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Scandals Hurt Panhandle Parishes

Aug 31, 2002 | AP

Few places have been hit harder by the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church than the Diocese of Amarillo, where eight priests have resigned after being accused of abuse.

Eleven of the 35 parishes in the sprawling 26-county diocese do not have full-time priests. Retired priests are celebrating Mass on Sundays and hearing confessions, and deacons are assisting with administrative duties to serve the diocese's 56,000 Catholics.

Many priests are roving to cover responsibilities at more than one church.

"That's our immediate way to respond to the crisis that we have," John Yanta, bishop of the Amarillo Diocese, said recently. "It's a crisis, but it could be a whole lot worse."

Allegations against the priests who resigned vary, but most involve accusations from outside the Texas Panhandle. An altar boy accused one of sexual abuse in another state; a man from Illinois raised questions of sexual misconduct in the 1960s; another priest was accused of misconduct in Michigan in 1988.

One priest left because of an allegation about an incident that occurred while he was principal of what is now Holy Cross Catholic Academy in Amarillo.

A ninth priest's departure was unrelated to the sexual abuse scandal.

Yanta said his predecessor, Leroy T. Matthiesen, now bishop emeritus, had allowed some of the priests into the diocese after officials at sexual abuse treatment centers said they were fit to minister.

Yanta said he was unaware of the priests' backgrounds until he became bishop in 1997. He said that when he found out, he enlisted help from canon lawyers and psychologists "to give these priests the very best help and assistance that we could."

But as the national scandal widened earlier this year, two priests left the diocese. Six more resigned after the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops passed a sexual abuse policy in June.

America's bishops pledged at that meeting to do more to support victims and move aggressively against guilty priests by permanently removing offenders from any church work, and in some cases, from the priesthood altogether.

It was not immediately known how many of the nation's 46,000 Catholic priests have either resigned or been removed permanently from the priesthood under the new policy, but figures may be available in the fall, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the Conference. More than 300 resignations have been publicly reported.

Those who have left may not wear a collar, celebrate Mass with parishioners or represent the church in any public manner.

In the Amarillo Diocese, the eight priests comprise 25 percent of the 32 active diocesan priests who were in place as of late last year.

"Percentage-wise, that seems like a very high number," Walsh said. "They're small numbers, but it's hard for people to get beyond it because it's so heinous."

To fill some of the vacant full-time positions, nine young men from the Panhandle region are studying to become priests. The first is scheduled to be ordained next year, said Cathy Lexa, a diocesan spokeswoman.

Yanta said Franciscan priests from Guadalajara, Mexico, have assisted at the Cathedral of St. Laurence in Amarillo for several years. "I'm asking for some more to help us at least for a few years," Yanta said. "They have done a fantastic job as pastors and teachers."

Last weekend, about 5,000 people celebrated the 75th anniversary of the diocese said. Some, like Anna Bechyne, a 34-year-old parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle in Amarillo, said they were hurt by the scandal.

"We do need healing and reconciliation," she said.

Other parishioners say they understand the measures made necessary by the priest shortage and that they know the diocese's troubles won't last.

"We'll get through it," said Jim Younger, 38, a teacher at Holy Cross. "Christ will carry everybody through."

Meanwhile, the Rev. John Hickey travels weekly among churches in Nazareth, Hart and Dimmitt to tend to parishioners.

"You know when it's tough, that's good," Hickey said. "If I die with my boots on, that's the way to go out."

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