FARMINGTON — On Sunday, Catholic churches throughout the Diocese of Gallup surprised parishioners with a letter from Bishop James S. Wall announcing that the diocese would file Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The letter explained that sexual abuse lawsuits brought against the diocese prompted the bankruptcy.
In the past decade, more than a dozen priests in the Diocese of Gallup, which includes parishes in San Juan County, have been accused of sexually assaulting minors, according to BishopAccountability.org, a website based out of Massachusetts that documents abuse in the Catholic Church.
By the time Wall became bishop in 2009, the diocese was already troubled with lawsuits.
"Since becoming the Bishop of Gallup, I have worked to seek ways to bring healing to those who were harmed by sexual abuse," Wall wrote in his letter. "Unfortunately, since becoming Bishop, the number of claims has continued to increase."
Since 2010, 13 separate lawsuits have been brought against the diocese, all alleging sexual abuse.
One of the priests accused in the lawsuits is Monsignor James Lindenmeyer, who served at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Farmington from 1976 until his retirement in 1996. Lindenmeyer died in 2007 and is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery.
A lawsuit filed May 6 in Coconino County, Ariz., alleges that Lindenmeyer sexually abused a boy while the boy was attending St. Joseph's Catholic School in Winslow, Ariz. The plaintiff is not named in the lawsuit.
Lindenmeyer served in Winslow as an assistant priest from 1948 to 1950 and then as a pastor from 1969 to 1976, when he left to work in Farmington. From 1950 to 1969, he was assigned to a church in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Parishioners at St. Mary's say they don't believe the allegations brought against Lindenmeyer.
Terry Sloan, who has been a parishioner for more than 20 years, said she can't imagine Lindenmeyer abusing anyone.
Sloan met Lindenmeyer when she was a college student at Northern Arizona University. Sloan said she was going through an agnostic stage when she went to talk with Lindenmeyer.
"I wanted him to tell me that that was OK," Sloan said.
When he didn't, she stormed out of his office.
"Basically, he told me something I didn't want to hear," Sloan said. "He told me the truth."
Later, Sloan began to attend St. Mary's Catholic Church in Farmington, where she reconnected with Lindenmeyer. She described him as a humble priest and a wonderful man with firm beliefs. Sloan said he often heard her daughter's confession. At the end of every confession, he would tell her, "Be good, kiddo."
St. Mary's parish secretary Rita Hasenbalg knew Lindenmeyer when he served at the church. She described him as a "very good, kind man" who could be strict.
She said she doesn't understand why it took so long for the plaintiff to accuse Lindenmeyer.
"One of the problems when you wait so long, no one can defend themselves," Hasenbalg said.
Another lawsuit, also filed in Coconino County, Ariz., on May 28, alleges that while working at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel in Flagstaff, Ariz., during the '60s, Lindenmeyer helped cover up another priest's sexual abuse.
According to the lawsuit, on Nov. 30, 1963, Lindenmeyer wrote other priests to warn them of Father William G. Allison. In the letter, he informed the priests that three boys told him about "incidents" involving Allison. He added that he had no reason to doubt the boys and requested "all this be kept in the strictest confidence, just as the seal of the Confessional."
In 1958, prior to serving as Lindenmeyer's assistant in Flagstaff, Allison spent a year in the Via Coeli Monastery, a sexual abuse treatment facility in Jemez Springs, according to the lawsuit. Via Coeli was set up in 1947 to treat Catholic priests who sexually abused children.
Robert Pastor, a Phoenix attorney, is representing the plaintiffs in both of the lawsuits involving Lindenmeyer, as well as the other 11 cases.
He said he was surprised when he learned that the Gallup Diocese was filing for bankruptcy. Pastor said that on Sunday morning he received emails from the diocese's legal council indicating that they were ready to proceed with the cases.
By filing for bankruptcy, all lawsuits that had been filed against the diocese were put on hold.
Pastor said the diocese also won't have to give him the files he had requested.
The diocese's decision to declare bankruptcy angered Pastor.
"They claim they want to help, but they won't acknowledge what is in those files," Pastor said.
In the letter, Wall promised to remain open and transparent.
"We fully realize our responsibility to heal the hurt of those who were harmed. We also realize our responsibility to continue the mission that we have received from Jesus Christ: to provide spiritual care, to educate children in the faith, to feed, clothe, and shelter the needy, to advocate for the least among us," Wall wrote in his letter.
It isn't unusual for dioceses to declare bankruptcy in the face of the sexual abuse lawsuits, said Vince Finaldi, of California-based law firm Manly, Stewart and Finaldi, which is serving as co-counsel for the plaintiffs.
In the past 20 years, the law firm has gone through bankruptcy courts with various dioceses, including the Diocese of Fairbanks in Alaska in 2008 and Diocese of San Diego in 2007.
"It doesn't matter where they want to litigate the issues," Finaldi said.
He said in other cases, the plaintiffs have still received money.
Going through bankruptcy court usually takes around two years, Finaldi said.
The length of time it takes depends on the size of the diocese and its assets. Finaldi said older cases -- like the ones facing the Diocese of Gallup -- also pose difficulties because of weeding through liability insurance, if that insurance even existed.
"While some of the claims relate to times when the diocese had some insurance, many relate to times when the diocese does not appear to have had insurance or the insurance is limited and not likely to cover the damages for which the diocese might be found liable," Wall said in his letter.
Both Pastor and Finaldi believe the diocese chose to file for bankruptcy because Wall was scheduled to be deposed on Sept. 18. By filing for bankruptcy, Wall will not have to be deposed.
"It's unfortunate that they've chose this route after all this time," Finaldi said.
Pastor said he feels like Wall doesn't understand the pain the victims are facing. He said a lot of them believed they had done something to deserve the abuse.
"This isn't about money," Pastor said. "It's about making these victims feel better."