ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than two decades after taking over in the wake of sexual abuse scandals, retiring Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he believes he's leaving the archdiocese a better place and that there's more accountability in addressing allegations of abuse.
The archdiocese now has a zero-tolerance policy, and New Mexico is more open and transparent regarding abuse investigations, Sheehan said Monday.
"There were problems. Yes. Lots of them," said Sheehan, 75, who is retiring in June as head of New Mexico's largest diocese because of age requirements. "But we have zero tolerance for any of that stuff now."
Pope Francis has appointed Salt Lake City bishop and immigration-reform advocate John Wester as Sheehan's replacement.
Sheehan was installed at the 11th Archbishop of Santa Fe in September 1993 following the resignation of Archbishop Robert Sanchez, who stepped down right before the CBS News program "60 Minutes" was to broadcast a story naming several women who say they had sex with him.
Sanchez, the first Latino archbishop appointed in the United States, also came under scrutiny for failing to prevent and investigate allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests.
Letters later released as part of a settlement in California revealed that pedophile priests from across the country were assigned to a treatment center in northern New Mexico only to be reassigned to parishes in small Hispanic villages and American Indian Pueblos and reservations the state. Some of the priests later abused children, according to lawsuits.
When Sheehan became archbishop, he oversaw investigations years before sexual-abuse cases involving priests became a national story.
Albuquerque Attorney Brad Hall, who represents around 20 or so alleged victims of priest abuse, said he's not sure there was a zero-tolerance policy under Sheehan.
But Hall said Sheehan did have an effect. "There's no question he stopped the extent of the abuse that was occurring," Hall said.
Many victims now want the church to release more documents related to investigations that, so far, have largely remained sealed, Hall said.
Though stepping down from his post, Sheehan promised not to disappear from the scene. Sheehan said he was willing to serve as a substitute priests for those serving in rural communities so those priests could have some time off.
"I'm not going anywhere," Sheehan said. "I'll be around."
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