By Alan Bean
The still-unfolding story of Father John Salazar is tragic in almost every detail and raises all manner of disquieting questions. Especially for me, because I am personally acquainted with almost everybody on both sides of this mess. (You might want to read the story first, and my reflections second.)
While living in Tulia, my wife and I got our hair cut at the beauty shop run by Yolanda Villegas (pictured below). We still drop by for a trim when we’re in town. These are good folks.
One of our children was good friends, maybe even best friends, with Beau Villegas, the young man who was molested by John Salazar.
During the years of controversy surrounding the Tulia drug sting, Salazar and Bishop Leroy Mathiessen were extremely kind and supportive to those of us who sided with the defendants. That meant a lot at a time when support was hard to find.
This article in the Los Angeles Times brings out the human dimensions of a messy story.
Can a single man be both a devoted priest and a child molester?
The easy answer is no. But John Salazar was, in many respects, a good priest. He may be somewhat self-deluded, but he has a conscience. The first time I visited with him, I asked myself how a man this gifted could end up in such an isolated parish. Now I know.
A similar question must be asked regarding Bishop Mathiessen and the hundreds of other Roman Catholic officials across the nation who bestowed grace on troubled priests. Can a Catholic bishop be both heroic and hopelessly naive? Mathiessen took a stand against the nuclear madness in Amarillo, Texas, the town where many of these weapons were being built. That took guts.
We must also understand that, to a significant extent, Mathiessen was displaying the grace of Jesus Christ when he gave Salazar, and many other priests haunted by similar demons, a second chance. Mathiessen was also a bureaucrat forced to find priests for isolated parishes when even the most flourishing congregations were understaffed. Grace, pragmatism, and an odd form of moral blindness flowed into the decision to send John Salazar to Tulia. Good men, even the best of men, can get things horribly wrong. That appears to be the hard lesson here.
Finally, this is a story about institutional crisis. The tradition of priestly celibacy, coupled with a bar on the ordination of women, has created problems for the Roman Catholic Church for which there is no solution. If talented young men had been streaming into Catholic seminaries, men like John Salazar would never have been given a second chance. Moreover, most of the damaged men who tormented innocent young parishioners across the nation would have been identified and forcefully dealt with. But administrators like Leroy Mathiessen were forced to decide between a host of competing evils. In many cases, they chose badly and they must be held accountable for those decisions. But there is a sense in which these religious bureaucrats are mere symptoms of institutional crisis.
When one bad commits commits a bad act, we may be dealing with an isolated instance of moral failing. When thousands of well-intentioned people commit the same bad act, repeatedly, we are dealing with a systems failure.
Father John Salazar-Jimenez, left, accused in 2002 of abusing two boys in Los Angeles in the 1980s, appears at his arraignment in L.A. County Superior Court. Yolanda Villegas, right, treated her pastor in Tulia, Texas, as a member of her family, but she did not know about his past. (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times) More photos
One troubled priest who got a second chance
After he left Los Angeles, Father John Salazar-Jimenez became a trusted figure in a small Texas parish. But few there knew his history.
By Ashley Powers
Reporting from Tulia, Texas
December 30, 2013
He was given a second chance here, in the High Plains of Texas, where a patchwork of cotton and wheat fields unfurls beneath a giant blue sky.
He was no longer Father John Salazar, a name typed across yellowed newspapers and courthouse microfilm more than a thousand miles away in Los Angeles. He was Father John Salazar-Jimenez, the face of Catholicism in this town of emptied grain elevators and darkened shop windows. (more…)