Stories about bishop’s fall are tough on staff

WASHINGTON – The chancellor for the Diocese of Gallup, N.M., said despite speculation that Bishop Donald E. Pelotte might have been assaulted he believes his boss and close friend was hurt falling down the stairs of his house, as the bishop said.

Deacon Timoteo Lujan told Catholic News Service in a phone interview Aug. 9 that it has been very distressing to all the employees at the Gallup chancery to have a debate play out in the local and national news about whether Bishop Pelotte was attacked in his home.

“There are just 14 of us who work in the pastoral center, including me, the bishop, the janitor and the receptionist,” Deacon Lujan said. “We’re like a family.”

Bishop Pelotte, 62, has been hospitalized since July 23 with extensive injuries including head trauma and severe bruises to a shoulder and his arms, legs, hands and knuckles.

Deacon Lujan went to the bishop’s home when he missed appointments and found Bishop Pelotte in his bedroom, severely injured. The bishop told Deacon Lujan he had fallen down the stairs.

After the bishop was evaluated at a Gallup hospital, he was transferred to a level 1 trauma hospital in Phoenix, where he was in intensive care for more than a week.

On Aug. 8 Bishop Pelotte was moved to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center in Houston, where his brother, Father Dana Pelotte, is pastor of a parish. The twin brothers are both members of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, which has a community house in Houston.

At Gallup’s Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, emergency room personnel notified police that a patient had injuries similar to those in cases of domestic abuse, which Deacon Lujan said is a common, alcoholism-fueled problem in rural New Mexico.

It is hospital policy to call police when patients have such injuries, Deacon Lujan said. Also as part of the routine response, a police photographer took pictures of the bishop’s injuries.

“It didn’t ever occur to me that he was beaten,” Deacon Lujan said. But his comment to the investigating police officer that the bishop “really looks beaten up” was taken differently in the officer’s report than Deacon Lujan intended it, he said.

“I didn’t meant to speculate that he was assaulted,” he told CNS.

“It never occurred to me that he was attacked,” he said. “He had been sick for a couple of days. His steps are carpeted. He always wears slippers.” To Deacon Lujan, the idea that the bishop might slip while heading downstairs, especially in the dark while he was feeling ill, was entirely believable.

The deacon said the bishop is occasionally subject to recurring minor bouts of malaria, which he originally contracted years ago during a mission assignment. Those recurrences can make him dizzy and weak, Deacon Lujan said.

He said there was a Franciscan missioner working in the diocese some years ago who tripped on one step, hit his head and died. The extent of the bishop’s injuries from falling down nine carpeted steps to the tile floor, while startling, did not seem particularly out of line, he told CNS.

The investigating officer accepted Bishop Pelotte’s explanation that he fell while alone at his house and the police department planned no further action.

The Gallup Independent newspaper published a story based upon the police report and later ran an editorial accusing the police department of sweeping a crime under the carpet at the behest of the diocese.

An Albuquerque television station has gone to court seeking a judge’s opinion about whether the police photographs taken at the hospital must be released as public information. The police department has declined to release the photos.

Deacon Lujan said such developments, on top of the emotional turmoil of having their bishop hospitalized with serious injuries, have been difficult for the diocesan staff to take.

As chancellor, he said it’s his job to speak for the diocese when the bishop cannot, but he also oversees day-to-day operations of the diocese and serves as the bishop’s aide. That includes traveling with Bishop Pelotte, as well as “fixing his computer and making sure his lawn gets mowed.”

In one of his regular updates on the chancellor’s Web log, or blog, on the diocesan Web site, Deacon Lujan said that, given the small size of the staff and the lack of trained media representatives, it has been difficult to keep up with “the onslaught of requests and demands from the secular media.”

“If information is slow or incomplete, it should not be concluded automatically that this is the result of a sinister plot to cover up events,” he wrote.

“Rather, it is simply logistics that impairs the ability to provide the media what it wants to know,” he continued. “Simply stated, when dealing with the media, the Diocese of Gallup is not on a level playing field. Our main concern is the pastoral care of those in our diocese. Secondarily, we attempt to meet the requests of others to the best of our abilities.”

Deacon Lujan said he visited the bishop in the Phoenix hospital and has spoken with him on the phone several times. While the bishop is lucid, he still needs a great deal of rest and he is remaining uninvolved with diocesan operations.

The vicar general, Father James E. Walker, has assumed administrative responsibilities for the diocese. Deacon Lujan said the diocesan consultors are regularly evaluating whether the bishop’s circumstances warrant a different arrangement for the ongoing canonical operations of the diocese. In the case of a bishop becoming incapacitated, the Vatican might appoint a canonical administrator, such as the bishop of a nearby diocese, to oversee functions.

But because Bishop Pelotte is not “canonically impeded” or unable to participate in major decisions if necessary, Deacon Lujan said the current arrangement will continue for the time being.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.