January 11

Father John Salazar lived a lie for decades

The Roman Catholic priest ultimately left a legacy of human wreckage.

By Ashley Powers
Los Angeles Times

TULIA, Texas — 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.

click image to enlarge

John Salazar, a former priest accused of sexually assaulting two boys in Los Angeles in the 1980s, appears with his attorney, Daniel Guerrero, right, for his arraignment in Superior Court in Los Angeles in this June 30, 2003, file photo.

The Associated Press

He was no longer Father John Salazar, a name typed across yellowed newspapers and courthouse microfilm more than 1,000 miles away in Los Angeles. He was Father John Salazar-Jimenez, the face of Roman Catholicism in this town of emptied grain elevators and darkened shop windows.

Yolanda Villegas adored Father John. A pillar of the Church of the Holy Spirit, she knew nothing of his past. Few parishioners did. Nearly every Sunday for a decade, she arrived for the Spanish-language Mass, knelt in the same pew and wondered how he’d inspire her that week.

“When he lifted the chalice and lifted the host, it almost felt like Jesus was doing it,” Villegas said.

They grew close as Villegas grieved for her daughter who had been killed in a car accident not long before the priest’s arrival in 1991. He later helped her teenage grandson Beau practice Spanish.

One day, in the spring of 2002, he asked Villegas to gather her family. He had something to confess.

‘THEY NEED GOOD MEN’

More than two decades before, Salazar was taking steps to become a priest in his hometown, Los Angeles. He was drawn to the Piarist order because of its work teaching poor children. “They need good men to help form them,” he wrote in October 1979.

At 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, he towered over the altar boys. He had toffee-colored skin, a welcoming smile. In glowing evaluations, part of thousands of pages of confidential records the L.A. archdiocese and various religious orders released last year, everyone praised the same traits that would later charm Yolanda Villegas.

He chatted up gang members. He comforted the sick and handicapped. “John has a certain charisma that attracts others to him,” one assessment said. “Has almost a power over people.”

His demons, he kept to himself. He had never met his immigrant father. From ages 10 to 12, he said during a psychiatric evaluation, his mother molested him. As a priest, he was drawn to boys only a year or two older than that.

In 1987, Salazar pleaded guilty to abusing two teenage boys and was sent to prison.

“I wanted to run from them, ignore them, talk to them about what was taking place, but I did not have the courage to do so,” he told a sentencing consultant. “I just could not stop and did not know why.”

Just before Christmas 1990, Bishop Leroy Matthiesen traveled from his home state of Texas to a mountainous patch of New Mexico. Jemez Springs was home to a church-run treatment center for accused abusers.

Salazar had been there since his prison stint in California. He had been banned from the L.A. archdiocese, but like many abusers of his era, he had not been defrocked.

“What I want to believe,” he told his fellow clergymen in a letter during his criminal case, “is that you will treat me as the prodigal son returning back to the Father with open arms and rejoicing.”

In the Catholic Church, it wasn’t an outrageous proposition. Each diocese was essentially run as its own fiefdom, at least in personnel matters. All Salazar needed was a so-called benevolent bishop, someone willing to forgive what the legal system wouldn’t.

The treatment center staff called Matthiesen. He ran the Diocese of Amarillo, where 38,000 Catholics were scattered across the Baptist-heavy Texas Panhandle.

A plain-spoken man raised on a cotton farm, he thought of himself as a friend to his priests, even sharing beer and Doritos with seminarians. By the time he died in 2010, he was widely known for his work protesting nuclear weapons and the death penalty.

(Continued on page 2)

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