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On the majestic stone wall outside Saint Joseph's Church in Santa Ana, a two-story mural of Jesus greets commuters speeding west on Civic Center Drive. Painted during the mid-1980s, the mural depicts Jesus standing on a mount as rays of light lift Him toward heaven. A halo swirls around His head. His wounds are fresh and jagged; His right arm is held high in benediction.
Jesus blesses the world. Nothing strange about that. But centuries of artistic tradition soon give way to tawdry modernistic expression. Instead of shoulder-length locks, this Jesus sports bobbed hair like a Sylvia Plath heroine. His pasty, beardless face resembles a youthful Medici maiden; even judged against your average Eurocentric depiction of the 33-year-old martyred Nazarene, this one's weirdly northern.
But that's not what's weirdest. More interestingly, Jesus is completely nude. Nowhere is the tattered cloth that two millennia of Christian art universally placed across His crotch. Instead, a red bulge suggests the Savior's scrotum, while a swath of pink appears to indicate the Holy Johnson.
Now, perhaps it is only coincidence that, until this summer, this same church was presided over by Father César Salazar, who is awaiting results of a federal investigation into charges he downloaded child pornography. But long before Salazar was swept into the church's broadening sex scandal, the St. Joseph mural was an object of scorn among sex-abuse victims who see the piece as symbolic of the Diocese of Orange's lax attitude toward deviant priests.
At a recent gathering of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Ana's rough Delhi barrio, two abuse victims recalled the mural's debut.
"You mean the boner Jesus?" said Joelle Casteix with a laugh. "I remember that—my family left St. Joseph's soon after because of the scandal surrounding it." Many families went along with hers to Holy Family Cathedral in Orange because of the mural, she claimed.
Given that the artwork still, uh, hangs, Casteix finds it appropriate that the latest church scandal involves a St. Joseph's clergyman. Salazar, 37, an Orange County-raised priest, had his laptop seized by Santa Ana police in 2001 after church officials allegedly discovered hundreds of pornographic images of children on the computer. Police detectives turned his case over to the district attorney for prosecution, but Salazar continued preaching at St. Joseph's until July of this year. That's when the diocese placed him on inactive leave after former diocesan lay worker Fernando Guido—disgusted with official inaction—asked the FBI to investigate.
It's easy to dismiss complaints against St. Joseph's mural as originating from a prudish American Catholic sensibility influenced by the image of Warner Sallman's 1941 painting Head of Christ—the ubiquitous portrait featuring a bearded, pensive Euro Jesus—or as another tactic by sex-abuse activists to further demonize church officials as perverts.
St. Joseph's officials did not return a call for comment on this story.
But the most prominent critic of the church's mural is none other than Norman McFarland. Orange County's bishop until 1998, McFarland was deposed on June 19, 2001, for DiMaria vs. Harris, the landmark case that forced the Diocese of Orange to pay $5.2 million to a student sexually molested by former Mater Dei and Santa Margarita High School principal Michael Harris.
McFarland lambasted the St. Joseph's mural without prompting.
"Quite a bizarre painting," he called it. "It wasn't something that I thought was anywhere [near] good art."
McFarland mentioned that homeowners living around St. Joseph's complained that a parish priest had "painted a naked man up there," graphically displaying Him "in the state of erection."
Things got so bad, according to McFarland's testimony, that the diocese received a call from the apostolic delegate, the papal representative to the United States, because so many people had written to the pope complaining about the mural.
Salazar hasn't preached since July. His backers rallied inside St. Joseph's gym soon after, accusing diocesan officials of deserting Salazar. The mural of Naked Jesus seemed to peer inside.
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