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  Former Priest Gets Life in Prison
Irving: Term is mandatory after previous conviction

By Robert Tharp
Dallas Morning News
July 6, 2005

A former Catholic priest who sexually assaulted a man in an Irving hotel was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday under a law that imposes an automatic life term when convicted sex offenders re-offend.

John Salazar stood impassively as Judge Gary Stephens imposed his sentence. The judge then allowed the victim of the September 2003 assault to confront Mr. Salazar in the courtroom.

"Salazar's victims also suffer a life sentence ... to suffering and shame," Beau Villegas said while giving his victim impact statement.

Mr. Villegas addressed Mr. Salazar directly while talking about how the assault had affected his life. Mr. Salazar appeared to be taking notes during the statement and did not look up.

The Dallas Morning News does not normally publish the names of victims in sex-crime cases, but Mr. Villegas has asked that he be identified.

He wasn't Mr. Salazar's first victim. The automatic life sentence was imposed because he had already been to prison in California for molesting two boys in the 1980s while working as a priest.

He was still on parole when hired by the Catholic diocese in Amarillo and assigned to a small church in Tulia, Texas, in 1991. Some diocese officials were aware of at least some of Mr. Salazar's background, but parishioners were told nothing about the energetic young priest.

Mr. Salazar resigned from the priesthood in 2002 shortly before Catholic bishops created a national zero-tolerance policy for priests accused of sexual offenses. He was unable to function or dress as a priest but technically was still in the priesthood when he and Mr. Villegas attended a wedding together in Irving the next year.

During the trial, Mr. Villegas testified that Mr. Salazar sexually assaulted him when they returned to his hotel room. Mr. Villegas said he became too intoxicated to resist Mr. Salazar's advances.

Mr. Villegas said he trusted Mr. Salazar because he had been his family's longtime priest and close family friend in Tulia.

Mr. Villegas, who filed a lawsuit against Mr. Salazar and the Amarillo diocese minutes after Mr. Salazar's conviction last week, criticized Catholic officials for hiding Mr. Salazar's criminal past when he was brought into the Amarillo diocese from a Catholic treatment center for sex-offender priests in 1991. He was also critical of the church's handling of other recent cases.

"With the exception of a few good men ... as a whole the Catholic church has failed us around the world," he said.

Judge Stephens had no option but to sentence Mr. Salazar to life in prison. Texas law requires a life sentence in first-degree felony sexual assault cases when the defendant has been convicted of a serious sex offense.

Mr. Salazar's attorneys did not dispute the earlier conviction for assaulting two boys in California in the 1980s, but they argued that the law should not apply because it was created after Mr. Salazar's first offense. The attorneys said they planned to appeal the sentence.

By law, Mr. Salazar must spend at least 30 years in prison before he's eligible for parole.

Mr. Villegas' mother, Jamie Villegas, said she was satisfied with the prison sentence, but it does not make her feel better about what happened.

"We are sad about this. We are not celebrating in any form or fashion," she said. "We genuinely loved and cared for this man."

Kristopher Galland, the Dallas representative of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he's glad for Mr. Salazar's harsh sentence because he was given so many chances in the past.

"Rarely do we get to see justice move this fast," he said. "Usually the bad guy gets swept under the rug."

E-mail rtharp@dallasnews.com

 
 

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