Long after Roman Catholic leaders knew pedo-priests couldn't be cured, Cardinal Roger Mahony kept packing off his worst offenders to a notorious New Mexico rehab center
By Ron Russell
To know Father Michael Baker was to love him. Handsome, articulate and charismatic, he practically oozed trust. The parents of altar boys adored him for the special attention he gave their sons. Of course, they had no idea how special. The boys Baker zeroed in on also adored him. Unfortunately, he couldn't resist manipulating them for sex. In December 1986, after deciding to confess some of his sexual sins, his secret weakness was about to cost him big-time. Or so he thought. Baker didn't turn himself in to just anyone. He went straight to Roger Mahony, then as now the titular head of the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, fully expecting to be drummed out of the priesthood after confessing to having had sex with "two or three" of his altar boys.
There had apparently been others.
But, astonishingly, Mahony wasn't inquisitive. The archbishop and then soon-to-be cardinal seemed more concerned with damage control. To Baker's relief, Mahony—a close friend and confidante—squelched the idea of turning him over to police. Neither were unsuspecting parishioners at the L.A.-area churches where his admitted abuses had occurred informed that a predator was among them. Far from being over, his priestly career was merely sidetracked. Instead of notifying the cops, Mahony—in typical fashion—quietly packed his pal off to a remote corner of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There, near the village of Jemez Springs, at a secluded retreat operated by a little-known Roman Catholic religious order called the Holy Servants of the Paraclete, Baker joined other priests receiving "therapy" for pedophilia. It was an exercise that Mahony—and, indeed, fellow bishops from coast to coast—already knew, or should have known, was a sham.
Since at least the early 1970s Catholic scholars had collectively provided an unambiguous warning to the church hierarchy that too many of its priests suffered from sexual disorders. One of those experts, Father Michael Peterson, a clinical psychologist who in 1982 founded St. Luke Institute in Maryland, had sought to provide a more professional approach to treatment than ever existed at Jemez Springs. He was part of the chorus of experts who, in sharp contrast to the prevailing view of the '60s and '70s, concluded that people who sexually abuse young children stand little chance of getting cured. By the time Peterson began his work, the psychology profession had come to realize that recidivism, or the relapse rate, for pedophiles is second only to that of exhibitionists. In 1985, on the heels of a notorious case involving a Louisiana priest, Peterson and two other highly respected Catholic insiders issued a secret 92-page report on priestly sex abuse that dismissed the church's attempts to rehabilitate pedo-priests as a colossal failure. The report, which came to be known as "the manual," was delivered to every bishop in the United States. Mahony received his copy while bishop of Stockton. It urged church leaders back then to immediately remove priests accused of sexual misconduct, report such priests to law enforcement and to never reassign them to new parishes if the allegations proved to be true.
But Mahony and other church leaders scarcely needed the manual to understand that shuffling errant clerics off to New Mexico, or anywhere else, for supposed rehabilitation was a fool's errand. Camp Ped, as even some of the priests assigned to psychosexual treatment there derisively referred to it, had become more than the American hierarchy's dirty little secret. It was a cruel joke. From the time the Paraclete brothers—over the objections of the order's founder—began treating pedophiles there in 1965, Camp Ped was little more than a recycling center for child-molesting priests. Bishops used it as a holding tank for clerical sickos until they could foist them on new and unsuspecting parishioners. Its miserable track record can be measured in countless children's ruined lives.
As documents and interviews show, long before Mahony sent some of his most notorious offenders there, including Baker in late 1986 and Father Michael Wempe the following year, the retreat's dismal reputation was well established among church leaders, even if they pretended not to know. (The late Father Ted Llanos, who molested at least 35 altar boys to become the L.A. Archdiocese's most notorious child abuser, had pulled time at Jemez Springs in the early '70s under Mahony's predecessor, Cardinal Timothy Manning.) After all, the bishops were dealing firsthand with Camp Ped's failures—clerics who invariably had been discharged by the Paracletes with a clean bill of health and who, like Baker, resumed molesting after settling into new assignments back home. New Times has learned that a few bishops, including the recently retired Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas, actively recruited new priests from the ranks of Jemez Spring's pedophiles. Camp Ped is where Matthiesen found Father John Salazar, the former Los Angeles priest who not only had been caught molesting boys at an Eastside parish in the 1980s, but who had served three years in prison and was newly paroled when the bishop swooped into the retreat in 1990 and revived his career.
