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Anchorage

Anchorage Archdiocese launches investigation of sexual misconduct allegations since 1966

Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne announced Wednesday that he would appoint a commission to review allegations of sexual abuse by clerics, volunteers and employees of the Catholic Church in Anchorage over a 60-year period.

Archbishop Paul Dennis Etienne (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

At the end of the investigation the archdiocese will, for the first time, publish a list of names of people credibly accused of sex abuse, Etienne said in an interview.

The group will look through "all personnel files of clerics and religious men and women who have served in the Archdiocese of Anchorage" since its establishment in 1966, the archdiocese said in a statement Wednesday. "It will also review allegations of sexual misconduct of lay volunteers and employees reported to the archdiocese."

The commission includes former Anchorage Police Department Capt. Shirley Cote, former prosecutor Rachel Gernat and retired judge Michael Spaan.

The Archdiocese of Anchorage covers an area spanning from the Aleutian Islands to Valdez to Talkeetna to Dillingham, encompassing 31 parishes and missions and about 40,000 Catholics.

The review will begin Oct. 31 and could last up to nine months.

"The commission will deliver directly to Archbishop Etienne a written report to include a list of all individuals determined to have credible allegations of sexual misconduct," the statement said. People who "through gross negligence" failed to respond to abuse allegations could also be included, the archdiocese said.

Etienne said he thought the review would "absolutely" turn up names of people accused of sexual misconduct.

"We know who the priests are over the years who have engaged in abusive behavior, who have been removed from ministry or are deceased now," he said. "It hasn't been the practice of the church up until now to publish those names. It's a step the church needs to take today."

The Archdiocese of Anchorage has investigated sexual abuse allegations against clergy before.

In 2003, then-Archbishop Roger Schwietz formed a commission headed by former Alaska Supreme Court justice Robert Erwin to "examine past allegations of sexual abuse," according to news reports from the time.

The "Erwin Commission" report found that five Catholic priests sexually abused minors within the diocese from 1966 to the time of the report in 2003. Two more priests had abused minors before moving to Alaska, the report found.

But the Erwin report stopped short of disclosing names of the accused priests beyond a few who were already publicly known.

At the time the archdiocese cited protecting the privacy of victims as motivation for concealing the names.

Publishing names is an important step the archdiocese has not taken before, Etienne said.

"I think by posting these names it will tell victims they are validated," he said.

The investigation comes as Catholic dioceses across the country are facing scrutiny from law enforcement for allegedly covering up clergy abuse. On Wednesday, the Virginia attorney general announced an investigation into such abuse in the state. The Roman Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania faces a federal inquiry.

"I feel like we're dealing with the fallout by doing this," Etienne said. "I think nothing but good can come from this. If we learn about things that are in the file we were not aware of, or that have not been properly addressed, that will be taken care of. If this process gives other victims confidence to come forward, we will cross that bridge."

The Alaska Department of Law said in a statement that it was aware of the investigation and had "agreed to work with the Archdiocese of Anchorage and the commission during this process."

"Please note that all criminal investigations are confidential and even the acknowledgment of a criminal investigation may hinder law enforcement's ability to hold offenders accountable for their actions," the statement said.

Etienne said he was not aware of the Department of Law's stated involvement.

"That's news to me," he said.

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