Church Abuse Reviews Show 12 Alaska Priests Accused

Associated Press State & Local Wire
February 5, 2004

At least 12 Catholic priests assigned to Alaska have been accused of sexual misconduct involving children over the past five decades, according to a national survey and an independent study in Anchorage.

Between the Juneau and Fairbanks dioceses, at least 13 victims were counted in the national survey, which examined cases from 1950 to 2002. More than 300 priests served in Alaska during that time period.

The findings from all 195 U.S. dioceses will be formally released February 27, but many dioceses already are releasing their numbers.

The confidential study, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was conducted by New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice to determine the scope of abuse nationwide.

"The church is obviously dealing with a difficult situation, a crisis, but is responding to it," Juneau Bishop Michael Warfel said. "In the long term, the church will be much stronger and certainly much safer for children."

In Alaska, only the Archdiocese of Anchorage refused to release any survey information. The archdiocese is among 20 in the nation that fell short of meeting reforms adopted in June 2002, according to a nationwide church audit released last month.

Archbishop Roger Schwietz did not return numerous calls, but said through archdiocese staff that the only information available was a report by an independent committee he commissioned last year. The findings of the three-member Erwin Committee are being incorporated into the national survey, Schwietz has said.

That review, which did not include a count of victims, examined about 80 personnel files and found that five priests - including Monsignor Francis Murphy - have been accused of sexually abusing minors since the 160,000-square-mile Anchorage Archdiocese was established in 1966. Archdiocese officials have said at least five people claimed they were abused by Murphy, who left Alaska in 1985 for alcohol treatment.

Murphy, a Boston-area priest, returned to Massachusetts and resumed ministerial duties. After another allegation surfaced, he retired in 1995 and moved to Cuba, N.M., where he worked as a priest until officials learned about his past the following year. He later worked in a nonchurch job as a counselor for high school dropouts, but resigned last year when school officials learned of the accusations.

The Erwin Committee also counted two other priests - including the Rev. Timothy Crowley - who were accused of abusing children before they were assigned to Alaska.

Crowley, who abused an 11-year-old boy in Michigan, was allowed to transfer to Alaska even though then-Anchorage Archbishop Francis T. Hurley was told by the Lansing diocese that the priest was guilty of grievous sexual misconduct and been in a two-year rehabilitation program. Crowley has since been removed from ministerial duties.

Neither the Anchorage report nor the national survey names the priests or victims, although Alaska church leaders acknowledge they include priests whose cases have gone public. None of the accused priests is still serving in Alaska.

In the 410,000-square-mile Diocese of Fairbanks, two of about 145 priests have had allegations of sexual abuse made against them. The number of alleged victims during this time was seven, according to the national survey.

Six are former altar boys who sued the diocese and the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, last year. The plaintiffs allege the Rev. Jules Convert, a Jesuit, abused them in the 1970s while he was working in the Yukon River villages of St. Marys and Kaltag. Convert died in 1995.

The diocese reached a $30,000 settlement in September with one of the plaintiffs and paid $5,000 in attorney fees, said Bishop Donald Kettler. The rest of the lawsuit is still pending.

The diocese is investigating an allegation made in October against a second priest, who retired in 1990. No legal action has been taken in the matter, Kettler said.

The bishop praised national church leaders for their response to reports of abuse.

"The hope is that we will understand better the scope of the situation," Kettler said. "We just want to know as much as can so we can continue to respond."

In the Diocese of Juneau, three priests - including the Revs. Michael Nash and Javier Gutierrez - have been accused of sexually abusing a total of six children, the survey found. A third unidentified priest was from a religious order outside of Southeast Alaska, Warfel said.

Altogether 97 priests have been assigned to the diocese, which spans a 72,000-square-mile area.

Nash left Alaska after a former Juneau resident said in 2002 he was abused by the priest in the early 1980s. A local lay committee investigating the claims found sufficient evidence to back several additional claims against Nash and sent its findings to the Vatican. Warfel said he is still waiting to hear from the Vatican about Nash, who currently lives in Nebraska and is not allowed a ministry while under investigation.

Gutierrez also left Alaska, soon after he was accused of kissing a 16-year-old girl against her wishes at a Haines parish in 1988 - an allegation Warfel discovered during a review of personnel files in 2002.

In 1989, Gutierrez began serving at the diocese in Tijuana, Mexico, which assumed authority of the priest. Gutierrez, who admitted kissing the 16-year-old, earlier was accused of inappropriate behavior toward five grade-school girls in Ketchikan, but those claims were never substantiated, Warfel said. The last the diocese heard, Gutierrez was temporarily suspended last year while Tijuana church officials launched an investigation.

None of the accusations has wound up in court, but the diocese has paid out $1,541.64, primarily for counseling and medication.

"Progress is slow-going, but the fact that everything has been factually verified by independent sources is making a difference, I think," Warfel said. "All the efforts we're making right now is really to restore a sense of trust."


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