As ecclesiastical parole officers, the Paracletes were an easy touch from the outset, turning loose their uncured "patients" with abandon despite whatever advice they may have received from outside medical professionals. Astonishingly, even while pedo-priests were ostensibly being treated there, the religious order's supervisors allowed many to be furloughed on weekends or sometimes for weeks at a stretch to fill in as parish priests in New Mexico and nearby states. Notorious Massachusetts pedo-priest James Porter, who arrived at the retreat in 1967, received three such furloughs, each time molesting new victims. Yet his Paraclete superior, Father John B. Feit, continued to write glowing letters of recommendation on Porter's behalf, and was instrumental in placing him in a Minnesota diocese at the end of his "treatment"—where he molested again before ultimately being sent to prison. Jemez Spring's outrages caught up with it in 1994, when the Paracletes were forced to close the psychosexual treatment operation there as the result of scores of lawsuits by abuse victims across New Mexico. The litigation cost the Archdiocese of Santa Fe more than $50 million and pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy.
"What went on there was abominable," says Father Tom Doyle, a U.S. Air Force chaplain and co-author of the manual. Placing the blame for the abysmal Camp Ped experiment at the feet of American bishops, Doyle is especially disdainful of Mahony's repeated insistence that his mishandling of pedo-priests was the result of following the prevailing medical advice of the day. "It simply isn't true!" he says. "He's replaying the same tired and meaningless excuse. He knew that sexual abuse of a child was harmful, that it was the vilest form of crime and that sex offenders [of children] are considered the lowest form of life even in prisons. He knew it was and is a felony in every state. So just what is it that Mahony didn't know?"
In Baker's case, Mahony apparently did little to monitor him after his return. It is claimed in a letter of complaint—which led to a $1.3 million payment to two victims whom Baker allegedly abused for years after Mahony welcomed him back into the L.A. Archdiocese—that Baker kept pictures of the victims in his room at a rectory long after returning from Camp Ped. The photos were taken during times he had molested them in his quarters. In 1999, after two of Baker's nine known accusers came forward, Mahony apparently hoped to buy the silence of the victims and their attorney by authorizing the payment before a lawsuit could be filed. One well-placed source calls it "maybe the fastest payoff of its kind ever." This source says that when an Arizona attorney for the victims showed up in L.A. after merely announcing an intent to sue, Mahony personally "took her to the Wilshire Country Club and later had a check in her hand so fast it would make your head swim." Having kept Baker's misdeeds secret for at least 14 years, the cardinal quietly arranged for his retirement from the archdiocese in late 2000. It wasn't until earlier this year, after the current scandal erupted, that Mahony reluctantly turned over Baker's name, along with a handful of others, to law enforcement.
Nowhere, with the possible exception of Boston, has the church's failed rehabilitation model come to haunt it more than in the sprawling L.A. Archdiocese, which includes Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. At least 72 of Mahony's current or former priests are under investigation by law enforcement in at least 142 cases. As this article went to press, the L.A. County Grand Jury was known to have issued subpoenas for materials related to 17 priests—after Mahony spent months stonewalling District Attorney Steve Cooley and investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Sheriff's Department and other agencies. Now, with the Labor Day opening of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral (the lavish $193 million monument to the cardinal's legacy) only weeks away, sources tell New Times that more subpoenas are imminent and that authorities may soon begin to arrest some of Mahony's clerics.
Father John Salazar rumbled through his victims' lives like a runaway train. But unlike most priestly sex abuse victims, those he molested at least had the satisfaction of seeing him sent to prison. That was in 1988, after the then 31-year-old cleric pleaded guilty to molesting two boys, ages 13 and 14, who were students at Santa Teresita Parish School in the City Terrace section of L.A.'s Eastside. As a member of the Piarist Fathers, a small order of priests based in Italy who oversee several parishes in the L.A. Archdiocese, Salazar taught at the school and helped out with mass on Sundays. His admissions didn't come easily. In fact, if it had been left to church officials, he would have gotten off scot-free. After the mother of one of the boys went to Salazar's superiors in 1986 upon learning that her son had been molested, she was told that it was the boy's fault—even while she was assured that Salazar would receive "counseling" from the church. She and the parents of a second child who came forward refused to let the matter drop. Two years later, facing the prospect of a much longer jail term, Salazar copped a plea to two felony counts in exchange for a six-year sentence.
