Abuse Cases Take Toll on Amarillo Diocese
Allegations, New Policy Worsen Clergy Shortage; One-Third of Parishes without Full-Time Priest

By Steve McGonigle
Dallas Morning News
July 4, 2002

The sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church has taken an especially heavy toll in the Texas Panhandle, where a series of abrupt resignations has worsened a shortage of parish priests.

Almost a third of the 35 parishes in the sprawling Diocese of Amarillo are now without a full-time priest, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Five resignations since April involved sexual abuse allegations. Two departures were for other reasons. Three parishes were vacant at the beginning of the year, Cathy Lexa said.

The loss of pastors in the Amarillo Diocese may be the highest percentage of any diocese in the country since the sex abuse scandal erupted anew in January, said Dean Hoge, a professor at Catholic University who studies priest shortages.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Dallas last month to draft a new church policy on sex abuse, conference officials said that at least 250 priests had resigned since the first of the year. In recent weeks, some bishops have begun removing additional priests to meet the newly adopted policy, which requires priests accused of even one act of sexual abuse to be removed permanently from the ministry.

Some dioceses have removed a greater number of priests, but those dioceses are much larger in size and not all of the priests were pastors. The Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, has 10 times the parishes as its Amarillo counterpart and has removed four pastors in the last month.

The sexual abuse crisis has cost Amarillo almost 16 percent of its pastors.

"There is no other diocese that I've heard of with a number like that," Mr. Hoge said. "This is a relatively extreme number, I would say."

Joseph Galante, coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Dallas and a spokesman for U.S. bishops on sexual abuse issues, agreed that the numbers in the Amarillo Diocese would reflect a crisis if the pastors could not be replaced.

Given the overall shortage of priests, Bishop Galante said, "I think any diocese would be hard-pressed to replace six pastors at one shot."

The Amarillo Diocese covers a 26-county area that is home to about 56,000 Catholics. Three-fourths of the diocese's parishes are located in rural counties.

Monsignor Harold Waldow, who oversees personnel for the diocese, said church officials are responding to the loss of parish priests, in part, by asking remaining priests to supervise additional parishes.

"We will be able to provide the sacramental needs," he said.

While deacons and lay ministers may help administer a parish and perform some of the duties of a priest, only a priest can lead Mass or hear confessions.

As of last fall, the diocese had 71 priests, 41 of whom were active.

Three priests responsible for four rural parishes resigned last week and two other priests, each of whom headed a rural parish, resigned in April, Monsignor Waldow said Wednesday.

All five priests resigned because of allegations of sexual contact with minors or because of the newly adopted policy, he said.

The numbers do not include a parish priest who notified the diocese last month that he was returning to his order, Monsignor Waldow said. He said he did not know why that priest had resigned.

Monsignor Waldow said the recent exodus of priests began with the resignations of the Rev. Anthony Salazar-Jimenez, pastor of Church of the Holy Spirit in Tulia, and the Rev. Richard Scully, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Dumas.

Before coming to Texas, Father Salazar-Jimenez, 46, served three years in prison in California for sexual abuse of children. Father Scully, 55, was accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy in a lawsuit filed in Yakima, Wash.

In May, Monsignor Orville Blum, 64, pastor of St. Anthony's Church in Hereford, was placed on administrative leave after telling his congregation that he had been accused of abusing a former student at Alamo Catholic High School in Amarillo. He resigned as a priest on Friday.

There were two more resignations after Bishop John Yanta returned from the bishops' meeting in Dallas. He wrote a letter to every priest in the diocese urging anyone who might be affected by the new policy to resign.

The Rev. Neal Dee resigned Friday as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Groom. The next day, Monsignor Waldow said, the Rev. Dennis Boylan, pastor of Holy Family Church in Nazareth and Holy Name Church in Happy, informed the diocese that he, too, was leaving.

Shortly before he resigned, Father Dee told his parish that he had engaged in sexual misconduct when he was working in the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., said Ms. Lexa, the Amarillo spokeswoman.

A sixth pastor, the Rev. Ted Podson, 54, of St. Francis Catholic Church in Amarillo, told the diocese on June 17 that he was resigning for unspecified reasons to return to the Piarist Fathers, Monsignor Waldow said.

Asked whether Father Podson's resignation stemmed from any sexual abuse allegations, Monsignor Waldow replied: "I wouldn't make any comment on that. I'm not too sure at this point."

When news began to spread about Father Dee's removal, some at his church wondered who would lead Mass, said parishioner Kathleen Barkley.

"We were worried we wouldn't have another priest because we're aware of the shortage and we're a small town," said Ms. Barkley, who said she has attended Immaculate Heart of Mary all her life. "We weren't thinking we would get someone quickly."

Ms. Barkley said diocesan officials have said they will have a full-time priest by mid-July. She's hopeful that church leaders will follow through.

Mr. Hoge said parishioners may be in for a long wait.

Many parishes around the country that have lost priests - particularly those in rural areas - have had to learn to live with lay ministers who cannot perform all the duties of a priest.

"It threatens some of the traditional tenets of Catholic life," he said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.