Zero Tolerance Takes Big Toll in a Texas Diocese

By Jim Yardley
New York Times
August 24, 2002

The table at the Church of the Holy Spirit is lined with casseroles and bowls of fresh fruit as the new priest, the Rev. Scott Raef, loads his plate under watchful eyes. His arrival has brought joy and relief, and also a little teasing from his new parishioners, who are eager to fatten up his slender frame.

More than two months earlier, in a potluck supper in this same hall, some people had little appetite as they bid an abrupt and unexpected farewell to the previous pastor, the Rev. John Salazar-Jimenez. Only later did they learn that Father Salazar-Jimenez had once been in a California prison for sexually abusing two altar boys. His secret had lasted 11 years.

Nor was Father Salazar-Jimenez alone. If Boston is the fault line of the child sexual-abuse scandal that has convulsed the Roman Catholic Church, then few places have felt the aftershocks more deeply than the Diocese of Amarillo. Eight priests in the diocese have retired or resigned in recent months because of past incidents that diocesan officials say violated the new "zero tolerance" policy for priests who have sexually abused minors. A ninth is leaving the priesthood for personal reasons.

The sudden loss of so many priests has devastated this diocese in the Texas Panhandle. Parishioners are shocked and angry, but also conflicted, since the priests committed their offenses years ago, in other dioceses, and apparently never acted out again.

The bishop and his predecessor, meanwhile, are trying to justify why the diocese had recruited and maintained so many priests with troubled histories, including at least five who were hired directly from a treatment center for sexual abusers.

The most immediate problem, though, is a practical one: There are no longer enough priests.

"We are pretty hard hit here in Amarillo," said Bishop John W. Yanta, who in August instituted a sweeping reassignment of priests and deacons in response to the manpower shortage. "It has affected us greatly because of the small number of priests that we have."

At full strength, the diocese has only about 41 active priests.

Father Raef, for one, has four jobs now. He is the pastor in Tulia and in an affiliated church in nearby Kress. He has kept his previous job as pastor of the Catholic Student Center at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, about 30 miles away. He is also head of youth services for the diocese, with an office in Amarillo, about 70 miles away. Earlier this summer he filled in at so many parishes that he lost his bearings.

"For a minute, I couldn't remember where I was," he recalled of one particular June evening. "I thought, 'What town am I in?' I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is the rest of my life, riding the circuit.' "

Father Raef now celebrates fives Masses every weekend in three towns and, as he puts it, in three languages: English, Spanish and college. On a recent 188-mile, 14-hour day, he spent two hours in Canyon preparing for the arrival of West Texas A&M students, returned to Tulia for a service with Bishop Yanta, ate a chicken wrap sandwich in his car as he drove to Amarillo to finish paperwork in the diocese youth office, then returned to Tulia for an evening Mass and the potluck supper.

The night before Father Raef had attended his first meeting with his parish council, the advisory board of lay members for the Tulia church. One of the first questions asked, "How much will you be around?" He answered, "That's a good question that I have no answer for."

"My head is spinning on a lot of things, so I ask for your generosity of spirit," he told the parish council.

Even before the current scandal and controversy, it was never easy to be a Catholic in this overwhelmingly Protestant region of ranching and farming. Newcomers to small farming towns in the area are often first asked their names, then their church affiliations. The Amarillo diocese, which covers about 26,000 square miles, is geographically large but actually ranks among the smallest in the country in numbers of parishioners, with about 56,000.

"What you have to understand about the Catholic Church here is we are very much a minority and we know it every day of our lives," Father Raef said.

He recently became so frustrated with what he viewed as the anti-Catholic tone of a local talk radio host that he called the show, only to be told that the public considered anyone wearing a collar to be a possible child molester. He decided not to call again.

"In the Panhandle, it is hard enough to put this on and wear it every day," he said, tugging at his collar, as he drove from Tulia to the student center in Canyon. "Now, it's excruciating. But I'm more convinced than ever that I need to put my collar on every day."

The first inkling that the abuse scandal would resonate here came in late May, when Father Salazar-Jimenez announced his resignation. He was a beloved figure, credited with transforming the Church of the Holy Spirit by overseeing construction of a new church building, rectory and teaching center. At least one lay member named him as godfather to his son.

At the farewell dinner, Father Salazar-Jimenez said his departure was only a sabbatical, but within days a local newspaper reported his past conviction in California. Parishioners now believe he left because he was about to be exposed.

"The majority of us are going through a grieving process, as if we've lost a loved one," said Lucy Pahlmeier, president of the pastoral council, who like many others in the parish said she disapproved of the zero tolerance policy. "I know that probably the victims, when they hear us talk, they probably think, 'Well, they don't live in the real world. Don't they know what's going on out here?' "

But Father Salazar-Jimenez "hadn't done that with us," Ms. Pahlmeier said.

