Allegations Put Pastor on Leave

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks Daily News
June 2, 2005

The Fairbanks Catholic Diocese has placed the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church on administrative leave in response to an allegation that he sexually abused a minor about 25 years ago.

The Rev. Richard L. McCaffrey has been suspended from his pastoral duties while an inquiry is conducted, according to the diocese. The diocese made the announcement in a Tuesday news release that was distributed to several Alaska media outlets. It included the unusual action of publicly naming the priest.

McCaffrey said a diocesan official informed him of the allegation Saturday morning, but gave him no details.

"I'm shocked and saddened," he said. "All I can say is that I hope that this can be swiftly resolved and that my name be cleared.

"I don't know if we are talking about something that happened two months ago or 20 or 30 years ago," he said. "I don't know what I am accused of, frankly. The only thing I have is a clear conscience."

Bishop Donald Kettler said Wednesday that suspending McCaffrey from pastoral duties is a requisite part of the procedure used when a cleric is accused of abuse. He gave no indication of how much time would be needed to complete the church's inquiry.

Kettler also said that the diocese made McCaffrey's name public in order to allay any suspicion that the diocese was not being open.

"When there is a serious allegation, we want to be transparent, we want to be aboveboard, we don't want to be perceived as somehow we are hiding something," he said.

Asked what would happen if McCaffrey was exonerated, Kettler said the diocese would "deal with that situation at that time."

The bishop declined to talk about any particulars of the inquiry, would not comment on the merits of the allegation, and also would not comment on whether a recent report to the Alaska State Troopers is related to the church's effort.

According to Alaska State Troopers, a 35-year-old woman recently reported she had been sexually assaulted by McCaffrey in a Western Alaska village when she was 10 years old. According to Sgt. Lantz Dahlke, a trooper investigator, the woman made a report and was interviewed by troopers.

"We conferred with the district attorney's office, and because it is beyond the statute of limitations, we will not be conducting a criminal investigation," Dahlke said. No lawsuit alleging abuse has been filed against McCaffrey.

A statement accompanying the diocese's Tuesday news release said the bishop "is committed to providing a safe environment for children and youth. This commitment is a sacred relationship that exists between the Catholic Church and all people. I will work tirelessly to bring healing to those involved in this difficult situation. I ask for your prayers and continued support for our diocese and the Immaculate Conception parish at this difficult time."

The chancery notified key staff members at the historic downtown parish of McCaffrey's suspension, but a formal announcement to the congregation hasn't been made yet, Kettler said.

McCaffrey, a Jesuit priest, has a long history in Alaska. He has served as pastor of Immaculate Conception since October 1998. He first came to Alaska in 1967 as a Jesuit scholastic. He taught at the Catholic mission school in Copper Valley and returned to the state every summer until his ordination in 1973. He served at Sacred Heart Cathedral from 1973-76, followed by a six-month sabbatical and six months of training, before ministering in villages on Nelson Island in 1978 for one year, and two years ministering between Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay.

In 1981, McCaffrey returned to Fairbanks to serve under Bishop Robert Whelan as diocesan chancellor until 1985. He spent the next two years designing and overseeing the building of the diocesan Kobuk Center in Fairbanks before being assigned as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Bethel. He worked at the Bethel parish for the next 10 1/2 years before being transferred back to Fairbanks.

At the church on Wednesday, about two dozen people attended the 12:10 p.m. Mass. Afterward, congregant Mary Gigstad acknowledged the priest's absence.

"I've known him since 2001," Gigstad said. "He's been nothing but open ... with a real reverence for life. He was brought up in the same era of Catholicism as I was. I think he's a very kind-hearted, loving and compassionate person."


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