Priests in Flux in Panhandle

By Kay Ledbetter And Don Munsch
Amarillo Globe
June 27, 2002

An official from the Diocese of Amarillo said the diocese has received no resignations from priests lately, but at least one local priest has left and another has said he will be leaving.

The departures come as a deacon from a Hereford church has been put on administrative leave after an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor, said Monsignor Harold Waldow, vicar for clergy for the Diocese of Amarillo.

Jesse Guerrero, 54, deacon at San Jose Church in Hereford and youth director for the diocese from 1994 until 1999, was removed about a month ago, said Deacon Floyd Ashley of the diocese. Ashley said Guerrero was ordained in April 1989 and had been at the church since then.

"We have never seen any charges of what he is being charged with, if there are multiple victims or one victim - those are things we don't know," Waldow said. "It's never been presented to a grand jury. So, until we know, we don't have any other information, and we don't cross the boundary of doing an investigation independent of the civil authorities. They'll reveal to us in their time and place what information they have."

Waldow said he has received telephone calls and visitors about priests leaving their parishes, but no priests have been removed or resigned.

But Jim Younger, St. Francis Catholic Church parish council president, said the Rev. Ted Podson left the parish June 20, and parishioners were notified that Deacon Jim Ambs will take over the duties of the parish.

Younger said Bishop John W. Yanta can appoint another priest to the parish, but what Yanta elected to do at this time because the area is short on priests is place Ambs at the church.

"It was one of those deals where 'bam,' nobody knew. It was real quick. He (Podson) left on good terms," Younger said.

A deacon cannot consecrate the host, so that function will be done prior to Masses by another priest from Amarillo.

St. Francis has about 65 families and has rebuilt its church after it burned.

"We've been through ups and downs, and we'll pull through this, too. It's just something we have to deal with," Younger said. "We will deal with it and move forward and everything will work out. We just have to have faith."

Jesse Baker, Immaculate Heart of Mary's Catholic Church parish council president in Groom, said the council was notified Tuesday by the Rev. Neal Dee that he would be leaving. Baker said a meeting is planned for tonight concerning the future of the parish. The parish does not have a deacon at this time, he said.

When asked whether Yanta has made any decisions to remove priests based on the new charter approved by American bishops at their recent meeting in Dallas, Waldow said the diocese, in cooperation with a local review board, is in the process of implementing the new policy on sexually abusive priests. Waldow said the diocese will disclose a priest's departure if he is removed because of the new policy.

Waldow did discuss a meeting Tuesday in Swisher County.

"I said to the people that were attending from Tulia and Kress they needed to be prepared for a very strong probability or possibility that there would be more priests leaving, and we haven't seen the end of what we're going to have to work ourselves through," Waldow said.

"Word was already out in the community that there were going to be more priests leaving or resigning, so I addressed the subject," he said.

Waldow said some priests have spoken about their futures.

"There are priests that have talked to their own communities about their future in ministry, and they're working in whatever process they're choosing, but they haven't contacted us with any resignation(s) or any formal communication with us as to their status or position," Waldow said.

He declined to say which priests had spoken to their congregations about their situations.

Waldow said he hoped priests would notify the diocese before they would resign, but "sometimes that's not the way it goes. They'll probably notify their own local communities and then it will catch up with us."

A few priests have left their parishes this year.

Monsignor Orville Blum, pastor of St. Anthony's Church in Hereford, was put on administrative leave in May after an allegation made by a former Alamo Catholic High School student, who said the abuse occurred in the 1970s.

The Rev. John Anthony Salazar-Jimenez resigned his pastorship at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tulia in May. Before going to Tulia, where he served from 1991 to this year, Salazar-Jimenez spent nearly three years in prison in California for sexually abusing children.

Waldow said the Rev. Richard Scully, former pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Dumas, was placed on administrative leave but then he took a medical retirement. The Seattle Times reported in April that a lawsuit accused Scully and another priest of molesting a teen-age boy beginning in 1980. The case and a similar one were settled confidentially.


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