An Open Letter from Fr. Blake Shelton
JMJ +A Healing Hearts, Hope Restored contribution by Fr. Blake Shelton
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Father Shelton grew up in East Texas. He is a graduate of Conception Seminary College (1996), Saint Meinrad School of Theology (2001), and the joint Pastoral Leadership Institute of Mundelein Seminary and Northwestern University (2017). Bishop Kurtz of Knoxville ordained Father Shelton to the Order of Deacons in 2000 and to the Order of Presbyters in 2001. Father Shelton has been pastor of Saint Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. since 2015.
Please be advised that this letter is from a priest who was a witness to priestly predation and contains some description of sexual abuse.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Thank you for being kind enough to read this letter. I am not a sexual abuse victim, as such, but I am a witness to priestly predation, which I was complicit in covering up. And I should state clearly that this letter does not contain descriptions of sexual misconduct by a cleric that has not been previously reported to diocesan authorities. I do hope that Our Lord will use my experiences and observations, which I describe below, in a way that’s helpful others.
I’m a Catholic convert. The Catholic Church appealed to me because it appeared to be true, an appearance I thought it best to test. So, in the spring of 1987, when I was 16 years old, my mother asked a Catholic coworker for contact information, which allowed me to meet with Fr. Joe Dean, the Glenmary Society pastor of St. Michael Parish in Mt. Pleasant, Tex. Those meetings went very well, and I soon found myself called by God both into the Church and into the priesthood.
In the spring of 1988, when I was 17 years old, the Diocese of Tyler replaced the Glenmary Society with Diocese of Dallas priest Jose Saldana.
The new pastor in Mt. Pleasant was clearly a troubled man, and began sexually propositioning me soon after his arrival. I was, to be fair, contacting him frequently when he first arrived, having developed that practice with Fr. Dean. Several instances of Saldana’s propositioning early on—in his car, at his apartment (there was no rectory at that time) and over the telephone—made his intentions clear.
I consistently failed to react decisively to this persistent propositioning, propositioning which would undoubtedly have come promptly to an end had I done so. I worried that Saldana could prevent me from joining the Church or entering the seminary, and so I was very determined not to overreact to the confusing situation.
That Easter of 1988, I received the Sacraments of Initiation during the Easter Vigil, but I was able to do so at Fr. Dean’s new, nearby parish.
In 1989, I was also able to obtain the required letter of recommendation from Saldana to enter the seminary.
I was a student at Holy Trinity Seminary for the ‘89-’90 school year (I was 19 years old). The State Fair of Texas occurred soon after I arrived, and Saldana came to invite me to attend it. He arranged for us to stay in a motel (a Red Roof Inn). Students were not allowed to spend the night outside the seminary without permission, which I neither had nor sought, and I was well aware of the danger posed by Saldana. But I concluded that I had more clout as a seminarian than I did previously, and so I thought he was unlikely to trouble me beyond what I could repel.
However, throughout the entire night in the hotel, he repeatedly forced himself on top of me, not in an attempted rape, as such, but in a sort of desperation. I lacked the forcefulness needed to respond definitively to the situation, and was well aware of the nature of a predicament I had caused both by absenting myself without permission from the seminary and by consenting to share a room with this troublesome person.
A few months later, I made a spur-of-the-moment attempt to talk about the incident to a Diocese of Dallas official who lived in the seminary, but I don’t think I was able to make him understand what I was saying. I also arranged to meet with two priests on the seminary faculty who lived on my floor, but I did not follow through with either opportunity.
By the end of the school year, I had every intention of returning to the seminary, and being home for the summer gave me the courage to arrange a meeting with the vocations director, Fr. Joseph Strickland, who also, coincidentally, had been assigned to take Saldana’s place in Mt. Pleasant, after Saldana was transferred to the Diocese of Dallas. When I walked into that meeting, however, I found myself unable to say what I meant to say, and surprised myself by telling Fr. Strickland that I was leaving the seminary. Despite my original intentions, I felt an enormous relief when I left his office.
I then attended the local community college, obtained an associates degree in criminal justice, and then worked for an East Texas sheriff’s office from ’92-’94.
In 1991, I told Fr. Dean about my troubles with Saldana, and he assured me that the problem had been resolved. He did not ask me for details, but it was my understanding that he would convey my experiences to the chancery in Tyler.
