News Column

Former Archbishop Sanchez's Service Tarnished by Accusations

Jan. 23, 2012

Steve Terrell

For nearly 20 years, Archbishop Robert Fortune Sanchez was a figure of inspiration for thousands.

As the nation's first Hispanic archbishop, the Socorro native was known for establishing the first Archdiocesan Youth Conference. He instituted the first Native American liturgy at the cathedral in Santa Fe and apologized to American Indians for abuses by the church that went back to the Spanish colonial era. He appointed a commission to preserve New Mexico's historic churches. On Sanchez's watch, the archdiocese built new parishes in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

But despite those accomplishments Sanchez is destined to be remembered mainly for resigning in disgrace for a double-headed sex scandal that shook New Mexico in the early 1990s.

First there were the seemingly endless lawsuits against the archdiocese filed by or on behalf of children who had been sexually abused by priests. Many of these had a common thread -- Sanchez did little or nothing when informed of the allegations against pedophile priests.

And secondly, as revealed by a 60 Minutes episode in March 1992, three women came forth saying that they had had sexual encounters with Sanchez while teenagers in the 1970s. One of the women said that Sanchez had taken her virginity at the age of 19, seducing her by comparing her with religious icons like the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The early years

Sanchez was born in 1934, the son of Julius and Priscilla Sanchez. His father, an engineer and a lawyer, taught him and his two brothers the values of education and public service, Robert Sanchez told The New Mexican in 1974, shortly before he was formally invested as archbishop. He said his father "left all of us with the idea that we were all supposed to give ourselves to some kind of life of service."

The future archbishop entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Santa Fe when he was a junior in high school. Two years later, with the help of then Archbishop Edwin Byrne, Sanchez was assigned to the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he earned degrees in philosophy and theology.

He was ordained as a priest in 1959. The next year, Byrne asked him to teach philosophy and ethics at the new St. Pius High School in Albuquerque. He taught there for eight years.

Admitting to feeling a little burnt out, Sanchez requested to be assigned to a remote parish. He was sent to be pastor in Roy and Mosquero in northeastern New Mexico.

Later he returned to Albuquerque, where he served as pastor at San Felipe de Neri Church. During this time, he also served as an adviser and assistant to Archbishop James Peter Davis and president of the priests' senate.

The new archbishop

On June 4, 1974, the Vatican announced that Sanchez would be the new archbishop to replace Davis, who had announced his retirement.

It's not common that a parish priest rises directly to archbishop. The New Mexican noted at the time that it was "the first time in 25 years that an American has bypassed so many other church offices to head an archdiocese."

Sanchez, who had only recently turned 40, said at the time, "I think that my selection as archbishop was meant to be symbolic. I am a native. I am young and I think it was meant to show people that the church is willing to accept new ideas and is trying to be young."

He was ordained as the archdiocese's 10th archbishop on July 5, 1974. More than 14,000 people attended the ceremony, which, at least at the time, was the highest-attended ordination of an archbishop. Catholics in New Mexico, especially Hispanics, were jubilant.

As archbishop, Sanchez was known as a man of the people. In a 1979 interview, he told The New Mexican that he didn't enjoy his administrative duties nearly as much as dealing with the faithful. "I am not an executive by nature," he said. "I'm more at home with people in a parish, dealing with their personal needs."

In that same interview, he spoke about the church's policy of celibacy for priests.

"Celibacy is a church law and can be changed any time," he said. "I would love to see a priest remain as a priest even though he is married. But the demands of the priest's life would be very difficult on the spouse."

A sudden end

Sanchez's years as archbishop ended abruptly in 1993. The news about the three women claiming relations with Sanchez leaked days before the 60 Minutes segment aired on March 21 of that year.

More than a week prior to the episode, an Albuquerque psychologist told The Associated Press that he had counseled a woman in 1979 who had been traumatized by breaking up with Sanchez after a three-year affair.

The three women who appeared on 60 Minutes gave their names and provided details of the relationships. Two said they went on a camping trip with the archbishop, who, they said, put his sleeping bag between theirs and fondled and kissed them. Both women were 18 at the time. The relationships with these two continued for several years. Both said there never was any intercourse with Sanchez.

The third woman, however, said that Sanchez "seduced" her when she was 19, using "spiritual language" and "exploiting my spirituality."

Sanchez resigned two days before the episode aired.

Though the details of Sanchez's personal life got the most attention, the most serious allegations in the 60 Minutes segment were that Sanchez had turned a blind eye to pedophile priests.

For decades, the Jemez Mountains were home to a Catholic retreat called The Servants of the Paraclete. Until the mid-1990s, there was a program there to which priests from around the country were sent to be treated for pedophilia. Many of the priests ended up being assigned to New Mexico parishes.

Sanchez, who after his resignation was deposed for several civil lawsuits by victims of pedophile priests, testified that he wasn't even familiar with the term "pedophilia" until the mid 1980s.

By the time Sanchez resigned, more than a dozen lawsuits had been filed accusing priests of abuse in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. But that number grew. By 1996, 165 such cases had been settled.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who succeeded Sanchez, instituted a zero-tolerance policy and eventually removed 20 priests.

After he resigned, Sanchez basically disappeared from the public eye. His only apologies were by written statements. For years he lived in undisclosed locations outside New Mexico. The priest who once loved getting out among his parishioners spent his last years in virtual seclusion.



Source: (c) 2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)


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