Men [of God] at work in New Mexico

23 Mar 2001


ALBUQUERQUE - A woman has filed a lawsuit alleging that she was sexually molested at age 15 by Fr. Paul Baca, 75, and then in 1989 began a sexual relationship with the longtime popular pastor. Stella Tafoya, 41, says in her lawsuit that she secretly videotaped a conversation with Baca in her home in which he admits to "repetitive sexual contact" with her in the past.

A review of the tape and transcript by the Journal doesn't show Baca directly admitting sexual acts, but he repeatedly apologizes and asks Tafoya what it is she wants him to do about, in her words, "what happened between us." Baca appears on the tape to vehemently deny that he touched Tafoya "in any way" when she was younger. Baca who last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest, didn't return phone calls for comment.

The lawsuit, which alleges sexual abuse and negligent professional counseling on the part of Baca, also names the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, disgraced former Abp. Robert Sanchez and current Apb. Michael Sheehan as defendants. .The lawsuit is the first to be filed against the archdiocese in about 5 years by local attorney Bruce Pasternack, who initiated a series of priest sex-abuse lawsuits in the early '90s that resulted in the toppling of Sanchez and more than 180 claims against the church.

Pasternack said in an interview he has turned away many new cases alleging priest abuse in the past 5 years, but he broke his self-imposed moratorium because of Tafoya's suicide attempt in Oct. The lawsuit claims that at the time of Baca's alleged molestation of Tafoya in 1973, the archdiocese was "infected with a culture of sexuality," and that the then-new Archbishop Sanchez "like Baca, was sexually active with teen-age girls."

In 1993, when Sanchez resigned after his "own sexual improprieties" came to light, he was replaced by Sheehan, who publicly promised to stop the abuse, the lawsuit says. But, it alleges, Sheehan "tolerated the continuation of the culture of sexuality." However, vice-chancellor Sr. Nancy Kazik said, "The Archdiocese of Santa Fe does not tolerate sexual misconduct and does not cover up."

Tafoya alleges in her complaint that in 1973, when Baca was pastor of Queen of Heaven Church, he performed "a variety of nonconsensual sex acts" on her, "telling her that by having sexual contact with him, she was serving and pleasing God" and helping him be a better priest. Tafoya, 15 at the time, was an active churchgoer, attending Mass daily and helping Baca in a variety of tasks. And even after Baca moved from Queen of Heaven to Risen Savior in July 1979, the lawsuit says, he continued to serve as Tafoya and her family's priest, performing baptisms, first Communions, funerals and her own wedding.

In 1989, she went to Baca for counseling for "extreme grief and depression" after her father's death, according to the lawsuit. But, it alleges, Baca "used the counseling to once again take advantage of her fragile and wounded emotional condition" and "to coerce (her) to again begin having sex with him."

In late 1989 and early 1990, "Baca engaged Stella in sexual contact repeatedly," but when a series of lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse of children by priests began to be filed in the spring of 1990, he stopped, the suit alleges.

As the scandal broke, Baca "began a prolonged and intense campaign of regular, continuing psychological manipulation" to protect himself and prevent Tafoya from reporting the abuse, according to the complaint. Tafoya continued to see Baca for counseling throughout the '90s as "her life was descending deeper into depression and emotional chaos." The counseling continued until last year, when Tafoya shot herself in the abdomen in a failed suicide attempt, according to the suit.

It was only following the suicide attempt that Tafoya was able to disclose the alleged abuse. According to the lawsuit, Tafoya "knew that Baca would likely deny having sexual contact with her if she simply pursued a claim against him." So Tafoya arranged to have a conversation with Baca surreptitiously videotaped during one of his "many trips to her home," according to the suit.

Baca celebrated his final Mass as a pastor before unexpectedly retiring to a standing ovation. Afterwards, some parishioners handed out a church bulletin with a statement from Baca.who said he had always acted "with the respect demanded of me by my priestly vows, and would defend himself "in due time". Some parishioners spoke in his favor to the media, one woman saying, "He's been crucified. It's been like I've had a death in my family." Since then, another woman has come forward alleging abuse, but has not filed a lawsuit.

Journal, 1/17/00, 1/13


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