Bishop apologizes for sexual abuse by priests

Recalling his own experiences as a young boy, the Catholic Diocese of Gallop Bishop Donald Pelotte apologized Sunday, Sept. 18 to the victims of juvenile sexual abuse by priests in the Winslow Parish.

Bishop Pelotte celebrated Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church Sept. 18, and his message was one of reconciliation and apology. This is the first time an apology has been made at the parish level.

The bishop told the congregation that as a young boy a priest tried to abuse him.

"I told my mother, who luckily believed me. She reported it to church officials, and the priest was removed," Bishop Pelotte said.

Bishop Pelotte said the Gallup Diocesan Review Board on Juvenile Sexual Abuse has encouraged him for months to visit Winslow to reflect on what happened here.

"The board encouraged me to talk from the heart. In May, I met with victims of priest abuse. Today, I want to see if we can include the parish in healing this abuse. Two priests that served in Winslow were the most abusive in the diocese. Father Hageman is deceased and Father Burns is in prison in Florence," Bishop Pelotte said.

The bishop said he was at St. Joseph's "to apologize in the name of the diocese for all the pain done by these two priests in the 50s, 60s and 70s."

Bishop Pelotte said the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops discussed the church's response to Hurricane Katrina. He noted the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic community is another type of storm.

"Hurricane Katrina was an act of nature. The abuse was by priests who were thought to be men of integrity, men of God, men to be trusted," Bishop Pelotte said. "I came to see if I can help move the healing forward. I am willing to meet with any victim who has not come forward. I will meet them anywhere."

The bishop asked the parish to join him in the efforts to heal needed by parents, victims, family and friends.

Margie Trujillo, of Farmington, chairman of the juvenile sexual abuse review board, and Floyd Kezele, vice chairman of the review board, accompanied Bishop Pelotte on his visit to Winslow.

Trujillo said the review board oversees policies and procedures, and the action taken by the diocese on behalf of victims and their families.

The bishop appoints the members of the review board. The function of the review board is to assess allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests, deacons and other church personnel. The board acts on both old and new allegations. Every two years, the board reviews the bishop's policies and procedures for dealing with allegations.

Trujillo said it is the board's responsibility to ensure a sensitive and appropriate response to allegations of juvenile sexual abuse by church personnel.

"Victims are welcome to come forward. They will be treated with dignity and the utmost respect," Trujillo said.

The review board chairman said if a victim wants or needs services, or if they need therapy, the diocese will pay the costs.

"Essentially, we walk that walk with them," she said.

Trujillo said the diocese requires background checks on priests, deacons, teachers, volunteers and anyone working with children.

Kezele said when a victim comes forward and identifies an alleged perpetrator the review board is obligated to notify the diocese.

"Under no circumstances do we divulge the name of the victim," Kezele said. "We have divulged the names of perpetrators when the allegations can be confirmed."

Kezele said it is important that church members know the diocese is in compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and "accountable to deal with these issues."

The review board members noted that the allegations they are dealing with involve old cases.

"There are no current perpetrators. If we had an allegation of a current perpetrator, we would inform the diocese. The diocese would notify the legal authorities and they would investigate the allegations. The alleged perpetrator would be relieved of his pastoral duties during the investigation," Kezele said.

Sister Mary Thorlough is the victims assistance coordinator for the diocese. She said those she has contact were abused a long time ago and in most cases the perpetrator is deceased.

Trujillo said the review board is looking at the parishes where the abusers served.

"We are trying to reach out to the community, gain their trust and begin a dialog," Trujillo said.

Former Winslow resident Joseph Baca is the director of the Northern Arizona and Western New Mexico Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and an abuse survivor. He said he was abused by Father Hageman when the Father was assigned to the Winslow parish.

No one knows exactly how many juveniles were abused by Father Hageman and Father Burns, but Baca said it correctly when he said, "no matter the number, one is too many."Baca said the diocese is lucky to have Bishop Pelotte.

"Some diocese won't even acknowledge the abuse happened. We are trying to work together as a team," Baca said.

Baca noted that the abuse occurred before Bishop Pelotte came to the Gallup Diocese, but he is "taking care of other people's problems."

Kezele said one of the most important things to victims is just being believed.

St. Joseph's Father Frank Chacon said n there is often a lot of guilt among the victims, but "when they see a priest hauled off to jail that relieves some of the guilt."

Kezele said the board also believes that some of the perpetrators groomed other abusers. He said the board wants to know about anyone who may have participated in the abuse or knew about it and did nothing.

Trujillo said, "if someone looked the other way, we want to know."

Kezele said, "victims have ownership of disclosure. It is up to them to decide who they want to tell or if they want to report the abuse."

Kezele said today's priest are helping with the healing process. He said the priests are looking after their communities and drawing people back to the church.

Father Chacon said, "I am amazed at how much people respect and trust priests considering what happened in Winslow."

Baca said SNAP is still conducting search and rescue missions.

"There are still a lot of victims out there. We all need to be on the same page or we are not going to get anywhere," Baca said.

The Gallup Diocesan Review Board on Juvenile Sexual Abuse can be contacted in writing at P.O. Box 3932, Gallup, New Mexico 87305.

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