Ex-Bishop Standing behind Ousted Clergy
Fund-Raiser Criticized, but Retiree Says Accused Deserve Compassion

By Steve McGonigle
The Dallas Morning News [Amarillo TX]
May 22, 2004

AMARILLO Life has a definite moral clarity for Leroy Matthiesen.

Whether protesting nuclear weapons, lobbying to spare a nun's killer, saying Mass for gays and lesbians or providing second chances for fallen priests, the retired Catholic bishop of Amarillo does not anguish over his choices.

"I told somebody I seem to have a knack for creating some problems and difficulties," the 82-year-old said, breaking into a trademark squinty-eyed smile and impish chuckle. "I just say I gotta be me."

His unpretentious persona and steadfast devotion to principles have endeared "Bishop Matt" even to those who criticize his worldview or find him profoundly tone deaf. "He's like a disciplined Mr. Magoo," one ally quipped.

But even true believers are wincing at Bishop Matthiesen's latest social justice cause.

He has sent letters around the sprawling Panhandle diocese soliciting funds for three priests who were removed from their rural parishes two years ago because Catholic bishops banned alleged sex offenders from ministry. In the last few months, the diocese has slashed its financial support for the three former pastors to $100 per month.

The three are among a group of eight priests admitted by Bishop Matthiesen into the Amarillo diocese from 1980 to 1997 who had undergone treatment for alleged sexual misconduct. All eight were removed by Bishop Matthiesen's successor, Bishop John Yanta, a step that cost the diocese almost a fourth of its active priests.

Many parishioners did not know until their priest was removed that he was an alleged abuser, a fact that Bishop Matthiesen has said he regrets but could not help because of the privacy concerns of the times.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at a 2002 meeting in Dallas, requires the removal of any priest against whom a credible abuse allegation had been made. The charter did not address how much financial support ousted priests should receive.

Bishop Matthiesen's fund raising comes at a time when the Amarillo diocese is reeling from a six-figure budget deficit. Among its expenses have been paying tens of thousands of dollars in legal claims of sex abuse and providing counseling to victims.

Taking sides?

The diocese has declined to comment on Bishop Matthiesen's effort, but some victims and advocates for victims have denounced the former bishop as taking sides with the alleged abusers.

"Fundamentally, in the final analysis, the message it sends is we still care more about these priests than about their victims," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests. "That may not be the intended message, but I think that's certainly the message it sends."

Even some friends said Bishop Matthiesen has tarnished the heroic image he forged in the 1980s beginning with a call to Catholic workers at the nearby Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant to resign on moral grounds.

The farm boy from tiny Olfen, Texas, who once graced the cover of Life magazine and shared a speaking stage with future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel now stands accused of a lack of compassion.

Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo lawyer and longtime civil rights activist, said he admires his friend's devotion to the clerical castaways but feels his fund raising carries a heavy personal cost. "I just feel bad for him because it's just leading to a huge political backlash, I think, inside his own constituency," Mr. Blackburn said.

Mr. Blackburn said he has a client with a potential claim of clerical sexual abuse. He described the young woman as being of extreme liberal persuasion. "She absolutely despises Bishop Matthiesen for what he's doing," he said.

The retired bishop said he hears the denunciations and is bothered. But he insists it would be wrong to think his compassion for troubled priests does not extend to the victims of clerical sexual abuse. He said he provided assistance to alleged abuse victims on several occasions during his 17-year tenure as bishop.

A matter of loyalty

His support for the removed priests, he said, is a moral calling and a matter of loyalty.

"I just cannot envision myself inviting someone to come and work with me in the work of the church, doing that very well, and then dumping them in their time of need," he said.

In discussing the ousted priests, Bishop Matthiesen demonstrated an often-detailed knowledge of their lives since being forced out of ministry. He acknowledged that some of the ousted priests kept in touch with him by phone or e-mail. He said he had helped two priests arrange temporary housing and also given job recommendations to priests who asked for them.

Retired since 1997, Bishop Matthiesen lives with his 7-year-old border collie, Francisco, in a cluttered four-room home behind a Capuchin monastery. His days are spent gardening, saying Mass for two orders of nuns and writing a biography of the Amarillo diocese's first bishop, Rudolph Gerken.

