LA Priest Ministered Despite Abuse Conviction
By Gillian Flaccus
April 15, 2013
|This June 30, 2003 file photo shows John Anthony Salazar, a former priest accused of sexually assaulting two boys in Los Angeles in the 1980s, appearing with his attorney, Daniel Guerrero, right, in Superior Court in Los Angeles for his arraignment. When Salazar arrived in Tulia, Texas, in 1991, he was warmly welcomed by the Roman Catholic community tucked in the Texas Panhandle. What his new parishioners didn't know was he'd been hired out of a treatment program for pedophile priests land that he'd been convicted for child molestation and banned from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for life.|
LOS ANGELES—When the Rev. John Anthony Salazar arrived in Tulia, Texas, in 1991, he was warmly welcomed by the Roman Catholic community tucked in the Texas Panhandle. What his new parishioners didn't know was he'd been hired out of a treatment program for pedophile priests—and that he'd been convicted for child molestation and banned from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for life.
Over the next 11 years, Salazar would be accused of abusing four more children and young men in Texas, including an 18-year-old parishioner who suffered teeth marks on his genitals. Today he awaits trial on one molestation charge, while his accusers and former followers seek a way to move forward.
Many details of Salazar's past are contained in a confidential personnel file that was among 120 such files the Archdiocese of Los Angeles made public this year after a legal battle with abuse victims. But those records tell only part of the story.
On Tuesday, attorneys return to court to argue over the release of records for about 80 priests, including Salazar, who belonged to Roman Catholic religious orders that kept their own personnel files on accused clergymen. The hearing will address in what form and when those files will be made public, and involves orders such as the Jesuits, Salesians, Vincentians and Dominicans.
The documents are critical to understanding the full scope of the clergy abuse scandal, said Ray Boucher, who represents Los Angeles-area victims.
As part of a separate settlement, the Franciscans were forced last year to release confidential records on their members who'd been accused of molestation. The papers revealed a culture of abuse that affected generations of students at the seminary dedicated to training future Franciscans. Among the documents was a "sexual autobiography" penned by one priest as part of a therapy assignment that spelled out how he groomed children for molestation from a boys' choir that he founded.
"These orders really have a primary role and responsibility in the transfer of pedophile priests," Boucher said.
About 25 percent of priests accused of abuse in Los Angeles belonged to religious orders. Many had been loaned out to the archdiocese to help with a perpetual shortage of priests. In some cases, Boucher said, the orders may have sent known pedophiles to work in the archdiocese in the same way that the larger church has been accused of shuffling around problem priests.
J. Michael Hennigan, an archdiocese attorney representing more than a dozen orders involved in Tuesday's hearing, said the orders operate as separate entities from the archdiocese in financial and disciplinary matters.
"I don't think even practicing Catholics have a very clear understanding of where the lines of authority are drawn," he said.
Salazar belonged to the Piarist Fathers, a tiny order that focuses on educating poor children and administers several parishes in East Los Angeles. The order, Boucher said, still has records on Salazar that could fill in holes in his archdiocese file, which begins in 1986 when Salazar first was charged with abuse. The priest was assigned to work in the archdiocese two years earlier.
Salazar was accused of molesting children from East LA parishes, sometimes during camping trips and at a Piarist residential house, according to notes in his archdiocese file. After Salazar was arrested, the Piarists solicited character letters from his fellow priests and contacted an attorney who had helped another accused priest strike a deal to serve part of his sentence in a residential facility.
The Piarists did not return calls and emails to their LA parish or their headquarters in Miami.
Salazar pleaded guilty in 1987 to one count of oral copulation and one count of lewd or lascivious acts with a child for molesting two altar boys, ages 13 and 14. He served three years of a six-year prison term before being sent in 1990 to a residential program in New Mexico that treated pedophile priests. He was also required to register as a sex offender.
One year later, the Diocese of Amarillo hired Salazar and assigned him to a vast, rural parish in the Panhandle while he was still on parole.