Although Salazar served at Santa Teresita under Mahony's authorization, the archdiocese—as it typically does with miscreant "order" priests assigned within its jurisdiction—washed its hands of him, passing the buck to the Piarists. About the same time Salazar was cutting his deal with prosecutors, another scandal erupted involving one of Mahony's priests at a neighboring parish in El Sereno. At least 26 altar boys there and at a South-Central L.A. church accused Father Nicholas Aguilar Rivera of molesting them. Mahony ordered Rivera hauled into the chancery office for interrogation over a weekend after the first few of the accusers lodged complaints, but didn't bother to notify Los Angeles police until two days later. By then, Rivera had fled to his native Mexico and vanished. As they've often done during Mahony's tenure, the cardinal's subordinates concocted a lie to tell parishioners to explain the priest's departure, chalking it up to a "family emergency." Like the Salazar episode, the Rivera caper passed with almost no publicity.
Salazar's victims in Los Angeles may have thought they had heard the last of him, but his extraordinary saga didn't end with his imprisonment. Paroled in 1990 after serving three years behind bars (including time spent before sentencing), Salazar was sent by church officials to Jemez Springs for psychosexual treatment. California parole authorities agreed to the move, obliging Salazar to report regularly to authorities in New Mexico as a condition of his parole. No one could have predicted that within a few months of his arrival at Camp Ped the convicted felon's moribund career as a priest would be revived, courtesy of Amarillo's Matthiesen. Shortly before Christmas of 1990, Matthiesen arrived at Camp Ped with his vicar general and three members of his diocesan personnel committee, hoping to recruit a priest or two. The bishop was immediately impressed with Salazar. His Paraclete superiors had reported their pedophile guest as well-mannered, studious and hard-working. Like countless priestly child molesters funneled through the infamous retreat before him, Salazar was deemed ready to resume active ministry. That was good enough for the bishop. As for the prison rap, Salazar had reportedly told Matthiesen that he had gotten a raw deal and that he had expected to receive probation upon pleading guilty instead of going to jail. By the bishop's account, the priest also claimed that there had been only one victim. If the Paracletes knew otherwise, they didn't say.
In fact, besides the boys he was convicted of molesting, there were at least two other accusers from Salazar's stint at Santa Teresita, although neither had come forward. Carlos Perez-Carrillo, 36, now a supervisor with the L.A. County Department of Social Services, tells New Times that he was abused by Salazar off and on for at least three and a half years beginning in 1981. Perez-Carrillo, who grew up in Sun Valley, met Salazar at a gathering his parents hosted at home (his father was a church deacon) and quickly joined the circle of boys whom the priest regularly took on weekend outings to a Catholic vacation retreat near Lake Arrowhead and elsewhere. Perez-Carrillo says he didn't begin to come to grips with his molestation until he was newly married and living in Las Vegas in 1986, after his dad called with news that Salazar had been accused of molesting boys. Typical of many victims, Perez-Carrillo had previously assumed that he had been the only one. But by the time his father called, he says, "I had been losing a lot of weight and I was mistakenly convinced that he had given me AIDS. It was a horrible time in my life."
From a devout and well-connected Roman Catholic family (he recalls the family driving to Tucson, Arizona, in 1982 for the induction of his father's friend—and Mahony crony—Manuel Moreno, as the new bishop there), Perez-Carrillo turned to his dad for help. He says his father approached a well-placed friend at the time, newly installed L.A. auxiliary bishop G. Patrick Zieman, to complain about Salazar but that Zieman "turned his back on my dad. He just blew him off." (Zieman, a longtime protégé of Mahony's, is the disgraced former bishop of Santa Rosa who was accused of extorting a subordinate priest for sex in 1999 and who looms as a key figure in Mahony's coverups of sex abuse in the L.A. Archdiocese. Last August, shortly before Mahony would have been forced to answer potentially embarrassing questions about Zieman at a civil trial, the cardinal approved a $5.2 million settlement with abuse victim Ryan DiMaria. As part of the settlement, Mahony was forced to accept a list of demands by DiMaria. Since then, Mahony has shamelessly pitched the demands as his own initiatives while becoming one of the first American hierarchs to adopt "zero tolerance" as a public relations mantra. Zieman remains a bishop, living in ecclesiastical exile at an Arizona monastery, courtesy of Tucson's Moreno. The person in charge of his "spiritual rehabilitation" is yet another Mahony crony, San Francisco archbishop William Levada, who like Moreno was a Mahony classmate at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo. Just last month, a former Huntington Park altar boy filed a lawsuit accusing Zieman of sexually molesting him for nearly two decades ending in 1987. Not long afterward, and subsequent to New Times' reporting about Zieman's violation of the terms of his stay at Holy Trinity Monastery near the hamlet of St. David, the Vatican took the highly unusual step of stripping the bishop of his priestly duties, including his presiding at Mass on the monastery grounds.)
