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Lawsuit in New Mexico alleges abuse by a Catholic priest decades ago

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — A man who says he was sexually abused as a boy by a priest in New Mexico in the 1960s sued the church and diocese this week, the latest case to surface in the state as the Roman Catholic Church wrestles with the global clergy sex abuse scandal.

The suit filed Tuesday in state district court in Las Cruces seeks unspecified compensation for the unnamed victim. His lawyers say he is now 62 and has been “suffering in silence for over 50 years.”

The complaint names as defendants St. Joseph Parish in Lordsburg and the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, Texas, which oversaw the southern New Mexico parish before the creation of the Las Cruces Diocese in the 1980s.

It details alleged abuse by the Rev. Lawrence Gaynor, who died in 1978 at age 75. Gaynor was included in a list of accused priests that was released by the El Paso diocese in 2019.

Many clergy abuse allegations in New Mexico date back decades. In 2022, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the state's largest diocese and one of the nation's oldest, reached a $121.5 million agreement to settle nearly 400 abuse claims.

In recent years the Las Cruces Diocese turned over to state prosecutors the personnel files of more than two dozen priests accused of sexually abusing children.

The new lawsuit says the plaintiff was the victim of sexual abuse and exploitation by Gaynor from around late 1967 to early 1968 when the priest was at St. Joseph Parish, with the abuse stopping only when the boy and his family moved away.

According to the suit, the El Paso Diocese was aware of Gaynor’s “proclivity for child sexual abuse since 1965.” It says the diocese's Bishop Sidney Metzger — who served in the post from 1942 to 1978 and died in 1986 — disregarded explicit warnings from psychologists that Gaynor should be placed under indefinite supervision at an isolated monastery in Jemez Springs, New Mexico.

St. Joseph Parish is alleged to have done “nothing to warn vulnerable parishioners” when Gaynor was placed in Lordsburg.

The El Paso Diocese is aware of the lawsuit, spokesman Fernando Ceniceros said. He declined to comment further on the pending litigation.

There was no immediate response to phone messages seeking comment that were left with St. Joseph Parish on Thursday.

Ben Davis, an attorney with one of the Albuquerque law firms that filed the suit, said his firm has handled hundreds of clergy abuse cases since 2016.

“Some settlements have been in seven figures,” Davis said. “But it’s not about the money. What we are seeking is justice for the victim.”