Fairbanks Priest Named in Sex Abuse Lawsuit

By Mary Beth Smetzer
June 10, 2009

FAIRBANKS — The pastor of St. Mark's University Parish and Catholic Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus has been named in a civil suit alleging sexual abuse of a minor that took place in the western coastal village of Stebbins in the early 1990s

The Rev. Gerald Ornowski along with his religious order, the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception, headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass., were named in the lawsuit.

The civil complaint alleges Ornowski committed felony sexual abuse of a young girl on at least three occasions while serving in Stebbins, one of two Bering Sea coastal villages he divided his time between from 1990 to 1994. Ornowski denies the allegations.

The complaint was filed May 21 in Nome but didn't come to the Fairbanks Diocese's attention until Tuesday. Bishop Donald Kettler was contacted by Ornowski and the superior of his Massachusetts congregation where Ornowski is undergoing medical attention, said Robert Hannon, diocesan chancellor.

The bishop is in St. Louis but dealt with the matter via a conference call Tuesday and put Ornowski on administrative leave.

"We're all in a bit of shock at this moment, and our prayers are with everyone involved," Hannon said.

Hannon said the diocese's first action was to follow its policy manual and contact law enforcement and alert the diocese's Child Protection Review Board.

What is unique about this case is that Ornowski is alive, said Anchorage attorney Ken Roosa, who is representing the complainant.

"For too many victims, the shame and secrecy was kept in silence until their abuser had passed on, but in this case, the abuser will answer for his conduct during his lifetime," Roosa said.

This is the first time that Ornowski has been named in the almost 300 complaints filed in the Fairbanks diocese alleging sexual abuse of a minor in the past half dozen years.

"No other victims have come forward, but once the first person breaks the silence other victims come forward," Roosa said. "I expect we'll hear from other people as time goes on."

Ornowski, 74, became pastor of St. Mark's parish and the Catholic Center at UAF in 1997, replacing the Rev. Jim Kolb. He served as chaplain to students and faculty and maintained an office on campus and a small house just off campus. He was known to serve members of the Catholic Student Association moose stew with moosemeat he bagged himself.

Whether an independent investigation of the complaint will be made by the diocese's Child Protection Review Board is yet to be decided.

Ronnie Rosenberg, diocesan litigation coordinator, said it is up to the review board to make that decision.

The diocese was not named in the lawsuit. The Fairbanks diocese is undergoing bankruptcy proceedings and the cutoff deadline for additional civil suits — Dec. 2, 2008 — has passed.


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