Still, many lay members are furious that diocesan officials kept secret the backgrounds of priests like Father Salazar-Jimenez. Parishioners in Tulia recall that Father Salazar-Jimenez left for several months in his first year at the church, supposedly to complete religious studies in New Mexico.

Bishop Emeritus Leroy T. Matthiesen, who retired in 1997, now admits that that explanation was concocted, and that Father Salazar-Jimenez left to complete his parole. Bishop Matthiesen had hired him directly from a treatment program at Jemez Springs, N.M. where parole officers in California had allowed the priest to enroll for rehabilitation and counseling on sexual abuse. California officials refused to transfer his parole to Texas, so he had to return to New Mexico to finish his sentence.

"I trusted the professional people at Jemez, who gave me a very good report on him," Bishop Matthiesen now says, explaining why he hired a man with a criminal conviction for sexual abuse of minors. "Their evaluation of him was that he could minister."

By his own admission, Bishop Matthiesen developed a close relationship with officials at Jemez Springs, who began to recommend other priests from the program to him. He said he earned a reputation for taking such priests and began getting referrals from other bishops. He took one priest from a program in Maryland. He denied that he took the priests because of any difficulty in recruiting candidates in such a remote and small diocese, but his successor, Bishop Yanta, has told parishioners that was the case.

The diocese and Bishop Matthiesen are currently facing a lawsuit filed by a family whose 17-year-old daughter became pregnant by a priest. At the time the priest, the Rev. Rosendo Herrera, had been placed on administrative leave by Bishop Yanta and was subsequently returned to lay status.

The family claims the priest had a history of sexual abuse as a seminarian in Mexico and that the diocese and Bishop Matthiesen did not adequately investigate his background before ordaining him. The lawsuit also asserts that the diocese failed to report incidents of abuse involving the priest as required by Texas law. Mr. Herrera has not been an active priest since 2000.

Both the diocese and Bishop Matthiesen have denied any wrongdoing in that case.

In the cases of the eight priests, Bishop Matthiesen said he accepted at least five from the New Mexico treatment center and never told parishioners of their backgrounds. He said he had instituted safeguards, like monthly group sessions and meetings with a counselor for the priests. He also noted that none of these priests had been accused of any wrongdoing in the Amarillo diocese.

"I think I made the right decision," said Bishop Matthiesen, noting that he never accepted pedophiles but rather ephebophiles, abusers whose victims were ages 14 to 17. "I do believe in the possibility of conversion, of repentance, of rehabilitation."

His mistake, he now says, was not telling parishioners.

"I personally wish I had done that," the bishop said. "But it wasn't what we did in those days."

Bishop Yanta, who arrived in 1997, has criticized the charter that his fellow bishops approved in June in Dallas. He said he voted against the zero tolerance policy because he believed one-time offenders who had undergone a treatment program and maintained a clean record should not be punished. But after the Dallas meeting, he quickly pressured the diocese's so-called program priests to retire, a decision that met with hostility from some parishioners.

"It's interesting what people feel about zero tolerance," he said before presiding over the midday service in Tulia, convened in the name of healing and reconciliation. "The victims and the victims' families are adamant. But these people here are just mourning the loss of a very fine priest."

Father Raef had known he wanted to be a priest even in grade school in Amarillo, where he was the second of five children in a Catholic family. "These men were my heroes," he said of priests during his years in Catholic schools. "I attached myself to them and wanted to be like them. There was this idea that these were tremendous men."

He recognizes that the relationship between priests and parishioners is irrevocably different now. At his meeting with the parish council, one woman told him how much she looked forward to his working with the church's youth. But later, Father Raef admitted: "There is a little voice in the background saying, 'Gosh, I don't want to work with youth.' We've all been spooked. But we have to work against the temptation to remove ourselves from people's lives."

He said he was still trying to figure out where to draw lines. "Every hug I've given," he said, "I'm thinking, 'Is this O.K.? Is this appropriate?' "

He said he worried that the model from his childhood -- of a priest immersed in the lives of his parishioners -- was forever gone. But he said he was convinced that the church would emerge stronger, particularly as lay members assume more responsibility and control. His arrival in Tulia, parishioners say, has lifted a cloud of sadness.

"We are like birds," the parish secretary, Ventura Ramos, said of the renewed optimism.

But as he prepares for a hectic new life he had never envisioned, Father Raef is deeply saddened that so much shame has befallen his church and his calling.

"It must be like finding out your spouse is unfaithful," he said. "You're angry at your spouse, and you still love them. And you don't like that fact that everybody in town is talking about your spouse. For priests, the church is what they're wedded to."


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