IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Witness to priestly predation': Tennessee pastor breaks silence about Catholic priest accused of child abuse

"I’ve thought about that hotel incident every single day since it happened," Father Brent Shelton wrote in an open letter.

A Roman Catholic pastor in Tennessee confessed in an open letter that as a 19-year-old seminarian he was the target of sexual advances by an older priest later accused of abusing other teens, and admits he failed to forcefully sound the alarm about this “troublesome person.”

Father Brent Shelton insisted he was “not a sexual abuse victim, as such, but I am a witness to priestly predation, which I was complicit in covering up.”

Shelton did not say in the letter why he chose this year to divulge that Father Jose Saldana, now deceased, allegedly “forced himself on top” of him at a Red Roof Inn in Texas more than three decades ago.

“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,” Shelton, who is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, wrote. “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.”

Shelton did not respond to phone calls or an emailed request for comment.

Image: St. Mary's Pastor Brent Shelton.
St. Mary's Pastor Brent Shelton.Diocese of Knoxville

His letter published Feb. 1 by Catholic blogger Faith Hakesley and updated in March, came amid reports that his bishop, Rick Stika of the Knoxville Diocese, was under fire for allegedly interfering in the diocesan investigation of a seminarian accused of sexually assaulting a male church worker. The unidentified seminarian in Tennessee was not Saldana, a priest who worked in Texas.

“Father Shelton said that this post was written last year and should not be construed as a response to any recent reports about the Diocese of Knoxville,” diocesan spokesman Jim Wogan said in an email. “He feels it is important for you to understand this.”

The Pillar, a local Catholic newspaper, first reported the Vatican had received complaints from priests and parishioners in the Diocese of Knoxville about the bishop’s alleged actions on behalf of the accused seminarian.

“With respect to the allegations raised by The Pillar, we are not aware of any investigation by the Vatican into the Diocese of Knoxville or Bishop Stika,” Wogan said.

Wogan said Friday that Stika denies he interfered with the investigation. But Stika told the Pillar that he removed an investigator for causing confusion and replaced him with a retired police officer, who told the newspaper that he interviewed only the accused seminarian.

NBC News’ Vatican correspondent reached out to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome about a possible investigation of Stika but has not yet received a response.

In his letter, Shelton said that if the church is to root out problem priests, bishops have to be included in “this dialogue.”

“Bishops are, on the whole, delicate men, very sensitive to what people think of them,” Shelton wrote. “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.”

Saldana was outed as a predator priest in 2019 by Bishop of Dallas Edwards Burns. Saldana had served in a dozen Texas parishes in the Dallas, Fort Worth and Tyler dioceses. He is listed as deceased by the diocese. The dioceses did not have any comment about the allegations against Saldana.

Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer whose efforts on behalf of predator priest victims were dramatized in the Oscar-winning move “Spotlight,” said many of the survivors were teenage seminarians.

“It is quite common for young seminarians to be sexually abused by predator priests who have or do belong to religious orders, dioceses and archdioceses,” Garabedian said in an email. “Through the years I have represented dozens of seminarians who were sexually abused by priests or religious brothers while their supervisors looked the other way. Some sexually abused seminarians will leave the seminary as a result of the sexual abuse and others will continue on in the seminary.”

Shelton, in his letter, said his alleged encounter with Saldana nearly drove him from the priesthood.

A Catholic convert, Shelton said he was 17 when Saldana took over as pastor of his parish, St. Michael Parish in Mt. Pleasant, Texas.

“The new pastor in Mt. Pleasant was clearly a troubled man, and began sexually propositioning me soon after his arrival,” he wrote.

Shelton admitted that he “failed to react decisively to this persistent propositioning.”

“I was 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,” he wrote.

On the strength of Saldana’s recommendation, Shelton said he entered the seminary. And once enrolled, he agreed to go with Saldana to the state fair even though it was against the rules.

“I was well aware of the danger posed by Saldana,” the pastor wrote. “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.”

That was, Shelton wrote, a mistake.

“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,” Shelton wrote. “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.”

Shelton said he kept quiet about what happened and dropped out of the seminary. He said he went into law enforcement and worked for a couple years for a sheriff’s office in east Texas.

Eventually, Shelton said, he told his priestly mentor, Father Joe Dean, “about my troubles with Saldana, and he assured me that the problem had been resolved.”

He said that with Dean’s help, he returned to the seminary and became a priest. Dean died in 2007.

“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,” he wrote.

Shelton said that he made, over the years, “several admittedly weak attempts to discuss Saldana with someone at the Tyler chancery.” But otherwise, he kept silent.

“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,” he wrote.

It wasn’t until 2019, when according to Shelton, he read that Saldana had been “credibly accused” of abusing children that he reached out to Bishop Burns.