Ernie Salomon, Santa Barbara’s curmudgeonly crusader and outspoken public-access talk show host, has jumped into the fray to save the three Sisters of Bethany nuns from being evicted from their digs at 250 North Nopal Street, next to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Salomon-along with the owner of Anthony’s Christmas Trees and 15 other community members-has formed Save Our Sisters (SOS) to fight the nuns’ planned December eviction at the hands of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, headed by Cardinal Roger Mahony. According to initial reports, Sister Angela Escalera and the other two nuns were told to move so that the property could be sold to help defray the costs associated with the recent $660-million settlement the archdiocese entered into with 508 individuals claiming to be victims of priestly sexual abuse. (Of those 508, seven men complained they’d been molested by Farther Matthew Kelly of Our Lady of Guadalupe.) Of that sum, the archdiocese is responsible for paying $250 million, the rest to be covered by insurance carriers.
Although Salomon likes to quip that his participation in SOS might make him “the only Jewish male nun in Santa Barbara,” he’s deadly serious about the cause. “When I read about this, I was outraged. I was furious. I was incensed. Religious people don’t do this,” he said. At first, Salomon merely thought the nuns were the victims of injustice. “I don’t see the archdiocese turning out any men to pay for this,” he said. “And I’ve yet to see a nun implicated in any of the molestation scandals.”
But the more Salomon investigated, he said, the weirder it got. First, he discovered that the three nuns would not be allowed to stay on the premises even if they raised enough money to buy the property. “They wanted these women gone,” he said. A commercial real estate investor by profession, Salomon was even more struck by the fact that the property had never been listed with any commercial broker or even put on the market. “The letter was mailed out on June 28 saying they had to be out by December 31, and now in the middle of September, we find it’s still not listed,” he said. Finally, Salomon said he discovered the parish had submitted plans to City Hall to expand Our Lady of Guadalupe; for the plans to proceed, the Sisters of Bethany property would have to go.
Since the story broke two weeks ago, the three nuns have been ordered not to speak about the matter by the mother superior. (“It’s a dictatorial organization,” said Salomon. “They’re worse than China or Russia.”) Last week, Sister Luz Elena Ordonez Quezada of Guatemala, the Superior General of the Sisters of Bethany, declared in her first public statement that plans for the move went back years. “I would like to clear up that we already had the intention of moving from Santa Barbara. The first time was when Sister Angela retired from Catholic Charities two or three years ago, and then when I came to Los Angeles in 2006 and again in March 2007,” Quezada said. The nuns would move either to Oxnard-where Sister Angela, who is diabetic, could receive “lots of care and attention due to her limited condition”-or to Los Angeles.
Complicating matters even further, Father Ludo DeClippel of Holy Cross Parish sent a note to his parishioners last week in which he accused the media of spreading half-truths and lies “for their own agenda.” DeClippel claimed four other archdiocese-owned convent houses have been given the same treatment, but only the Sisters of Bethany saw fit to bellyache about it publicly.
For the time being, Salomon doesn’t believe much of what he hears from Catholic authorities. He and SOS are banging the drum loudly, and he claims it’s being heard nationally by wealthy Catholics who have given generously to the church. “These people are getting involved,” he said. “Everybody’s upset, and not just Catholics.”