JEMEZ PUEBLO, N.M. -- The small Catholic school in this dusty Indian village north of Albuquerque nearly closed last year for lack of funds. Yet when the archbishop of Santa Fe sent a letter asking New Mexico's Catholics to help raise money to pay off the legal settlements from sex-abuse lawsuits involving priests, the struggling parish donated one of its few assets: a valuable four-acre parcel of land.
Facing 135 lawsuits and as much as $50 million in claims, the Santa Fe archdiocese has been called "ground zero" in the explosion of clergy sex-abuse charges nationwide. For decades pedophile priests from around the country were sent here for treatment and then assigned to local parishes, where some continued to abuse children. Parishioners learned that insiders too could deceive them when their much-beloved Archbishop Robert Sanchez -- a native New Mexican and the first Hispanic archbishop in the nation -- resigned in disgrace last year after he admitted having sexual relationships with at least five young women.
Now, in an unusual test of their devotion, the faithful are being asked to help save the church from the sins of its own priests. Parishioners feel betrayed by a church that for years inadvertently abetted or ignored sexual abuse by clergy. Nonetheless, many also believe the church deserves their loyalty in its time of moral and financial crisis.
"All the people were very sad about what's been happening," said Ben Ortega, a carver of religious icons whose small church outside Santa Fe has held raffles and bingo games to raise thousands for the archdiocese. "But people got together and said, we've got to raise money."
Forgiveness for church transgressions is a creed honed by history here. Catholicism first was planted in this arid country nearly four centuries ago -- 22 years before the Pilgrims founded their own religious haven at Plymouth. The faith took root despite the enslavement of indigenous people, massacres of missionaries and long reigns of priests who treated their parishioners like serfs.
The archdiocese today covers about 300,000 people in 91 parishes throughout New Mexico -- many of them rural and impoverished. Of the 135 lawsuits filed against it, about 70 still await settlement, says the new archbishop, Michael Sheehan. Victims' advocates say they know dozens more here who haven't sued and others who are still considering legal action. Sheehan has warned that the archdiocese risks becoming the first in the nation to file for bankruptcy protection if insurance companies prevail in claiming they are not liable to pay the settlements.
The archdiocese recently put on the market six pieces of property it owns. This month the first of those was sold: a retreat house run by Dominican sisters and used by parishioners for 37 years. The $1 million it brought will go toward paying off claims that the archbishop has said could ultimately total more than $50 million.
When the archbishop asked parishioners to help raise another $1 million toward a settlement fund, some of the faithful expressed resentment. But when the collection was counted, it came to $1.8 million, Sheehan said.
In addition, churchgoers this year donated an extra $300,000 to the archdiocese's annual appeal. While contributions in Catholic churches nationwide are falling markedly, the increased giving here is one indication of the place of the church in people's lives, says Patrick McNamara, a sociologist of religion at the University of New Mexico.
"It's a cultural presence that colors their entire outlook on life," McNamara said. "People have a pretty strong sense of loyalty to their identity as Catholics. ... You hear people saying, 'You don't let these errant priests and poor administrators define the church. The church is also us.' "
Faith is not simply a Sunday concern in New Mexico, where 40 percent of the state's 1.6 million people are Catholic, compared with 26 percent nationwide. It is present in the household altars, in the saints on dashboards and fireplace mantels, and on the tongues of those who finish their sentences with "si Dios quiere" -- "if God wills it."
Patrick Toya recalls his boyhood in the Jemez (pronounced HAY-MEZ) Pueblo, running from the corn fields to make the 6:30 Mass every morning and fighting for a cassock so he could wedge in among the altar boys. "That's how close I wanted to be to the priest," said Toya, 61.
In the Hispanic parish of Abiquiu, Susan Martinez-Sandoval remembers her mother washing altar linens and sewing the priest's vestments. The priest was a frequent dinner guest, and Martinez-Sandoval and her sister spent long hours after school working in the church office.
"So many Spanish people, they wouldn't say a peep about their problems to the family doctor or to a friend or to a policeman," Martinez-Sandoval said. "But they would talk to the priest about marital problems, family problems, really personal things in their lives."
