Defrocked Priest Vows Fight to Clear Name in Abuse Case
By Claudia Rowe
November 16, 2005
On a sunny Saturday in 1969, G. Barry Ashwell and David Jaeger, schoolmates for 11 years, were ordained into the priesthood together. More than three decades later - also on the same day - the Seattle Archdiocese announced that the Vatican had defrocked both priests after numerous allegations that they sexually abused children.
But here, their paths diverge. Jaeger - most recently known for his sensitive ministry to AIDS patients - has confessed and requested to be "released from the clerical state," while Ashwell remains unrepentant. Defiant, he is now preparing to defend himself in court.
"These people claim to be victims, and they very well might be - but not by me," he said Tuesday in a rambling, hourlong interview that revealed a man stunned by his ostracism after a long and storied career.
"Did I do anybody any good, ever? Where are they all? No one speaks to me at all now. Everybody runs for cover. I'm a hermit."
Ashwell ran St. Augustine Parish on Whidbey Island from 1978 to 2000, when he was transferred to churches in Buckley and Wilkeson after repeated allegations of abuse had surfaced.
Jaeger, 62, served at St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver, Wash.; Immaculate Conception in Everett; and St. Therese Parish in Seattle. He also held administrative positions in the archdiocese.
Both were removed from active ministry several years ago pending the Vatican's decision on their cases. Now neither will be permitted to function as priest any longer, though Ashwell still considers himself one.
"They haven't un-priested me," he said. "They can't. It's not just what I am, it's who I am. I'll never be anything else."
Physically small but personally imposing, Ashwell, 62, enjoyed a legendary tenure in Oak Harbor, where he also served as a state-licensed foster parent to at least five boys, one of whom accused him of sexual abuse. That man, Louis DiDomenici, settled his case against the Seattle Archdiocese in 1996, and Ashwell remained at his post.
His 22-year term in Oak Harbor was unusual in a region where priests routinely are rotated from parish to parish, and some attributed this to a "Napoleonic" personality. He was iron-willed about staying on quiet, out-of-the-way Whidbey Island, and commanding enough to ensure that will was obeyed.
His 36 years as a priest were upended Thursday, however, when Archbishop Alex Brunett called him to Seattle. Ashwell, who had spent the last few years fighting a two-pronged battle against both the archdiocese and the Vatican to regain his position, knew what was coming.
"You're finished," is what he remembers the archbishop saying, matter-of-factly.
The Vatican had defrocked him - its highest possible sanction against a priest - after both Brunett and a board of outside evaluators made similar recommendations. Three other priests from Seattle are awaiting a decision from Rome.
In a statement released on-line, Brunett apologized to victims of clerical sexual abuse and said the judgment on Ashwell and Jaeger confirmed "the sincerity of our resolve to seek justice in these cases."
To those who remember the Father Ashwell of their youth, the news came as a shock. From a tiny town 3,000 miles away in Maine, Gina Sisto nearly wept.
"I don't know - guilty or innocent - but I will never forget the priest he was for me, which was phenomenal," she said, recalling the night that she arrived, unwed and eight months pregnant, at the church for services.
"He blessed my stomach and never questioned it," she said.
Even the mother of a man who made the first official complaint against Ashwell, about abuses occurring in Vancouver during the 1970s, was shaken - though grateful.
The archdiocese, she said, had been nothing but "supportive, very kind and compassionate." Other families, though, characterized Ashwell's punishment as "too little, too late."
Attorneys for the archdiocese already had spent years working to resolve two lawsuits against the priest; both were settled out of court, and two more are pending, one of which targets Ashwell individually.
Once a powerful local force, the ex-priest says he has no lawyer to fight it, no money to support himself and few friends to turn to for help.
"Nobody will take my case, so I guess I'll have to stand on my own. We priests don't have the money that other folks have."
Several of Ashwell's accusers have, however, described him as a man of substantial means.
"He had a beautiful, new car every two years and real expensive Italian shoes," said one of the men, now 34, who contends that Ashwell assaulted him in the bathroom of the priest's residence when he was a 12-year-old boy. "I highly doubt it's because of money that no lawyer will represent him, especially if he's looking locally."
The man, who works in corporate food service, recalled the priest paying him $150 every two weeks for dog-walking services, then accosting him one night in the rectory. Though pleased by the Vatican's decision, he was discouraged at how long it took.
"There were instances reported way before me, all the way back to the '70s," he said. "Maybe if the church had acted upon it then, it never would have happened to me."
Unless they agree to publication of their names, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer typically does not identify people who say they have been sexually abused.
From the first, Ashwell has denied every allegation, suggesting that his accusers are out to bilk the church or blame him for crimes perpetrated by others.
"People are drawing on their memories of God knows what - the repertoire of their own experiences," he said. "But it's not me. It wasn't me. I think they just want money. Anything I ever did in their lives was good."
Where he once ran a fair-size home, hosting his mother, several teenage boys and sometimes community events, he now lives alone in an Oak Harbor trailer park near a highway. He nursed his mother until her death last January and spends his days praying, reading and writing.
"I write about everything. I don't want my story to go away. It should be a very good read someday."
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