Treatment Center for Wayward Priests Under Fire
JEMEZ SPRINGS, N.M. (AP) _ It’s not unusual to see afternoon storm clouds hanging low over the Jemez Mountains this time of year. But clouds of a different sort are gathering over the red-rock walls and ponderosa pines of the Jemez River canyon.
One of Jemez Springs’ most prominent institutions, a treatment center for troubled Roman Catholic priests, is under fire.
Lawsuits contend that 25 years ago, the Servants of the Paraclete treated a priest for sexually abusing children - and that he continued molesting youngsters during his treatment. They say the center recommended his return to parish work, where he allegedly molested scores more.
Lawyers said suits filed in Minnesota and New Mexico on behalf of 19 men mark the first time the Roman Catholic religious order has been sued.
The lawsuits have trained an unwelcome spotlight on a facility residents of this tiny town describe as a good, if reclusive, neighbor.
The Servants of the Paraclete’s immaculately kept buildings and grounds sprawl along both sides of the two-lane road that bisects Jemez Springs.
The Paraclete center and those it treats keep to themselves, townspeople say. The most visible reminder of its presence is the casually dressed men who walk up and down the road, singly or in twos and threes, lost in thought or deep in conversation.
″They’re the best darned neighbors you’d ever want to have,″ said Bill Young, proprietor of an inn where priests’ visiting families sometimes stay.
The center is also said to be the biggest single employer in this town of about 400, about 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque.
″They mind their own business, and I have never heard of any problem or incident″ with its residents, said Municipal Judge Edward Armenta, a former U.S. Treasury Department agent who retired to his hometown.
The land on which the municipal buildings sit was donated by the order. The adjacent park - beside the mineral springs for which the town is named - is named for the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, who started the center in 1947.
″As far as I’m concerned, they’ve done nothing but good for the people,″ said Armenta.
And then came James R. Porter.
Lawsuits allege that Porter repeatedly molested children in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Mexico in the 1960s and early 1970s, while church officials conspired to cover it up. More than 80 people say they were abused by him.
He was treated by the Servants of the Paraclete from 1967-69, and possibly again in 1972 or 1973, lawyers contend. The center ″negligently and recklessly″ released him from psychotherapy, never told police of his offenses, didn’t try to keep him out of parish work, and didn’t warn the parishes, lawsuits allege.
Porter, who has not been criminally charged, has said in a statement he was ″a very sick man″ who sexually abused ″a number of children″ before he left the priesthood in 1974.
Jeffrey Anderson, the St. Paul lawyer for the 16 Minnesotans who have filed lawsuits, said the Catholic Church - facing a shortage of priests - has recycled alleged molesters instead of removing them.
He said he knows of other instances in which priests sent to the Paraclete facility have molested again.
″We contend the Paraclete exists, in many cases, so that criminal priests do not have to pay criminal penalties,″ said Bruce Pasternack, an Albuquerque lawyer who is working with Anderson and who represents the three New Mexico plaintiffs.
Exactly what goes on at the facility remains somewhat of a mystery.
No one from the center would comment publicly on the lawsuits or its operations. The Rev. Liam Hoare, who heads the order, refused a request from The Associated Press for a telephone interview.
The center’s lawyer, Alan Konrad of Albuquerque, said it is a ″spiritual renewal center″ and that only a fraction - less than 6 percent - of its residents have problems with sexual attraction to children.
″Quite a number of them are there because they have spiritual problems, or a crisis of their faith,″ he said.
The center houses between 30 and 40 men, whose length of stay varies, he said. A psychiatrist and four psychologists work there on contract.
There are 25 priests and four brothers in the order, which also operates centers in Albuquerque, St. Louis, California and England.
In 1987, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver spent a week at Jemez Springs and described a regimen that included counseling, prayer and lots of exercise. She quoted the center’s psychiatrist as saying he had seen hundreds of residents in his 11 years there who were attracted to adolescents, but few who were attracted to young children.
Those who were sexually attracted to minors got special treatment - sometimes including a drug that reduces sex drive - and intensive follow-up, and only two or three had acted ″inappropriately″ after their departure, Dr. Jay Feierman was quoted as saying.
Pasternack maintains that pedophilia is not curable, and that the Servants of the Paraclete should suspend activities and leave the state.
But some therapists contend that sexual attraction to children is treatable, and that treatment methods have improved significantly in the years since Porter was there.
″The church has made mistakes,″ said Dr. Frank Valcour of St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., which treats clergymen for disorders including sexual attraction to children.
″But they’re trying very hard these days to get the best information they can and use the information effectively.″
Valcour and other therapists stress that it is only relatively recently that the whole area of sexual behavior disorders and childhood sexual abuse has been understood or received significant attention.
″In a way, it may not be fair to blame the church when the whole society had turned its eyes away from looking at this,″ said Dr. Daniel Kerlinsky of the University of New Mexico Children’s Psychiatric Hospital.