The deep reverence for the clergy left people especially vulnerable to abuse, some assert. Martinez-Sandoval, 36, says that for three years, the parish priest who gave communion to her family on Sunday sexually abused her the rest of the week starting when she was age 15. She is among those who sued the church, but a judge threw out the lawsuit because of statute-of-limitations restrictions.
The most concrete reason for the high number of sexual abuse claims here originates at a Catholic facility just north of Jemez Pueblo, where the road winds through a canyon and arrives at the town of Jemez Springs. For more than three decades, priests from around the country were sent for spiritual renewal to the Servants of the Paraclete, a monastic retreat center that took in priests with problems from depression to pedophilia to crises of faith.
They lived in bungalows next to a river, received therapy and prayed in a chapel where tall stained-glass windows are inscribed with "Refuge of Sinners" and "Comforter of the Afflicted." Long-term residents of this canyon recall sending their children unaccompanied to the Paraclete's swimming pool, assured the priests would watch out for them.
For many years, priests deemed cured of their problems were sent to serve in New Mexico's priest-poor churches. But some of them continued sexually abusing children and youth. Some, if detected, were simply moved from one parish to another. Among them was James Porter, now serving a 12-year term in Massachusetts for sexually assaulting dozens of children. Others accused of abusing New Mexican parishioners have either pleaded guilty, committed suicide, fled the country, retired or are awaiting trial.
Priests still come to the Servants of the Paraclete on retreats, but earlier this month the center announced it would no longer treat pedophile priests.
The archdiocese has not accepted legal responsibility for the abuse cases, although victims and their attorneys insist that the local church hierarchy was well aware of the problems. It is now well documented that offenders were frequently transferred from one parish to another without comment. But Sheehan says, "My predecessors did what they could with what they knew. In so many of these cases, the psychologists said, 'Father is okay.' "
The archdiocese has spent more than $900,000 on counseling for the victims, but recently stopped making such payments because the fund is nearly used up, Sheehan said.
Each of the 188 dioceses in the United States is in essence its own corporation, reporting directly to Rome, and responsible for its own financial matters. Yet in an acknowledgment of the extraordinary burden on the Santa Fe archdiocese, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops contributed several hundred acres of pristine land it owned near Las Vegas, N.M., to put up for sale, Sheehan said.
Promising reform, Sheehan arrived after the archbishop, Sanchez, was forced to resign. He has put in place stricter guidelines for screening priests, and set up a board for reviewing sexual abuse charges. New cases are still arising -- two months ago the panel dismissed an Albuquerque priest after abuse allegations. Sheehan has also made personal visits or telephone calls to about 45 victims and their families. He said he tells them, "I wish that I could change the past, but I can't."
While reconciliation comes easier to those in Jemez Pueblo who say they never had an abusing priest, many victims and their families say they will never return to the Catholic church. They feel that the church has perpetuated abuse by cutting off money for counseling while paying attorneys enormous sums to fight them in court.
When Sheehan visited Marlene Debrey-Nowak at her home in Placitas, she says, she told him, "I can look at my sons and say, 'The church betrayed, manipulated, deceived and abused you, and I'm going to Mass.' Archbishop, you tell me how I'm going to tell my sons that?"
Sheehan said: "Certainly we've lost some of the weaker members ... people whose faith was not very strong to begin with. It has provided an excuse for them to walk away... . But on the other hand, those who are really Catholics, it's strengthened their belief."
In the pueblo church built by Jemez Indians who hand-sawed each ceiling beam, the Rev. Gino Correa held a "healing service" months ago to provide a time for his parishioners to share their vexation and anger at the sexual abuse charges. Initially some leveled their anger at him as a representative of the church, but his open-door approach seemed to clear the air, he said. Now, Indian youths run to the mission house after school to play pool on a new table Correa acquired as a donation.
As the Jemez Pueblo prepared for Christmas, they cooked and sewed costumes for the tradition in which one couple each year volunteers to be "Mary and Joseph." These volunteers build an additional room on their house, set up a creche, wear elaborate lace outfits made by their friends, and for days feed dinner to thousands of people who stop by. What some call "the commotion" about sexual abuse has been far from their minds.
"If the church were merely a human institution," Sheehan says, "humans would have destroyed it long ago."