Posted on Tue, Jul. 09, 2002

Ex-bishop doesn't regret hiring priests
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

AMARILLO - The former bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Amarillo said he does not regret accepting five priests with sexual abuse allegations in their past, but he said he wishes he had told parishioners about the priests' backgrounds.

Bishop emeritus Leroy Matthiesen said he accepted the priests into the diocese because each one only had one accusation of molesting a minor, and psychiatrists told him they saw no reason the priests could not continue with their ministerial duties.

Matthiesen and current diocese officials said they received no complaints of abuse about the priests during their time in Amarillo.

Each of the priests came from a different diocese, from as far away as Pennsylvania and Washington. One had been imprisoned in California for molesting a minor.

"I proceeded with the conviction that a one-time offender who repents, is rehabilitated and all of that ... can continue working in ministry ," Matthiesen said in an interview in his home Monday, the day he released a statement explaining his actions to the diocese. But he added, "I wish that all of us ... had informed the parishioners about their background."

The common link with four of the five was that each went to the same treatment center in New Mexico, Matthiesen said. They came to Amarillo in the 1988-1995 period, and all resigned this year in the wake of the church's national sexual abuse scandal.

They represented more than 15 percent of the small diocese's priests.

Matthiesen said that in each case, he was asked if he would be willing to accept a priest who was rehabilitated after one accusation of abusing a minor. Those contacts were made by other religious leaders and the staff of a treatment center run by a religious order in Jemez Springs, N.M.

Matthiesen acknowledged that under his leadership, the diocese may have developed a reputation as a place that would give one-time offenders a second chance.

Monsignor Harold Waldow took charge of these priests and the 23 or so others in the 26-county diocese when he became vicar for clergy four years ago. He defended Matthiesen's actions in an interview Monday.

"Bishop Matthiesen would never be able to harm the parish people," Waldow said. "He meant no evil, he meant no harm."

The resignations make the Panhandle diocese the most seriously affected in Texas. Only one other Texas diocese - Fort Worth - has reported removing a priest from ministry as a result of the policy.

Matthiesen said the large number of priests leaving in connection with the allegations has hurt the diocese.

"This is a big, big problem," Matthiesen said.

On Monday, he wrote an open letter to the diocese. In the letter, he says he never knowingly accepted a pedophile, but in the interview he explained that he defines pedophiles as people who abuse pre-pubescent children.

He wrote that in the early '80s he dismissed two priests, one for molesting altar boys, another for making inappropriate advances toward a boy.

He also wrote that he placed several conditions on the priests who came to the diocese after rehabilitation, including requiring counseling sessions. Two priests did not successfully meet the requirements and left the diocese, he wrote.

He concludes the letter asking anyone in the diocese who has been abused to report the abuse to a diocesan official.

Matthiesen's successor, Bishop John Yanta, took over the diocese in 1997, inheriting the priests who left their diocese under suspicion of abusing children. Matthiesen said Yanta once asked him why there were so many priests who had been in rehabilitation now in the diocese. Matthiesen said he began to explain, but Yanta then changed the subject.

Yanta is out of the country and unavailable for comment.

Many parishioners contacted at Masses this weekend said they wish their priests had not had to leave. Others said they wish the diocese had told them about their priests' pasts.

"I thought they ought to have just come out and told the truth," said Dewey Bryant, who has been at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tulia for 15 years. One of the priests who stepped down was pastor at the church.

Another church member said he wished the priest had not had to leave.

"A majority of the people would wish [he] was still here," said Dwayne Crawford. "They would forgive him and take him back. He was a good pastor."


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