Alaskan bishops listen to victims in effort to bring healing

Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler and Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz.

By EFFIE CALDAROLA

CatholicAnchor.org

Tears, painful stories and deep silences marked an April 8 listening session on clergy sexual abuse held in Anchorage with Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler and Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz.

In a continuing effort to heal suffering resulting from the abuse crisis, particularly among Native victims in the Fairbanks Diocese, the two prelates invited the public to the event held at the Marriott Hotel. Following the session, Bishop Kettler anointed with holy oil those who desired a blessing, and sent vials of the oil home with families.

PAIN AND HEALING

“I really believe healing will result from people listening to each other’s stories,” Bishop Kettler told the Catholic Anchor.

Although Archbishop Schwietz has held similar sessions in the Anchorage Archdiocese, Bishop Kettler primarily conducted the recent gathering in an effort to reach out to Anchorage’s large population of Alaska Natives, some of whom may have been victims in Northern Alaska.

HISTORY

The claims involve abuse said to have occurred between the 1950s and early 1980s. None of the cases occurred under Bishop Kettler’s watch; he was appointed nine years ago.

Just a few expensive trials would have bankrupted the Fairbanks Diocese, one of the poorest in the nation, making it difficult to settle with all possible victims. Facing a number of lawsuits, both the diocese and the Northwest Province of the Society of Jesus, which at one time staffed most of the parishes in the Fairbanks Diocese, reorganized in bankruptcy court.

In addition to financial compensation, the diocesan settlement plan included apologies to possible victims. To that end, Bishop Kettler has been visiting with victims in the diocese, organizing community-wide listening sessions and hosting special healing services and Masses.

HEALING PAIN

Fourteen people attended the recent listening session in Anchorage. They included pastoral ministers who work with the Native population, a supportive spouse and several persons who said they were abused.

One woman described her feeling of isolation and guilt as a young girl in the village.

“I thought I was the only one this was happening to. I knew he was sinning, but I thought I was sinning, too.” She described subsequent struggles with alcoholism and depression, and said she only learned recently of the help that was being offered by the church.

At the end of her remarks, the other participants listened to her weeping and placed supportive hands on her shoulder.

Archbishop Schwietz emphasized that victims “should always be assured that none of this was their fault.”

FORGIVENESS

An older woman and practicing Catholic said she grapples with being able to forgive.

“The priests I grew up with were very much a part of our families and we looked up to them with respect,” she said through tears. “It hurt us all,” she continued, referring to the whole church. “The bad apples got all the attention.”

“Forgiveness of him (the abuser) was almost easier than forgiving myself,” one woman said.

Another added, “I don’t think it’s my job to forgive the person who did this to me.” And one woman told of her deep disappointment as a child when revealing her abuse only to be quieted and ignored.

Another woman who stated that she, along with other siblings, had been abused, said she no longer considers herself Catholic. Her husband added, “I haven’t had any difficulty at all slamming the door on the Catholic Church.”

“I want to remember all those who have been victimized who aren’t here,” the woman said. Twenty men from her small childhood village have come forward to claim abuse, she said, and she believes there are others who haven’t spoken.

BISHOPS RESPOND

True to its form as a listening session, Bishop Kettler and Archbishop Schwietz said little, but answered questions.

One woman asked why it took so long for the church to respond to what was happening.

“We had to learn, too,” Bishop Kettler said. “And then, because of legal considerations, we were forbidden to make contact with victims.”

Since those restrictions were lifted, Bishop Kettler has visited a number of villages and parishes across the diocese to apologize and to hold listening sessions. So far, he has been to more than 30 of the 45 parishes.

At each visit, he reads a letter of apology, and then he listens.

Some people comment that he spends too much time in the villages, he remarked after the recent session in Anchorage.

“But I’ve come to view that as a compliment,” he said. “I’ve learned traveling around what an impact this has made not just on individuals but on families and whole communities.”

Some comments indicated pain springs from cultural conflicts, as well. When Catholic missionaries arrived in the Bush, the Native population responded positively, and priests were important in the villages.

But an older woman remarked that some priests chided them for not looking directly into someone’s eyes when speaking, when in Yup’ik culture it was inappropriate and impolite to do so.

Two women described feeling like “savages” in the eyes of the missionaries.

Despite the pain, it was also apparent that many of the victims find solace in the church. At the end of the session, most went forward to receive Bishop Kettler’s blessing.

The next day, Bishop Kettler and Archbishop Schwietz also celebrated a Mass for Healing at St. Anthony Church, where a Native Mass takes place monthly.

At the East Anchorage parish, Bishop Kettler read the letter of apology, repeated the anointing ceremony and posted a list of perpetrators.

A PBS “Frontline” show that aired on April 19 included coverage of a listening session with Bishop Kettler in St. Michael’s, a village particularly hard hit by the crisis. The documentary was also shown April 28 at the Beartooth Theatre Pub in Anchorage followed by a panel discussion with Elsie Boudreau, who settled her own case against Jesuit Father James Poole in 2005.

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