Someone else who might have come forward against Salazar but didn't is Lorenzo Najera, 37, who with his physician wife and three children lives in the eastern San Fernando Valley. Najera says he rebuffed an attempt by Salazar to fondle his genitals during one of numerous trips to the Lake Arrowhead retreat that he and fellow altar boys from Santa Teresita took in the 1980s. Najera says he and about six other boys were staying with Salazar and another priest at the retreat's two-story cabin when he awoke early one morning to find Salazar kneeling beside his bed and attempting to slip his hand beneath his underpants. On another occasion, he says, when he got up in the night to go to the restroom, he saw Salazar performing oral sex on an altar boy in an upstairs bedroom. Najera says he later told one of Salazar's Piarist superiors about the incident and that the priest "didn't want to hear it." Najera says he himself was being molested at the time by another priest at the same parish, an abuse that began when he was 12 and lasted until about age 17. "I was so mixed up and fearful that I never opened my mouth about [Salazar] again," Najera recalls. "I just tried to blot it out of my mind, even though I certainly knew he was dirty."
Not dirty enough, however, to prevent a Roman Catholic bishop from scooping him up out of pedophile treatment. Early in 1991, after Matthiesen saw to it that he was released from Piarist vows, Salazar left Jemez Springs and was encardinated, or officially installed, as a regular priest of the Diocese of Amarillo, assigned as pastor of churches in the farming communities of Tulia and Kress. He was placed under no restrictions with respect to proximity to children. Indeed, parishioners were never told that their priest was a convicted felon. As Mahony had done with child-molesting clerics Baker, Wempe, Carl Sutphin and others, Matthiesen kept his new priest's history of pedophilia a closely guarded secret. It wasn't easy. Especially after officials in California discovered in 1993 that their parolee was no longer in New Mexico. Salazar was given an edict: He could return to California or New Mexico, or he would be sent back to prison. He chose to go to back to Jemez Springs. So with the bishop's help, he made up a plausible story to tell his Texas parishioners as to why he needed a leave of absence and left for the Paraclete retreat to fulfill the remaining nine months of his parole.
No one was the wiser. Upon returning to Texas with parole behind him, Salazar assumed a bolder public profile. In 1995, he spoke before a large gathering of Promise Keepers, an evangelical men's movement (whose ranks include growing numbers of Roman Catholics) who emphasize moral rectitude and family values. Telling the men to value themselves because they were made in the image of God, he added, "That is the [message of] Jesus Christ we need to bring, especially to other men and to young men." Something else had also changed about him. In Los Angeles, he had been known simply as John Salazar. In Texas, he took to using his full name. He became Father John Anthony Salazar-Jimenez.
Salazar enjoyed popularity with Matthiesen until the bishop's retirement in 1997, and afterward with his successor, current bishop John Yanta. From the outset, Yanta was privy to Salazar's criminal background. As with his predecessor, it apparently hadn't offended his sensibilities that one of his priests was a known sex offender. In fact, there were at least six other priests with "therapeutic" backgrounds whom Matthiesen had brought to Amarillo, several of whom, like Salazar, were recruited out of Jemez Springs. Not only that, but Yanta himself brought in at least one such priest, who was removed in 1988 from a parish in Yakima, Washington, after a lawsuit accusing him and another cleric of molesting a young boy. Yet the current bishop has steadfastly stonewalled the press, refusing to discuss whether any accused cleric has been transferred there from elsewhere. In a Mahonyesque statement earlier this year, Yanta defended his stonewalling by citing canon law. "No one is permitted to damage unlawfully the good reputation which another person enjoys nor to violate the right of another person to protect his or her own privacy," the diocese quotes him as saying.