The highly public and persistent reports of predatory priests that became widespread in 1992 gave me renewed hope in the Church and personal determination to renew my pursuit of a priestly vocation, God willing. Fr. Dean, who had been transferred to a Glenmary parish in the Diocese of Tulsa, helped me obtain sponsorship from Tulsa to attend Conception Seminary College, from which I graduated in 1996. My goal was to find a way to answer the call to the priesthood without ever having to see, hear from or hear about Saldana again.
Two of my Conception classmates sought to join the Augustinians (OSA) after graduation, and so I joined them as a postulant in Chicago for one year, but was deeply dissatisfied. One of the postulants who had graduated with me from Conception was from the Diocese of Knoxville, and he arranged for me to meet Bishop Anthony O’Connell, who, in turn, accepted me as a seminarian for the diocese. I attended St. Meinrad School of Theology, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2001.
Over the years, I made several admittedly weak attempts to discuss Saldana with someone at the Tyler chancery. I made it a point to keep track of Saldana’s whereabouts, especially through Fr. Dean, but also by calling the Tyler and Dallas chanceries. As late as 2007, the staff at the Dallas chancery told me Saldana was on a “leave of absence”, although I now understand that he was “removed from public ministry” in the late ‘90’s, information that would have been very useful to me when the removal occurred.
I am very well aware that it was my own reticence and lack of courage that led me out of my home diocese in order to distance myself from Saldana, although he had not contacted me in several years. In order that something good might still come of what I’ve witnessed, but acknowledging that my experiences are rather trivial compared to the experiences described by so many others, I’m hoping to become increasingly less hesitant to speak openly about the things I’ve seen, doing so based upon the premise that reconciliation within the Church depends upon truthfulness among her members, especially truthfulness between her shepherds and her sheep. With all of that in mind, I offer the following observations, which I categorize chronologically, and which might best be understood to be both long-in-development and yet still developing.
I’ve thought about that hotel incident every single day since it happened over 30 years ago, but I cringe whenever any priest or bishop speaks of the need for “healing” in these situations. In my case, I have this cross to carry, and I intend to continue doing so, offering it up for reform in Our Lord’s Church. I do not, however, recommend this approach to anyone else who has not been specifically called to it. Do what’s right for you.
MY OBSERVATIONS, BY YEAR
First, the revelations of 2002 should be taken less as a historical embarrassment to the Church, and more as a truthful step towards reconciliation. 2002 was a very good year for the Church.
Second, 2018 should be seen as a year of very bad precedent. It was in that year that our Pope Francis claimed to have no knowledge of testimony against a troublesome bishop he appointed, and he publicly denounced the people of Chile for making claims to the contrary, until the matter was exposed and it became clear to us all that Cardinal O’Malley himself had hand-delivered the testimony to the Holy Father. It took me weeks to stop thinking about what Pope Francis did to those poor people. This whole episode raises a question: why do Our Lord’s shepherds have so little fear of being caught deceiving the sheep?
It was deeply disturbing to me that in 2018 our US bishops voted overwhelmingly (137 to 83) to keep secret the troublesome network of deception of which Theodore McCarrick was the heart. The sheep need reconciliation, which surely requires greater truth, not determined deception.
It was in 2018 that Pope Francis called us “Satan” if we’ve voiced criticism about the way bishops have handled predatory priests. But surely, it’s possible for us to express our worries about wayward leaders without such expression leading our leaders to such devastating conclusions about us. Criticism of leaders can be undeniably malicious, but it can also be constructive, especially when the ones offering it have suffered much to offer it.
In 2018, Cardinal Wuerl described his response to sexual predators as having “evolved”. But I would suggest that even in the 1970’s a simple conversation with the diocesan pastoral council or any parochial pastoral council would have quickly provided sufficient information to lead one to accept that it is not right to assign a known sexual predator to a position of authority over children. In Pope Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, which seems to me to provide the interpretive key for faithful implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the saintly pope insists that dialogue must become the primary pastoral methodology of the Church. Where was the dialogue with the faithful when known sexual predators were assigned to their parishes?
