Diocese Was Silent on Accused Priests
Amarillo Bishops Hired 8 Pastors from Church-Run Treatment Centers
By Steve McGonigle
Dallas Morning News
January 19, 2004
AMARILLO � For 14 years, bishops of the Catholic Diocese of Amarillo hid the truth about the men known internally as "the program priests."
Congregations scattered across 26,000 square miles of the Texas Panhandle were never told that at least eight of their pastors had spent time in church-run treatment centers after being accused of molesting children.
Parishioners didn't learn about the priests' pasts until after the pastors began leaving this spring. The departures occurred as American bishops appeared poised to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse.
The rules change enacted by U.S. bishops in June hit the mostly poor, sparsely populated Amarillo Diocese hard, stripping away one-fourth of its 32 active priests. Added to existing vacancies, 16 of 35 parishes were left without a resident pastor.
As Bishop John Yanta scrambled to meet the basic needs of the diocese, he and his predecessor, Bishop Leroy Matthiesen, found themselves being asked to explain decisions that they had kept buried for years.
Some parishioners vented their displeasure at meetings with Bishop Yanta. Others expressed their anger in less public ways, one longtime diocesan member said.
"Now that this has all come out, there's a lot of people that are really upset about it because the bishop did know, and nothing was done about it, and children were exposed to these priests," said Cris Parra of Amarillo, a music director at several parishes.
"They are just not happy campers about it," Ms. Parra said.
Bishop Yanta acknowledged that people's faith in the church has been shaken. But he predicted that any bitterness would not linger.
"There's something about us Catholics," he said. "We've been through everything through the last 20 centuries. When we have to suffer, it seems that we get recommitted, more committed than ever."
Bishop Yanta, 70, offered no apologies for his secretiveness, saying he believed it was in line with dictates of church law that require bishops to protect the reputations of priests as well as ensuring due process.
"The communication of the truth is not a universal right," he said.
Regrets lack of candor
Bishop Matthiesen, who gave way to Bishop Yanta in 1997 after leading the Amarillo Diocese for 17 years, said he regretted his lack of candor about six priests he hired from treatment programs in New Mexico and Maryland between 1988 and 1995. But he has had no change of heart about putting the priests back into parish work.
"I personally have not regretted taking them," Bishop Matthiesen said.
Now 81, Bishop Matthiesen, who gained national attention in the early 1980s for his protests against nuclear weapons, lives quietly with his dog in a small house behind a convent in Amarillo.
In retrospect, he said, he may have been too receptive to the requests he fielded from across the country to give troubled priests a second chance.
'Needs of the priests'
It was not until recently, Bishop Matthiesen said, that he learned some priests were not the first-time sex offenders that they purported to be when he agreed to hire them.
"I was too focused on the needs of the priests rather than thinking about the victims," he said.
Bishop Matthiesen, a West Texas native who spent his entire career in the Amarillo Diocese, said he was familiar with a retreat for priests in Jemez Springs, N.M., even before it began treating sex offenders.
His predecessor, Bishop Lawrence DeFalco, had two priests in residence at the retreat center, and Bishop Matthiesen became a familiar visitor to the facility after he was appointed to lead the diocese, he said.
He said he was told in 1982 that the Jemez Springs center was initiating a professional therapy program for sex offenders. He was first contacted about taking a priest from the program in 1988, he said.
In all, Bishop Matthiesen said, he accepted five priests from the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs and one priest from St. Luke Institute, another church-run treatment center in Suitland, Md.
The initial calls, he said, would come from either the bishop of the priest's home diocese or the director of the treatment program.
"I think that people trusted me," Bishop Matthiesen. "I guess I had some respect on that point."
Went to prison
He said he never conducted his own checks of the priests � which included the Rev. John Salazar-Jimenez, who had been to prison in California for sexually molesting two teenage boys at a Los Angeles Catholic school.
When Bishop Matthiesen hired Father Salazar-Jimenez in 1991, he was at the Paraclete facility as a condition of parole. He was still on parole when he was installed as pastor of Church of the Holy Spirit in Tulia.
His parish never knew that Father Salazar-Jimenez made monthly trips to see a parole officer in Albuquerque or that a nine-month absence from Tulia was spent in Jemez Springs to complete his parole.
'Kids love him'
Lucy Pohlmeier, an active member of the Tulia church for the last five years, said she never knew about Father Salazar-Jimenez's criminal history and doesn't care now. She called the priest a compassionate man who was extremely popular within the small town parish.
"Kids love him," she said.
Her only hard feelings, Ms. Pohlmeier said, were toward the bishops who enacted the policy that cost her close friend his job.