But after the Boston scandal broke last January and pedo-priests became a hot topic everywhere, Yanta—in an echo of Mahony's maneuvers in L.A.—finally had to toss overboard his so-called "therapeutic" clerics, including Salazar. Monsignor Harold Waldow, Amarillo's vicar for clergy, tells New Times that although each of the seven priests his boss quietly placed on inactive status before the national bishops conference in Dallas in June had "very good ministerial track records" and (as far as is known) had not reoffended, "it became clear that many priests who had engaged in sexual misconduct were not going to be able to remain in ministry." As an ex-convict, Salazar zoomed to the head of that class. Among other things, he was "uninsurable," Waldow says. Asked how a convicted felon and child molester could have come out of prison and been installed as a parish priest in the first place, Waldow deflected criticism from his boss, saying, "Maybe you should ask Bishop Matthiesen, since he's the one who brought him here."
Matthiesen doesn't skip a beat in defending his appointment of Salazar and is amazingly open about his frequent trips to Jemez Springs for the purpose of acquiring priests during 17 years as Amarillo's bishop. "I've never had any reason to regret that decision," he says, referring to the Salazar appointment. "I can understand his case looks particularly bad because he was convicted and spent three years in prison, but I must tell you he was one of the best pastors I ever had." The bishop emeritus says that "from 1990 until now I've never heard a negative word about him, and there were never any reports of his reoffending" with a minor. Asked how he could know, especially since there was no one to observe Salazar with a knowledge of his problem other than himself and, later, Yanta, Matthiesen says, "There was a parole officer who came up once a month for a while." Matthiesen defends keeping parishioners in the dark about Salazar, saying that he "had a lot of confidence" in the rehabilitation program at Jemez Springs and was "convinced that [Salazar] was able to stay within the boundaries" in his dealings with young people. Pressed as to how he could bring into the diocese a child molester and convicted felon fresh out of prison without feeling an obligation to inform parishioners, Matthiesen says, "Well, sure, I suppose hindsight can be much better than foresight."
In April, Yanta, the current bishop, met with Salazar and gave him the advance word: He would still be on the diocesan payroll, but he would have to give up his parish. A month ago, to the shock of parishioners who finally heard the truth about their priest, Salazar abruptly left town, having been shuffled off to a church retreat in Canada where Waldow, the vicar for clergy, describes him as being "in transition." To what isn't exactly clear. Now that Governor Gray Davis has signed a landmark California law to give any alleged sex-abuse victim a one-year window of opportunity to sue the church, starting January 1—regardless of whether previous legal time limits for doing so have expired—Salazar's legal problems may not be over. Perez-Carrillo, for one, has obtained a lawyer. And sources say Salazar is among the current and former priests within the L.A. Archdiocese whom police are investigating.
If Matthiesen used Camp Ped as a job fair, the way Mahony and other bishops used it is perhaps only slightly less outrageous. Mahony may not have recruited priests from Jemez Springs, but he shuffled his share of errant clerics there and elsewhere for "treatment" and then placed them back into priestly service when he had to have known they were beyond cure. "I don't think bishops, Cardinal Mahony included, are very impressed with the evil of sexual abuse with a minor," says psychoanalyst A.W. Richard Sipe of La Jolla, who has counseled hundreds of priests and abuse victims and written three groundbreaking books on sexuality among Roman Catholic clergy. Aside from the public-relations disaster that the current scandal has become, the former Benedictine monk says, "I don't think it has offended [Mahony] at all."
In his repeated professions of sorrow as the L.A. scandal has unraveled, Mahony—who, as usual, declined to be interviewed for this article—insists that it is unfair to judge his and other church leaders' past mishandling of pedo-priests since they were relying on the best advice of mental-health experts at the time. "Everyone is taking the matrix of 2002 knowledge and placing that matrix on what happened some time 15, 20, 30 years ago," Mahony told a recent gathering of editors and reporters. Coincidentally or not, his if-only-we-knew-then-what-we-know-now pitch has intensified since May, after hiring Sitrick & Co., Enron Corporation's former public-relations firm, to shore up his sagging image.
