By Linda Kor —
To lose your innocence to a violent stranger is a horrible tragedy. To lose it to a trusted confidante who claims to be working under the hand of God is all the more devastating.
It has become all too common to learn of stories of young boys abused by their religious leaders and, unfortunately, just as common to discover that authorities who could have stopped the violence, instead sought to hide it and promote secrecy.
Joseph Baca became one of those innocent victims at the age of 10 when he was an altar boy in the Madre de Dios Parish in Winslow. The priest at that time was Father Clement Hageman, a man who had been a priest from 1930 until his death in 1975, and who was known by the Diocese of Gallup, N.M., as a pedophile for most of those years.
The diocese acknowledged its awareness of Hageman’s horrific abuses in 2005 during a healing Mass for victims that was held at the very church he preached from in Winslow. The event was presided over by the late Bishop Donald Pelotte, who called Hageman one of the “most abusive priests in the diocese.”
That statement was substantiated by a recent release of Hageman’s personnel file that includes correspondence between the diocese, Hageman and other clergy that not only confirms that the church had knowledge of Hageman’s abuse, but chronicles efforts that were made to suppress public awareness of it.
Those documents came to light as part of a lawsuit filed in November 2010 in Coconino County Superior Court. The lawsuit was filed by a former Holbrook resident who says he was sexually abused by Hageman while he was an altar boy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church when Hageman served there from 1942 to 1952. The lawsuit names the Diocese of Gallup, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the Dioceses of Corpus Christi, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and Parish, and Hageman’s estate as defendants in the case. The lawsuit accuses Hageman of abuse and the church of covering up the abuse.
The files include numerous pieces of correspondence between the Diocese of Gallup and clergy regarding Hageman’s behavior.
In one letter written to the Bishop of Corpus Christi by a friar with St. Peter’s Rectory in Laredo, Texas, and dated April 24, 1939, it was apparent that church authorities were aware of Hageman’s conduct and sought to hide it.
“…There was no public knowledge of the affair at all. The physical break-down idea was used very effectively. In fact at this time there is hardly a mention of him (Hageman) at all. I am keeping the boys concerned as close to me as possible and even there there (sic) seems to be no permanent harm. However, time alone will tell on this point,” wrote the friar.
In a letter to Hageman written by the bishop of Gallup in 1952, the bishop informs Hageman that several complaints were made by a delegation of men from Holbrook regarding his behavior. “… this party is anxious that something be done before any open scandal happens to the Church in Holbrook. When they were here they stated that the charges could be proven. They also feared that some court action might be taken. It is not only you who is to be considered but all the Church as a whole. We cannot afford to have any kind of scandal whatever take place in Holbrook,” wrote the bishop.
Hageman was moved from the Holbrook parish to Saint Mary’s Church in Kingman, where further correspondence indicated that Hageman had not stopped his illicit behavior. In a letter written to the bishop by the clergy of that church, it was stated that in order to avoid scandal the congregation was told that Hageman had health issues that required him to leave the parish immediately. The coverup included an article that was written for the local newspaper regarding his supposed deteriorating health to add credibility to the claim.
Despite admissions by Hageman and the knowledge of the church, he was once again moved to a new parish, this time to Winslow. In a letter written by Hageman to the bishop shortly before being transferred to Winslow, he wrote “…I never willingly nor knowingly committed the acts they accused me of, but just as frankly admitted the charges that I had been drinking and perhaps while under the influence of liquor I might have been imprudent in my dealings with boys.”
It was during his time in Winslow that Hageman preyed upon more young victims, including Baca.
“He abused me from the age of 9 until I was 15. I started acting out, using marijuana and drinking alcohol, which Hageman introduced me to at the age of 10,” Baca recalled.
Baca told his parents about the abuse, but they refused to believe him, even after he attempted suicide. After being arrested for involvement with drugs, he told his probation officer of the abuse only to be told that if he spoke of it again there would be dire consequences. “My probation officer was also a priest,” explained Baca. “After that, the abuse only got worse.”
As tragic as his story is, Baca is quick to point out that there are many good priests in the church and many have reached out to offer assistance to those who have been abused.
“The times were different then, topics like this were taboo. The church has been very helpful in offering services for those who have been abused. In fact, I was directed to SNAP by a priest.”
Baca, who is now the Arizona leader for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), is encouraging others who suffered under the abuse of Hageman or other religious leaders to come forward in order to begin their healing process.
“This has ruined so many lives. Several victims have ended up in prison, committed suicide or lead destructive lives. My hope is that they will come forward and begin the journey of healing,” stated Baca.
For Baca, the greatest irony was that two days after Hageman’s death in 1975, his mother purchased the two burial plots next to his tormentor. His parents are buried there today.
“I really don’t think they knew (what was going on) and there was nothing they could have done about it. I forgive them and I forgive Hageman. It’s hard to go to the cemetery where they’re buried, but he’s in the ground now and he can’t hurt me anymore,” he said.
According to Baca, there are at least 80 reported victims who suffered under Hageman’s abuse, but there are likely many more. He attended a recent gathering on the steps of the Madre de Dios Catholic Church in Winslow to let people know they are not alone and that healing can take place for the victims.
“There were only a few people there, but it’s difficult for men to admit they were abused in such a way,” said Baca.
There were many more pedophile priests assigned to remote areas. “There were 18 different (pedophile) priests assigned to these areas between the 1930s and the 1980s. They preyed on real religious families who they knew would never question a priest,” he said.
It is Baca’s hope that more victims will come forward to receive help and seek peace. “This is a never ending journey for me. I’m still Catholic, and I go to church for weddings and funerals, but otherwise… I’m still working on it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Baca continues his dedication to SNAP and those victims who strive to overcome the horrors of their past. He encourages survivors of abuse by religious leaders to contact him at (602) 692-1958 to receive help and encouragement.
The personnel file of Clement Hageman has been made available for public view at www.bishop-accountability.org.