Bishop Weighs Church Options As Trial Nears

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks News-Miner [Alaska]
February 12, 2006,1413,113~7244~3235708,00.html

In recent days, Bishop Donald Kettler has been spending hours talking with staff, employees, ministers and parish administrators about the status of multiple sexual abuse cases pending against the Fairbanks Catholic Diocese.

Kettler presided over a fifth and final meeting Thursday via a teleconference in order to reach many of the remote parishes within the diocese's far-flung borders.

And today--with the first trial against the diocese and the Society of Jesus looming just two weeks away--priests will read a letter from the bishop covering the same concerns at church services throughout the diocese.

"Given the ongoing anticipation of the Supreme Court decision (on the statute of limitations) and because of the pending trial at end of this month, I felt it was very important to update people and explain the options before us," Kettler said.

The upcoming trial over claims the diocese and Jesuits allowed the Rev. James Poole to sexually abuse Jane Doe 2 when she was a child would be the first of more than 90 civil lawsuits filed against the diocese in the past two years brought to court.

A judge could still throw the lawsuit out, however. Nome Superior Court Judge Ben Esch recently severed Poole from the civil suit because the statute of limitations has passed.

In addition, another 11 Jesuit priests and two volunteers who served in the diocese from the 1950s through the 1980s face claims of sexual abuse.

Kettler said the recent meetings have been an attempt to inform and have been well worth the effort.

"You open yourself up to a lot of questions, but you really learn what people are concerned about and then you can focus your attention," he said.

"People are concerned about the hurt that has come to possible victims and what that says to the people both within and outside the church."

Kettler said there are also a number of secondary abuse victims--those who may never have been molested or abused but who are suffering because they know someone who was abused.

"Sometimes it is more of a challenge to respond to their needs," said Kettler, who has met with victims over the past three years.

There is also concern, Kettler said, about how various bishops have responded to clerical sexual abuse around the country.

Three western dioceses have declared bankruptcy under the weight of sexual abuse lawsuits in the last 18 months--Portland, Ore., Tucson, Ariz., and Spokane, Wash.

A bankruptcy decision impacts not only those bringing suit but diocesan employees and property as well.

The bishop said he has reassured staff and employees their jobs are not in jeopardy.

Kettler emphasized he is holding off making any decisions about the Fairbanks diocese's future until all the legal cards are laid out and has been seeking the advice of legal, ethical and financial counselors.

The Diocese of Fairbanks stretches north of the Alaska Range to the Arctic Ocean, east to the Canadian border, and West to the Arctic Ocean coast, extending south to Bristol Bay. There are 48 parishes within those almost half-million square miles. Most of the churches are in remote areas with no connecting road system.

In spite of the negative publicity that has accompanied the lawsuits, Kettler said there has been no decline in economic or spiritual support of the church.

"I think people are able to make a distinction between now and what has happened in the past. They are supporting the ministry today and they are grateful for any attempts at healing we can make now. They want to see that, too," he said. "They just really know how important what we do up here is, and they want to support that."

Mary Beth Smetzer can be reached at or 459-7546.


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