Such a legalistic explanation for his failings by one of the most powerful members of the American church's hierarchy, and the leader of 3.6 million Southern California Catholics, leaves Mahony's critics dumbstruck. "Just when did he and other bishops learn that it is illegal to have sex with a minor?" says Sipe. "His [had-we-known] defense is just another type of denial, a rationalization." Beyond that, he and others say, Mahony's claim of merely having followed the advice of the day is exceptionally misleading. Although mental-health experts in the 1960s and 1970s held the view that pedophilia could be treated much the same as alcoholism and that those who engaged in it could learn to lead productive lives without reoffending, that view had changed dramatically by the mid-1980s, after which Mahony and other hierarchs continued to send priests to Camp Ped. "There was this crazy kind of unspoken conspiracy of 'don't ask, don't tell' among the bishops," says Gary Schoener, a Minnesota clinical psychologist who has consulted in hundreds of sex-abuse cases involving priests. "Even after it was well-known that a lot of these priests had problems that were beyond fixing, the bishops just kept sending them to [Jemez Springs] and other places rather than getting rid of them, as if it gave them a moral "out.'"
Considering Mahony's track record, the manual could have been written with him in mind upon its release in 1985. As revealed earlier by New Times, Mahony surrendered his license as a California social worker in March 1980, shortly after he was installed as Stockton's bishop. He thus removed himself from any legal obligation to report incidents of child abuse at a time when, as a new bishop, he would have become privy to such information regarding priests. (Clerics in California weren't required to report child abuse until 1997, when, over the vigorous opposition of the church, the law was changed.) He then proceeded to cover up for notorious former priest Oliver O'Grady, who molested more than 20 children, including a nine-month-old girl, after Mahony promoted him, despite knowing that O'Grady was a sex abuser. And in 17 years as L.A.'s archbishop, Mahony's dismal record of reshuffling and harboring known pedo-priests has come to rival—if not exceed—that of Boston's much-maligned Cardinal Bernard Law.
The American hierarchy turned its back on the manual, its members preferring to hide the problem of priestly sex abuse under their cassocks. That the bishops were well aware of the problem in 1985 is irrefutable. A 1992 letter from Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, then the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to Doyle, the manual's co-author, makes that clear. In response to Doyle's plea for the bishops to stop resisting the report's recommendations seven years after they were issued, Pilarczyk wrote, "The fact remains that your report presented no new issue (of which the NCCB was unaware) or presented information that required some materially different response." As a driving force behind the U.S. bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, established in the early 1990s, Mahony played a key role in helping turn back some of the same reforms that he now pretends to champion. "The Mahonys and the Laws within the church won out and, as we've seen even since the current scandal erupted, they're still treating it as if it's only a public-relations problem rather than pursuing real reform," says Doyle, who is also a canon lawyer. He was an aide to the Vatican's ambassador to the United States when the report was issued. Besides Peterson—St. Luke's founder, who is now deceased—the document's other author was former Louisiana defense attorney Ray Mouton.
Since opening its doors 20 years ago, St. Luke has become the primary treatment center for sex-abusing priests and nuns. "St. Luke, at least in the early years, offered a more professional approach than anything available at Jemez Springs," says Michael Schwartz, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an advocacy group. He became involved in helping abuse victims in the 1970s after befriending a Florida man who filed the first known lawsuit accusing a sitting Roman Catholic bishop of sex abuse. In 1993, a judge dismissed the suit against former Hawaii bishop Joseph Ferrario, ruling that it had not been filed in a timely manner. Ferrario's critics at the time accused him and several other unnamed bishops of stocking their dioceses with priests who were alums of Jemez Springs. Says Schwartz, "No one wants to admit it [with the obvious exception of Matthiesen], but the truth is, there were plenty of bishops who recruited out of there."
Nestled in a scenic canyon 60 miles north of Albuquerque, next to the ruins of a 17th century Spanish mission, the Father Fitzgerald Center, as the Jemez Springs retreat is formally known, lies secluded among 2,000 acres that have belonged to the Paracletes for more than half a century. The order's founder, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, a former military chaplain, chose the spot in 1947, the year reports of "flying saucers" made the New Mexico town of Roswell famous and, just over the mountains, the U.S. government was settling the secret atomic city of Los Alamos. Fitzgerald's was a noble idea: to provide a refuge for priests having difficulties with their vocations, mainly alcoholics and those suffering from depression who couldn't cope and had nowhere else to go. At its peak in the '70s and '80s more than 1,000 clerics a year spent time there, soaking in its mineral baths and inhaling the clear air for a few weeks or months at a time. Ironically, Fitzgerald had wanted nothing to do with clerical child abusers, holding the view that they were incurable and should be forcibly removed from the priesthood. In 1965, after losing a battle within the order to devote one of the several communal halls at the facility to pedophile treatment, Fitzgerald left in disgust, accepting a new assignment in Italy for the remaining four years of his life.