My bishop—Richard Stika of Knoxville—issued a letter to the faithful of the diocese in August of 2018, a letter meant to help us navigate the revelations of how priests and bishops had harmed and otherwise failed their flocks. A few days after he issued it, our parish gathered together to discuss his letter and to enter into open dialogue on the whole situation. I read the letter, then sat down without adding any comments of my own, because I wanted each and every person present to have an opportunity to speak, to be heard and to take action together as a parish. It was helpful to me to hear clearly and completely what they had to say. Several of my parishioners then led a successful statewide effort to change the statute of limitations on sexual abuse. So, some good did come from that year.
We need to keep gathering together as Catholics to create constructive dialogue among ourselves about our mission to bring Christ to the nations. There will be different opinions, but there should never be division. And we should pray for the leadership we need most from our pope and bishops.
Third, 2019 demonstrated to me how necessary dialogue has become, and how urgently it must be pursued. I called the Diocese of Dallas early that year after I saw a news story naming Saldana as “credibly accused”. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to aid in the process of laicization, which the news story indicated was still “pending”, but Bishop Burns assured me, absolutely and unambiguously, that Saldana’s laicization was complete. I learned a year later from Dallas chancellor Gregori Caridini that Saldana is not, in fact, laicized, which means Bishop Burns did not tell me the truth. When predatory priests harass or assault someone over whom they are in a position of authority, it is almost always impossible to prove anything, just as it would be impossible for an innocent priest to prove his innocence against a false accuser. Therefore, the excessive focus on procedural response to particular accusations of abuse, focus which by its nature will always be of limited value, must give way to open and honest dialogue between bishops and the faithful, and among those who suffer from the effects of authoritative predation. The near total lack of open and honest dialogue, punctuated by deceptive responses to straightforward questions, makes it nearly impossible for the Church to keep taking truthful steps towards reconciliation. At the very least, if a bishop can’t answer a question truthfully, then he should please just have the pastoral sensitivity to say kindly and clearly that he can’t answer it at all. It’s hard enough to learn to trust people again after a sexual predator comes after you, without having the predation compounded by the deception and misdirection of higher authorities.
Fourth, in 2020 I look back on all the things I’ve witnessed in the hidden corners of Church leadership over 30 plus years, and it’s clear to me that good leaders will do the right thing even if the policies and procedures are bad, while bad leaders will do the wrong thing even if the policies and procedures are good. The Church needs better leaders, but instead she’s been given better procedures. I describe our situation this way:
I punch you in the face.
You tell the bishop, who tells you he'll handle it.
You later discover that I punched others before and after you.
You confront the bishop, who tells you 99% of priests don't punch anyone, the same rate as public school teachers, and that punching is a problem in every segment of society.
He then shows you the latest revision of his policies and procedures, prays for your healing and dismisses you, without asking any questions.
In conclusion, in a spirit of justice and forgiveness, I propose that we all work together to promote open and honest dialogue that leads to genuine fraternity and pastoral discernment, so that our mutual honesty can lead to eventual reconciliation.
This dialogue must include bishops. Bishops are, on the whole, delicate men, very sensitive to what people think of them. Therefore, if we are committed to the fruitfulness of the Church, then we must learn how to work with them as they are. If we just condemn them, then they'll ignore us, and the Church will suffer. Despite all the damage they’ve done to the Church for decades now, I have no doubt that Jesus wants us to follow these men. (But I would appreciate it if He would intervene just a little to nudge their behavior in a better direction!)
I think every decent priest needs to make a public commitment not to accept ordination to the episcopacy until the appointment process is made both transparent and accountable. Decent priests should also avoid becoming popular. Just preach the truth, keep the liturgy focused on God, respond promptly to the needs of parishioners, but otherwise keep your head down in prayer.
And the laity—victims, witnesses and even those who have been complicit in covering up clerical crimes—must come forward and speak loudly, for the sake of the Church and her wounded children.
Thank you for allowing me to share my experiences and observations.
Fr. Brent Shelton
Please note, nothing has been changed from author's original statement.
Thank you, Fr. Blake, for your courage in sharing this letter. Opening up and sharing your experiences with the very sensitive topic of clerical abuse is no easy task, especially as a priest. Your powerful testimony reminds us that, while there is still work to be done, there is always hope and we all (the laity and clergy alike) need to commit to doing our part to bring about change. Part of that commitment involves prayer and also coming forward to speak the truth (as you have here) whenever necessary. God bless you!