Anchorage's Incoming Archbishop Addresses Concerns Raised by Victims Group
By Paula Dobbyn
October 6, 2016
The newly appointed archbishop of Anchorage says he’s looking forward to his installation on Nov. 9.
Incoming Archbishop Paul D. Etienne, 57, has headed Wyoming’s statewide Diocese of Cheyenne since December 2009.
Etienne told KTUU that the move will be bittersweet because he’s come to love his staff and the people of Wyoming. But during his visit to Anchorage this week Etienne said he has met many wonderful staff and parishioners and he’s be prepared to take on his Alaska assignment.
“The work of a shepherd and a pastor is to love his people and that’s what I’ve done in Wyoming. And so there is a part of me that will be sad to leave there but I know this portion of God’s family will need a new shepherd and that is why I’m going,” Etienne said.
Originally from Indiana, Etienne was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 1992. He told the Catholic Anchor, the official news outlet of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, that he has two brothers who are also priests and a sister who is a nun.
Etienne is taking over the post from Anchorage’s retiring Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, 75. Schwietz has served the diocese since 2001.
Not surprisingly, the Vatican's selection of Etienne did not come without critics. An organization that helps victims of clergy sex abuse issued a statement this week raising concerns about Etienne.
“Our concern is the bishop’s track record is not good,” said Barbara Dorris, victims’ outreach director for SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“When he was in Wyoming he allowed a predatory bishop, Joseph Hart, who has at least six child sex lawsuits about him settled, he allowed him to continue to work, to continue to take honors, to have a children’s home in Wyoming named after him. We think this sends an incredibly dangerous message that says to children everywhere that the powerful people, the 'good' people, are going to side with predators, rather than protect children,” said Dorris, a former teacher who says she was abused by a priest from age 6 to 13.
SNAP also says Etienne ignored pleas to personally visit parishes where Father Charles J. Gormly, which the organization describes as a “serial predator priest,” allegedly molested children. Gormly, who died in 1968, was born in Ireland and ordained for the Diocese of Cheyenne, according to the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper in Minnesota.
He was twice sent to treatment facilities to try to cure him of pedophilia, according to the Crookston Times.
Etienne strongly defended his track record on handling clergy sex abuse. Anytime there is an allegation of child sex abuse against a priest or any member of the clergy, local law enforcement is immediately notified, the incoming archbishop said. Etienne also said he makes time to meet with victims and hear their stories.
“I have met with people who have been abused personally. And anyone who reports accusations of abuse we always make an extension of an invitation to them to come visit with me personally, that I might hear their story, and give them the opportunity for that personal conversation and care and concern. We always offer counseling and that approach is very personal. And we take all the accusation that have come up in the time that I have been there very seriously,” he said.
Regarding the Father Gormly case, there is ongoing litigation in Minnesota so Etienne was reluctant to discuss it.
“I don’t want to say too much about that because it’s litigation that is presently under way. But when we were notified of this, the Diocese of Cheyenne did notify the parishes in Wyoming where Father Gormly served. He only served in the Diocese of Cheyenne during the late 30s and early 1940s so there are probably not too many people around that would have been in those parishes that would have even known the name. But we have notified parishes and asked people not only if they have been abused by him but by anyone to please notify us,” Etienne said.
"The diocese posts that information in all of its parishes and institutions and that if anyone has acted inappropriately to please contact us. So we are following all of the guidelines. We’re doing everything that is required of us and more,” he said.
Alaska has had “at least 56 confirmed cases of predatory priests,” involving hundreds of victims, said Patrick Walls, a former priest and expert on clergy sex abuse.
In 2007, the Jesuits agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit brought by more than 100 Alaska Native plaintiffs who said they had been abused by clergy.
In March 2008, the Diocese of Fairbanks filed for bankruptcy protection stemming from lawsuits filed by people who said they had been abused by priests. In January 2010, the diocese agreed to pay victims $10 million, according to Frontline.
Last year, Michael Hornick, a former priest with the Archdiocese of Anchorage, was defrocked by the Vatican after several women made allegations that he sexually abused them. Two were minors at the time of the abuse.
Etienne said one of his first orders of business in Alaska will be to meet the diocese’s safe environment director to see “if there are any areas that they believe we need to tighten up or do better. So that would be my first thing that I will do in the early months that I am archbishop here.”
Dorris said the names of any "credibly accused clergy" should be posted on the archdiocese's website. Some 30 dioceses across the country have taken that step, she said.
"The message we have to the people of Alaska is, this is no time to be complacent. Most people when they get a new bishop they think, 'Okay this guy is going to be good. Everything is going to be alright.' When it comes to the safety of children, you cannot do that. You have to assume that the children need our protection and we must be vigilant and we must judge the new bishop on his actions not his words," Dorris said.
(VIDEO: Below this story is an interview with Bishop Paul Etienne by the Catholic Anchor.)