Amazingly, before the momentous decision to introduce child-abusers at Jemez Springs, officials of the order briefly considered buying a remote Caribbean island where banished pedophile clerics from throughout the United States could be sent. Few Roman Catholics, much less anyone else, knew about the psychosexual treatment offered there. Jemez Springs, along with a handful of smaller treatment facilities in the Northeast and elsewhere, operated in strictest secrecy. For a while, at least, even locals were in the dark. "The retreat used to invite the local kids to come use the pool during the summer," recalls Jay Nelson, 50, of Albuquerque, who spent summers as a child at his family's vacation cabin near Jemez Springs. "They'd tell the parents, "Send them down. We'll watch them.'" Although there was opposition at first, residents who've long relied on the business generated by the retreat, came to tolerate Camp Ped, he says. Once, when a local parish priest, himself a Paraclete, complained to officials that clerics from the treatment center were making eyes at some of his altar boys, "they packed him off to a new assignment immediately," Nelson says.
From the outset, Camp Ped was a disaster. Even Father Peter Lechner, the Paracletes' current director, whose office is in St. Louis, acknowledges that mental-health professionals were ill-equipped in the early years of the retreat to deal with molesters. But its problems went beyond merely the limits of medicine. "They may have had competent outside professionals working with the priests, but there was a disconnect in the way the "patients' wound up being shuffled through there and back into active priesthood," says Schoener, the clinical psychologist. He and others suggest that Camp Ped operated in a kind of netherworld between vacation retreat and treatment center. Considering its dismal track record, as exemplified by scandals involving numerous of its priestly alumni, Mahony and other bishops appear to have sent their bad-boy priests there to get them out of their hair rather than to treat them.
There's no denying the Paracletes' proclivity for giving pedo-priests a clean bill of health, and bishops' propensity for welcoming such priests back and foisting them on unsuspecting parishioners. Take the notorious Father James Porter, for example. A three-time Camp Ped veteran, the Massachusetts native was finally sentenced to prison in the early 1980s after molesting more than 100 boys at parishes in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest. In 1967, the staff at Jemez Springs saw "real hope" for Porter's rehabilitation and recommended that he be allowed to conduct mass on a trial basis at several churches in New Mexico while receiving treatment. But not long after filling in for a vacationing priest in the town of Truth or Consequences, Porter returned to his old ways, molesting at least six children, including a boy confined to a full-body cast in a hospital.
Ever optimistic, a few months later the staff gave him another probationary assignment, this time in Houston, where he molested more children before he was shipped back to New Mexico. Incredibly, in 1969, Porter was cleared for release from Camp Ped and on the recommendation of the Paracletes was assigned to a parish in Bemidji, Minnesota, where he resumed molesting children. The Minnesota bishop who had agreed to take him had no clue as to his long sordid record when he showed up there. Astonishingly, a letter from the Paracletes, a copy of which was obtained by New Times, simply says that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. "During the throes of his illness he did have some moral problems which were, from all appearances, the result of his illness, something for which he was not responsible. Now, having recovered, he gives every sign of having the former problems under control," the letter says.
The author of that letter and other glowing reports about Porter and fellow priests who molested during furloughs from Jemez Springs during its early days was Father John B. Feit, who became the superior in charge of the psychosexual treatment program after only two years there. Feit, who had no professional training other than in theology, exemplifies all that was wrong with Camp Ped, not to mention the cynicism—or incompetence—of bishops who sent their priests there. Incredibly, Feit had switched from another religious order to join the Paracletes in 1962, just months after pleading "no contest" to a reduced charge of assault while a priest in Texas. A 20-year-old school teacher had accused him of attempting to sexually assault her as she knelt to pray inside a church in Edinburg, Texas, where he was the pastor, in 1960.
