Locals respond to latest scandal

Posted: Friday, July 19, 2002

Some local Catholics are backing the Diocese of Juneau's decision to remove a priest who admitted more than a decade ago to sexual indiscretions with young girls in Haines and Ketchikan.

The Rev. Javier R. Gutierrez was removed from his duties as a priest Wednesday night when allegations of kissing, groping and uttering innuendo to several young girls in the Juneau Diocese between 1983 and 1988 were taken up during the first meeting of the diocese sexual abuse review board.

The 11-member board is made up of people from the Catholic community, but who are not employed by the church. The board's creation was mandated by a charter written this summer at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas. The charter instructs dioceses how to handle allegations of clerical sexual abuse.

Gutierrez admitted the allegations were true in 1988 and was sent to minister as a visiting Juneau priest in Tijuana, Mexico. With the board's action, Gutierrez is prohibited from performing Mass, administering sacraments and representing himself in any way as a Catholic priest.

"It basically takes his life away," said Jesse Heine, a local Catholic. "It's appropriate. Abusing children is wrong. It is absolutely wrong, and there will be some who will be adequately prosecuted for it outside the church. ... The process is going to take a lot of time to fix to get it right. At least the church is doing something about it, not hiding behind anything, and bringing things all out in the open.

"I respect the bishop and the diocese for what they are doing. I'm very proud to be a Catholic. It's a shame what's happened, but I'm very proud to be Catholic."

Juneau Bishop Michael Warfel said no charges have been filed against Gutierrez and said he doesn't know if charges are pending.

Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher, a member of the sexual abuse review board, said the board's recommendation to the bishop and Gutierrez' removal will be reviewed by a national board established by the Bishops Conference to oversee investigations.

She said the Juneau board plans to meet regularly in order to refine the diocese's sexual abuse policy, also mandated by the charter.

Rohrbacher declined to comment on whether the panel was reviewing any of the other eight priests in the diocese, which covers communities from Yakutat to Juneau, and said "no other allegations towards minors have been made."

Warfel said another allegation was made in Juneau in the mid-1980s against a non-Juneau priest visiting the diocese. Upon investigation at the time of the incident, the priest, whose name was not released, left Juneau, Warfel said. The complaint was forwarded to the priest's home diocese at the time of the incident, Warfel said.

Notes made by the late Bishop Michael Kenny do not contain any other allegations, Warfel said.

"I don't envision the review panel meeting that often because we don't have a lot of problems with people here in Juneau," Warfel said. "We have a couple blotches here and there, but none of the gravity and scope of a John Geoghan. I have faith in the goodness of people and our priests. We have some really top-notch priests here."

Geoghan, now defrocked, was a priest who had served in Boston and many other places and who was sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison for fondling a 10-year-old boy. He was accused of abusing 130 children during a 30-year period.

Retired Juneau priest the Rev. Peter Gorges, who serves St. Gregory's Church in Sitka, said he hasn't noticed Catholics shying away from Masses or their parish priests given the scandal, but recognizes that it has shaken parishioners.

"I think they (Catholics) are certainly hurt and disillusioned by these priests," said Gorges. "But they have to realize it is a very small percentage of priests who have done this and mostly the incidents were many years ago. ... This whole thing has been a disappointment for the whole overall organization. ... Here (in Sitka) I've found as a priest people are very supportive of you, despite all the flak that's out there."

Local Catholic Thomas Fitterer said his beliefs are not shaken by this latest blow.

"My faith is in Christ the Good Lord," said Fitterer. "All of us are far less than perfect. It saddens me that this has happened. It saddens me that people have really been hurt by this and have turned away from a beneficial relationship with God because of it.

"I'm saddened for the victims of this and all the people who have been deeply hurt by it. I'm saddened for the priest for his problem and the choices he's made in his life that caused so much pain. But I have full confidence in the Good Lord that some good will come of all of this."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.

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