Jesuits Review Abuse Claims

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks Miner
August 24, 2005

The priest in charge of the Jesuit ministry in Alaska said the order will conduct its own investigation of allegations the former pastor of Immaculate Conception Church sexually abused minors while serving in Alaska.

If the claims are credible, the Rev. Richard McCaffrey would be permanently removed from of all priestly ministry for the rest of his life.

"We take very seriously any allegations like this and make sure everyone is given just treatment, including Father McCaffrey," said the Rev. John Whitney, provincial of the Oregon Province.

McCaffrey is in residence and under restriction at the Portland, Ore., Jesuit community until three recent claims of sexual misconduct can be sorted out.

Fairbanks Diocese Catholic Bishop Donald Kettler put McCaffrey on administrative leave in May after a woman came forward saying the priest molested her about 25 years ago when she was 10 years old and living in western Alaska. Kettler removed McCaffrey from ministry in the Fairbanks diocese last week, a move he announced to the diocese in a letter read during Sunday services.

Kettler said he based his decision on evidence and interviews, including with the 62-year-old priest, gathered during the diocese's own investigation conducted by the Sexual Abuse Review Board and a private investigator.

McCaffrey denies any wrongdoing, according to Whitney, and the Society of Jesus will help him defend himself within the church and in court against a civil lawsuit filed Aug. 10.

"He will be provided with a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, independent of the society," Whitney said.

More than 24,000 priests worldwide belong to the Society of Jesus. They are not allowed to function as priests in a diocese without a bishop's permission.

"We are not trying to run a parallel church," Whitney said. "We respect the rights of the bishop and Father McCaffrey to have a clear hearing.

"If I come to the conclusion that these are not well-founded allegations, I would ask the bishop to re-evaluate the conclusion and present him with whatever new information I had, if this happens."

Whitney said McCaffrey's situation is different from other priests who have had child sexual abuse charges brought against them.

"It's new because the other men have been dead, or the few people who aren't, have admitted some level of misconduct," Whitney said.

The civil lawsuit complicates matters even more.

"It makes it much more complex," Whitney said. "If I settle, I effectively say I believe (McCaffrey has committed) misconduct and it puts him as adversarial to the society. I think it will make it more difficult to make a settlement prior to going to trial. It will make it more difficult and more painful for the various parties and that makes me very sad," Whitney said.

While under restriction, Whitney said McCaffrey, who was ordained in 1973, may not practice any priestly ministry in public, but he may say Mass privately with no lay people present.

McCaffrey's travel also is restricted without prior permission from Whitney, and he may have no visitors alone.

"These are common procedures of protection until we sort this out," Whitney said. "Our goal is healing and seeing that nothing does happen and also giving justice to (McCaffrey)."

Whitney is waiting to review materials being provided by Kettler, including the investigative report prepared by the diocese's Sexual Abuse Review Board. Whitney speculated that the Oregon Province will probably engage their own investigator.

If a Jesuit priest is found culpable of child sexual abuse, laicization or defrocking is not automatic, Whitney said.

"It is a very long process and often doesn't increase public safety," Whitney said. "These men are members of our family and we don't think it serves society well to remove them from any support structures.

"We can't imprison people, but they live much more monitored lives than if they are laicized."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.