What's more, Feit had been a suspect—although no charges were filed against him—in the murder of a 25-year-old South Texas beauty queen. Three days after she went missing, the woman's partially clad body was found in a drainage ditch near the same Edinburg church, barely a month after the assault on the teacher. Irene Garcia had been raped and suffocated. Garcia's car was found parked at the church, where Feit, who had heard her confession, was the last known person to have seen her alive. "It pains me even now that the person who killed that girl was never brought to justice," retired McAllen, Texas, police officer W.L. "Sonny" Miller, now 70, tells New Times. Miller reviewed the evidence at the request of a now-deceased police chief in the 1970s. Four polygraph tests administered to Feit were "inconclusive," and for lack of physical evidence no charges were brought in the case against anybody, he says. Garza's clothing and other items remain in an evidence locker at the McAllen Police Department. Miller has pushed in vain to have authorities use DNA testing, which wasn't available at the time of the murder, to revive the investigation. "It's the only right thing to do," he says. Feit, now 69, left the priesthood years ago and works for a Catholic charity in another state. He did not respond to interview requests from New Times, but he told the Brownsville Herald newspaper—which cited the four inconclusive polygraph tests—that he had had nothing to do with the Garcia slaying. He also said he would never have pleaded to the earlier charge if, at the time, he had known what a no-contest plea suggested.
Yet, sadly, the Feit era wasn't an aberration. Camp Ped's track record continued to be the source of tragedy—and the butt of jokes by critics of the bishops' failed rehabilitation model—until it closed in 1994. The case of Father Andrew Christian Anderson of Huntington Beach is typical of the program's failure. In 1986, the popular pastor was convicted of 26 counts of molesting four altar boys. An Orange County superior court judge sentenced him to five years' probation on condition that he complete long-term treatment at Jemez Springs. After the slap-on-the-wrist ruling, Anderson was smothered in hugs from dozens of still-loyal parishioners who had crowded into the courtroom. Mahony protégé John Steinbock, bishop of the Diocese of Orange at the time (and now Fresno's bishop) adopted a wait-and-see attitude, saying he would decide Anderson's future as a priest after the therapy. Anderson went off to Jemez Springs for treatment, followed by six months at a Paraclete halfway house in Albuquerque. In 1990, just two months after leaving the house to live on his own, Anderson was arrested after dragging a 14-year-old boy off a downtown Albuquerque street and molesting him.
Due in no small part to Camp Ped's priestly patients having molested children across New Mexico during furloughs (a practice unchecked since the Porter days), by 1994 the Archdiocese of Santa Fe had become ground zero in an explosion of clerical sex-abuse cases. The archbishop at the time, Robert Sanchez, had appointed a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the Jemez Springs problem, but it was too little, too late. It didn't help that Sanchez became embroiled in a sex scandal in 1993 after at least five women came forward to say they had had affairs with him, including the daughter of a wealthy New Mexico family that had conducted an annual fund-raiser named for Sanchez. Facing nearly 200 lawsuits and more than $50 million in damages, the archdiocese was forced to sell off choice real estate. Even so, it would have likely gone into insolvency if not for help from the national bishops' conference, spearheaded by Mahony, which chipped in some pricey New Mexico property of its own that the archdiocese sold to pay its remaining legal bills.
The lawsuits guaranteed Camp Ped's demise. But Lechner, the head of the Paracletes, acknowledges that psychosexual treatment probably would have been discontinued even if litigation hadn't finished it off. "Jemez Springs became undesirable [as a place to go] for many priests," he laments. "With all the publicity, more and more priests resisted going there for any reason for fear they would be branded as pedophiles." (He refused to say how many of the estimated three-dozen priests being treated at the Paracletes' St. Jean Vianney Renewal Center outside St. Louis have psychosexual problems.)
It's an image that refuses to die. Just last month, Lechner announced
that after half a century, the Paracletes will shutter the Jemez Springs
retreat entirely in December. But, already, there is speculation that
it may end up as a permanent dumping ground for child-molesting priests.
Under the watered-down "zero tolerance" policy adopted in June by American
bishops—but not yet approved by Rome—abusive clerics are to
be removed from "active ministry" but kept on church payrolls. "I really
can't comment on whether that will happen," Lechner says. "All I can say
is, I hope not."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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