Father Salazar-Jimenez, 46, is now in a transitional program for priests in Ontario, Canada, the Amarillo Diocese said. He has not been available to comment to reporters.
Bishop Matthiesen said he hid the truth about Father Salazar-Jimenez and the other priests hired from treatment programs as part of an after-care program intended to keep them from committing new offenses.
The priests also were required to meet monthly with the bishop, return to Jemez Springs every six months, attend a support group headed by a psychologist and receive individual counseling, Bishop Matthiesen said.
He said he was told all the priests had been accused of a molesting a single, post-pubescent minor. He said he had no use for abusers of young children and once fired a foreign priest accused of molesting altar boys.
"I told him to get out by sundown," Bishop Matthiesen said.
All the priests he hired from treatment facilities cooperated with their after-care program, he said, and none was ever accused of any new sexual offense while they were in the Amarillo Diocese.
'Protect the children'
Bishop Yanta said he heard about the "program priests" hired by Bishop Matthiesen before he was installed in Amarillo in March 1997. He had previously been auxiliary bishop in the San Antonio Archdiocese.
"I didn't get a good night's sleep here for several months," Bishop Yanta said, "because my Number 1 preoccupation was just to make sure that we were providing [the priests] with the very best care and to protect the children and the youth of the diocese."
After consulting with a variety of experts, he said, he decided to keep the priests on the job with even stricter requirements for their after-care.
Bishop Yanta said his decision was based on advice that priests might accuse him of violating their due process or reputational rights guaranteed under the canon laws of the Roman Catholic Church.
"They'll take you to Rome at the drop of a hat, as we say."
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon law expert who co-authored a landmark 1985 report on sexual abuse in the clergy, said Bishop Yanta, like many other bishops, was misreading church law to explain lack of action.
Canon law also requires bishops to protect the moral and spiritual life of their dioceses from matters such as sexual abuse, Father Doyle said.
"The priest's rights are certainly minimized when you add that up and compare it to the rights of the faithful," Father Doyle said.
Bishop Yanta, a staunch opponent of abortion rights who was convicted in 1993 for trespassing at a San Antonio women's clinic, was one of a handful of bishops who voted against the sexual abuse policy adopted in Dallas.
"I was for the charter in principle, definitely," he said. "But I thought we should have come up with something a little more flexible for those cases of a long distant past."
Nonetheless, he said, he did not wait for the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas to begin calling in "program priests" to discuss their future.
Father Salazar-Jimenez resigned after meeting with the bishop in April. A second priest, the Rev. Richard Scully, was granted a medical retirement the week before the bishops meeting in Dallas.
Father Scully was hired by Bishop Matthiesen in 1989 after he was sent to Jemez Springs by the Diocese of Yakima, Wash. That diocese later settled two sex abuse lawsuits filed against Father Scully.
All eight of the priests who resigned from the Amarillo Diocese because of prior sexual abuse allegations were hired by Bishop Matthiesen. Six came through treatment centers; two were homegrown priests.
Bishop Yanta acknowledged that there were additional priests who had been in treatment for problems other than sexual abuse. One long-retired priest had been to sex abuse treatment, he said.
"To my knowledge, right now we have no priests in ministry, in active ministry who is guilty of sexual abuse of minors," he said.
In July, the Amarillo diocese was accused of covering up a series of sexual abuse incidents in a lawsuit filed by parents of a teenager who say their daughter was impregnated by a parish priest.
The diocese has denied any cover-up, although Bishop Yanta acknowledged that the priest named in the lawsuit relapsed after being sent to a sex abuse treatment program.
The priest, Rosendo Herrera, was brought into the diocese by Bishop Matthiesen after being forced to leave a seminary in Mexico because of sexual misconduct and failing to win ordination in the Lubbock Diocese. He was removed from ministerial duties in the Amarillo Diocese in 2000 and reduced to lay status at his request last year.
No other lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests have been filed against the diocese, Bishop Yanta said. He did say that the diocese has settled an unspecified number of claims filed by alleged victims, but he declined to elaborate.
Upbeat about future
Despite the turmoil, Bishop Yanta said he remained upbeat about the future of the diocese. All but one small parish and its mission church are being served by a priest, church attendance remains steady, and collections are up, he said.
The diocese has received at least one response to its call for victims of clergy abuse to come forward, he said. He declined further comment.
Bishop Yanta said he was at peace with his decisions to keep accused priests working without telling their parishioners. At the same time, he acknowledged that he was now paying for those decisions.
"Jesus paid the price for our sinfulness by his death on the cross," Bishop Yanta said. "We, as his disciples, we get a share in that. And we're getting a big share right now."
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