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has been criticized for not doing more to stop abuse when he led the archdiocese, acted swiftly with Salazar. He revoked the priest's right to work within the archdiocese in 1986, the same day he learned of molestation accusations.
However, Mahony was unable to prevent Salazar's transfer to Texas because he belonged to the Piarists and ultimately fell outside of the cardinal's authority. Mahony did write Bishop Leroy Matthiesen in Amarillo to warn him of Salazar's conviction but couldn't dissuade his colleague.
"You must think I don't screen applicants well. I assure you I do, and that I have rejected a number of them," Matthiesen wrote Mahony in a Jan. 28, 1992, letter contained in Salazar's archdiocese file. "The Diocese of Amarillo has 38 parish priests and 38,000 registered Catholics. ... I am able to keep careful tabs on all our priests."
Matthiesen died in 2010, but in an autobiography he defended his decision to hire molesting priests from the aftercare program, saying they had "repented, paid the price, were rehabilitated, stayed within the boundaries laid out for them."
"These are the types of priests I accepted into the diocese," he wrote. "I have no regrets for having done so."
While not mentioning Salazar specifically, Matthiesen said he took in problem priests from three dioceses, as well as several other "self-admitted" molesters.
A spokesman for the Amarillo diocese did not return a phone message. Salazar also declined comment.
In Texas, Salazar served as pastor of the Church of The Holy Spirit in Tulia, a cattle and cotton farming community of about 5,000 people in Swisher County, and also oversaw Catholic missions in the nearby towns of Kress and Silverton. A religious figure serves an important role in such places, said Kirk Williams, criminal investigator for the county attorney.
"In these small towns, you don't have the money for psychiatrists, marriage counselors and things that a priest and a preacher could take care of," he said.
Four parishioners have accused Salazar of molesting them in Texas. A civil lawsuit filed by three victims dates the earliest abuse to 1991, not long after Salazar's arrival. The claims, which were settled confidentially in 2006 and 2007, allege Salazar molested two boys in the Tulia church rectory.
The third plaintiff's allegations, made after Salazar had been removed from active ministry in 2002, were tried criminally. In 2005, Salazar was convicted of sexually assaulting the 18-year-old man at a wedding in Dallas County. Salazar denied the claim, but the man got a hospital rape exam and had bite marks and bruises on his genitals. Salazar was sentenced to life in prison and, soon after, was defrocked by the Vatican.
In 2011, that conviction was overturned on appeal because prosecutors failed to properly disclose information about the victim's involvement in the civil case. Salazar then accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Because he'd already served six years—and with time off for good behavior—Salazar was freed last October.
Prosecutors in Swisher County have now charged him once more: In the 2001 abuse of a fourth boy, who claims that Salazar molested him multiple times in Tulia and on trips to the nearby missions. Salazar posted $20,000 bail on a charge of indecency with a child earlier this year and remains free while awaiting an August trial.
"We thought it was over—everybody thought it was over—and it raises its ugly head again," said Williams, the county's criminal investigator.
Salazar, 57, declined to talk about his past when an Associated Press reporter went to his apartment in Dallas, where he is a registered sex offender. He came to the door barefoot, wearing jeans and a gray sweatshirt. When asked if he would answer some questions, he politely said no.
His attorney, Rod Hobson of Lubbock, Texas, said the case against Salazar is weak because there are no witnesses and no medical evidence of abuse.
"He definitely maintains his innocence, and we're not giving up on this case," Hobson said. "It's just an accusation."
Carlos Carrillo, a plaintiff in the Los Angeles case who previously accused Salazar of abuse, remembers learning more than a decade ago that Salazar was still a priest in Texas. Shortly after, Carrillo said, he tried to contact the Piarists, but the order wouldn't return his calls.
As he awaits a judge's decision on the release of the religious orders' priest files, Carrillo wonders what the Piarist Fathers knew about Salazar that has yet to be disclosed.
"I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, how many victims does this guy have? Who's he going to molest tomorrow? Next week? Next month?'" he said. "How many people's lives is he going to ruin like mine?"