get it released, posted the text originally on their site on the Web. After downloading and analyzing it, I found many of my worst suspicions about conditions in New Mexico validated.

It seems like Sanchez didn't know very much at all about what was going on and cared even less.

It is no wonder the Archdiocese fought so hard to keep the testimony secret. In its glaring spotlight Sanchez was revealed as a man too busy with his own sexual acting out to deal with the sins of his priests. He admitted that his own sexual activity — with 11 women, all in their 20s, over the span of 18 years — increased after he became archbishop. (Once again, our "permissive" society got the blame.)

How busy was he? Simple arithmetic shows that over a quarter of the testimony from each of the first two of the four days of the deposition was deleted. And other clergy may have been busier than has yet been revealed too. By my count, at least 35 more names of accused priests that have not been made public were also removed from the text.

The most remarkable feature of the deposition are his memory lapses, which border on the incredible. Time after time, Sanchez could not recall being told allegations or warnings about priests — in the case of Perrault, to cite one example, by a total of 15 people: four priests, two nuns, five parents or concerned adults and four victims — plus several psychiatric evaluations.

Sanchez didn't blame his forgetfulness on brain damage as he had previously. He admitted that it was "possible" that he might have put information out of his mind because it was painful or that he was too busy with his duties. He did speculate, however, that Alzheimer's might be "an affliction that hits all archbishops" — but not, as a lawyer suggested. "only when they're sued."

Perhaps it was just so awful that he repressed the memories.

Lying or senile, this most charismatic leader seems to have been an incompetent administrator and pastor. Throughout the deposition, the former Archbishop admits repeatedly that he asked no questions, sought no information, never looked at anyone's personnel files, and never once tried to minister to victims, victims' families, or parishes where accused priests had been removed. The only time he ever spoke to civil authorities was once when they called him: he simply felt he had no responsibility whatsoever to report anything to anyone.

He claimed he did not realize until 1990 that pedophilia was incurable, that sexual abuse was a crime and that one was obliged to report it. Sanchez said he was informed at the one seminar for bishops that he attended on the subject of clergy sexual abuse that the first two concerns when allegations arose should be to protect the rights of the accused priests and to get the lawyers involved.

As for the reasons he never told parishes why priests had been removed, he blamed privacy concerns, canon law and a desire to avoid scandal. "The Church is not an institution that initiates investigations," he declared — apparently with a straight face, conveniently forgetting the Inquisition in his holey memory. Under close questioning by Bruce Pasternack, the lead inquisitor at the deposition, however, Sanchez had to admit, despite his pious rationalizations and the objections of his lawyers, that ultimately it rests solely on the shoulders of an abused Catholic child to disclose the abuse by a man the whole community reveres.

As the deposition chillingly made clear, even the sacraments can be used to conceal crimes. The "forcible rape of a child," it seems, is less a sin for a priest to commit than breaking the seal of confession by reporting hearing about it to his religious superiors, the police or the child's parents, even if forgiveness is denied. Though only the Pope can forgive such an wicked sin as telling secrets of the confessional — as a "reserved" sin it ranks right up there with having an abortion or striking a priest — any priest can forgive anyone, including another priest, for raping a child and then must keep it secret forever. How convenient.

As expected, Sanchez showed little understanding of the victim's point of view. When asked how he would feel if his own nieces had been abused, he said he would have been at most "very angry, very upset" but would have tried to avoid hate or wanting to kill the perpetrator. His concern for children, however, never extended to the point of asking even self-admitted pedophiles (or anyone else for that matter) if there were any more victims than the ones whom they were caught abusing.

Sanchez' statement released with the deposition showed the same lack of concern. "Out of respect for the rights of individuals to privacy, I have chosen not to speak out publicly. If my silence has been misleading or has given offense, I ask your forgiveness," were the only words of regret or apology he wrote. The current Archbishop, Michael Sheehan, did little better.

In his public apology, he said, "I hope that people won't only remember these tragic things but also will remember the good that he has done and the great amount of respect that people still have for him." He said the church has done "plenty" to avoid future misconduct, including written policies, sexual abuse prevention workshops and careful screening of prospective priests. Every seminarian is to be given an extensive background check, an AIDS test, reviews by a board and a "battery of tests to make sure he is psychologically healthy." Priests from outside the archdiocese are also to be checked out with their religious superiors.

Sheehan said that since he took over the job 3 years ago, 10 priests have been removed for earlier misconduct. More than 150 claims have been settled. Over $1 million has been spent on counseling victims and victims' families. However, since he also admitted the archdiocese has paid over $3 million total on the crisis, it means that twice as much has been spent for lawyers as therapists.

Yet "I believe that this process of regaining trust is going forward," he said. "The healing process is taking place." And indeed, even before the deposition had been released, the Archdiocese had launched a major campaign to rebuild that trust called "Renew."

Parishioners and priests expressed their support and willingness to forgive to the media, but survivors expressed outrage and disbelief. Steve Armijo, a survivor who had served on the archdiocesan review board, said. "At a mininum a letter should be read from the pulpit at every Mass on every Sunday in every parish. That's the least he (Sanchez) could do. He was a jerk."

Marlene Debry-Nowak, mother of two victims, said the release was important because it gives victims some credibility. "Victims can now say, 'We told you it was bad,'" she said.

In the deposition, Sanchez said he was receiving psychiatric counseling but refused to disclose where he was then living. His whereabouts remain unknown.

— Missing Link Fall 1996/Winter 1997


Former Archbishop Robert Sanchez has passed away at the age of 77, said to have been afflicted with dementia. Some final thoughts here. (1/21/2012)


Disgraced Archbishop Robert Sanchez has returned to New Mexico – as a Franciscan friar. More information here. (11/10/2009)


Former Archbishop Robert Sanchez, 63, who resigned in disgrace after revelations of his sexual relationships with women, has been living with nuns in a small Minnesota town, a TV station in Albuquerque said. KOB-TV reported that Sanchez has been seen living with the Sisters of Mercy in Jackson, but a spokeswoman said that Sanchez no longer lives with them, who have two farms there. She said Sanchez lived there only because the nuns were hospitable and had held no formal job while there.

Knowledge of his whereabouts have been sketchy since his resignation, but he led a retreat for priests in Tucson, Arizona in October. (11/4/98)

He's back, briefly:

In 2010, he returned for a visit to his old stomping grounds. The next year, on his return to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination, it was revealed he had become a Franciscan and had returned. See Sanchez Returns for more information.


Two years later, on January 20, 2012, the former archbishop finally slipped away from the Land of Enchantment forever. With him passed many unanswered questions about what happened here and why. In particular, one wonders what he thought of it all there at the end; what regrets he might have had.

We'll never know. Suffice it to say that as New Mexico's first native and Hispanic son to rise to the archepiscopal dignity, Robert Fortune Sanchez had a lasting positive influence on his homeland. It is the tragedy of his life that it is those very things that will make his fall from grace more memorable than all those legitimate accomplishments.


For more information about clergy abuse in the Land of Enchantment,
Mysteries Remain in New Mexico.

Previous: Sipe Report

Next: Sanchez Deposition Part 1A

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