His relationship with Bishop Yanta, a far more formal leader who made a name for himself protesting abortion clinics, has had its share of strains. Bishop Matthiesen jokes that he has sometimes been accused of operating a "shadow diocese." Bishop Yanta declined to comment on Bishop Matthiesen's activities.

Bishop Matthiesen said he offered to set up an emergency relief fund and solicit donations after one of the removed priests, the Rev. Dennis Boylan, approached him this year about help in obtaining financial aid.

Father Boylan, along with the two other priests, the Rev. Jim Hutzler and the Rev. John Salazar, had recently seen his support payments from the Amarillo diocese slashed from $1,600 to $100 per month, the bishop said.

Father Boylan, 56, works part time at an Amarillo funeral home, the bishop said. Father Hutzler, 59, plays the organ for two Protestant churches in Amarillo. Father Salazar, 48, is unemployed and in jail in Dallas while awaiting trial on charges of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old college student in Irving last year.

None of them can sustain himself for long on what the diocese is offering, Bishop Matthiesen said. Each priest was offered residence in a vacant Catholic children's home in Panhandle. None of the three has accepted the offer.

While he understood the diocese's position, Bishop Matthiesen said, he could not turn his back on the ousted priests.

"These are my friends. I know them on a personal basis. I know them very well, as a matter of fact," the bishop said. "There's no way I would even consider the idea of not helping them."

Father Hutzler declined to comment. Father Boylan and Father Salazar could not be reached.

In March, Bishop Matthiesen said, he mailed letters to 30 or 40 former parishioners whose names were provided by the priests. He also suggested in his letter that the solicitation be forwarded to others who might be willing to help.

So far, he said, he has received about 15 donations ranging from $50 to $100. He declined to give an exact total or identify donors or say how the funds are disbursed. He said he plans to close the fund within a month or so.

Support for effort

Mark Smith, a small-business owner in Panhandle, said he had received one of the bishop's letters and was glad to see the fund-raising effort on behalf of his former pastor, Father Hutzler.

"He's trying to do the right thing," Mr. Smith said. "The thing the church has always preached [is] no matter what a person does, the Lord will forgive them. The church does, too, if they seek forgiveness."

Mr. Smith said he was angry that Bishop Yanta had removed Father Hutzler from ministry based on an unprosecuted incident with a teenage boy that went back 20 years.

"It was very, very innocent what happened. And I don't think it should cost a man's life or his job."

Vera Ramaeker, secretary of Holy Family Church in Nazareth, feels similarly about the treatment of her former pastor, Father Boylan, because of an old allegation arising from his work in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Mich.

She says the "zero tolerance" policy adopted by the American bishops' conference two years ago was a tragically flawed response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

"Yes, you have to protect the children, protect them at all costs," Mrs. Ramaeker said. "But some of what they've done to Father Dennis is vindictiveness, in my opinion."

Mrs. Ramaeker, like Mr. Smith, said she admired Bishop Matthiesen for helping the ousted priests.

But that was not the view expressed by Beau Villegas, a former parishioner of Father Salazar in Tulia. He is the alleged victim in the pending assault case against Father Salazar and has no kind words for Bishop Matthiesen, who admitted Father Salazar into parish work while he was on parole for a child abuse conviction in California.

Father Salazar is accused of having unwanted sex with Mr. Villegas in an Irving motel room after a wedding reception in September. The former priest insists he is innocent of any wrongdoing. He is set to go on trial June 14.

"He draws attention to what John has to go through, but nobody has any idea the type of anguish I've had to deal with. And he just minimizes that to nil. It ticks me off pretty bad," said Mr. Villegas, now 19, who has agreed to be identified.

Bishop Matthiesen said he has empathy for Mr. Villegas, but he also says he believes Father Salazar is innocent. He reached that conclusion, he said, based on what the priest has told him.

To his knowledge, Bishop Matthiesen said, none of the priests from other dioceses that he brought into Amarillo from treatment centers or sent for treatment and then returned to parish work ever relapsed.

Accusations of sexual abuse against Father Salazar and two other "program priests" arose after he retired, he said.

His decision to give the troubled priests a second chance, Bishop Matthiesen said, was in keeping with the example of Christ's compassion for sinners relegated to the margins of society.

He offered no apologies for taking that approach to his ministry.

"I'm not worried about my image," he said, "except before God."