A bombshell report released by local Catholic leadership named seven Southeast Alaska clergymen who since 1951 have been “credibly” accused of sexual misconduct.
The Diocese of Juneau on Wednesday announced the results of an Independent Commission’s review of decades of files including sexual misconduct allegations within the diocese. The commission was formed in late 2018 by Bishop Andrew Bellisario, and it consisted of a retired police lieutenant and retired judges.
The report identifies seven local clergymen — six priests and one religious brother — that the commission found had been alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct involving minors or vulnerable adults.
“I want to offer a very sincere apology,” Bellisario said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon at St. Ann’s Parish Hall. “It brings a lot of shame and a lot of regret and a lot of sorrow to me personally as bishop of this diocese, but it is something that needs to be expressed to those who have been harmed.”
He said the alleged perpetrators on the now public list were named because the commission determined there is a reasonable basis for believing an event happened.
Bellisario said past allegations of sexual misconduct identified in the report were treated “seriously” by the church but in some cases were not treated as they would be today.
“All of them either at the time or later on were reported to law enforcement,” Bellisario said.
Only one clergyman named in the report, Edmund Penisten, who was placed on administrative leave this year, is still a clergyman with the diocese. Penisten is alleged to have viewed child pornography in 2010, but he was not charged. The matter had been previously investigated, and he was allowed to return to the ministry.
“In 2019, when the independent commission went through the files, they went through them and came up with a different conclusion from the same information that was there,” Bellisario said. “At that time, I initiated another independent investigation, and the information I received from my assessment supported the independent commission.”
Bellisario said the administrative leave began officially in May and was a direct result of the work done by the independent commission.
He said the matter is being reviewed by the diocese, and he understands Penisten is moving from Prince of Wales.
In one decades-old instance, the alleged offender was transferred to a different diocese.
Javier Gutierrez, who is alleged to have committed sexual misconduct involving minors and vulnerable adults in the 1980s and was assigned to churches in Juneau, Ketchikan, Douglas, Skagway and Haines in 1982-88, was transferred to the Tijuana Diocese following allegations, Bellisario said. Gutierrez was dismissed from the clerical state two decades later in 2018.
Two men, Patrick Hurley and Frederick Raehsler, returned to their respective religious orders following allegations of misconduct after their communities were informed.
“That would have been the proper procedure,” Bellisario said.
Both Hurley and Gutierrez are listed in the report as working at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Juneau in 1984, but Bellisario said he was not sure if the two men were aware of each other’s allegations or if the alleged incidents were related.
“I don’t expect that they were together, but I am not sure of that,” he said.
Henry Leo Sweeney, who is named in the report, was convicted of assault with intent to rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 1952. Sweeney served time in federal prison before returning to active ministry and died in 1959, according to the report.
Bellisario said he’s unsure if Sweeney’s return to the ministry was commonplace for its time.
“I hope that is not the case,” Bellisario said.
The release of the report, Bellisario said, should not be construed as the end of the matter, and he encouraged anyone who may have been harmed by someone connected to the Catholic church to come forward to law enforcement or to consider sharing their concerns with the diocese.
He said transparency, accountability and helping people to come forward are why the independent commission was formed and the report contained names, and the list of names could grow if new information comes to light.
“Sexual abuse of a minor or a vulnerable adult is a serious crime, and it needs to be treated as a crime,” Bellisario said. “It is also a serious sin in our religious world. We need to do all that we can going forward to make sure people aren’t in ministry that can harm somebody and that it doesn’t happen in the future.”
He said he is confident in the priests, volunteers and teachers of the diocese and believes strides have continually been made by the Catholic church to prevent sexual abuse since 2002. That’s the year of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which formally reckoned with the Catholic church’s sexual abuse problems.
“I think we’re doing as best we can,” Bellisario said.
Those who have been sexually abused by a bishop, priest, deacon or other representative of the church is encouraged to report it to local law enforcement and to contact the Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator Robbie Izzard at 586-2227, extension 25, or email@example.com.
Those named in the report are:
• Francis A. Cowgill, who died in 2000, and is alleged to have committed sexual misconduct involving minors from 1956 to 1964. Cowgill was assigned to Pius X School in Skagway and Sacred Heart Church in Haines from 1952 to 1959, Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage from 1959 to 1964 and St. Mary Church in Kodiak from 1964 to 1966.
• Javier Gutierrez, who was dismissed from the clerical state in 2018, and is alleged to have committed sexual misconduct involving minors and vulnerable adults in the 1980s. Gutierrez was assigned to Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Juneau from 1982 to 1984 and in 1986, Holy Name Church in Ketchikan from 1984 to 1986, St. Peter’s Church in Douglas in 1986 and St. Therese of the Child of Jesus Church in Skagway and Sacred Heart Church in Haines from 1986 to 1988.
• Patrick Hurley, who returned to his religious order — Order of St. Benedict — in 1985, and is alleged to have committed sexual misconduct involving minors from 1984 to 1985. Hurley was assigned to Holy Name Church in Ketchikan in 1983, Cathedral of the Nativity in Juneau of the Blessed Virgin Mary from 1984 to 1985 and St. Therese of the Child of Jesus Church in Skagway from 1984 to 1985.
• Michael Nash, who was dismissed from the clerical state in 2005 and died in 2019, and is alleged to have committed sexual misconduct involving minors from 1979 to 1982. Nash was director of vocations for the diocese from 1980 to 1995 and diocesan administrator in Juneau from 1995 to 1996. He was assigned to St. Paul’s Church in Juneau from 1980 to 1982, Holy Name Church in Ketchikan from 1982 to 1983, St. John’s Mission in Klawock from 1982 to 1988, St. Catherine of Siena Church from 1988 to 1996, the American College at Louvian, Belgium from 1997 to 1999 and Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary from 1999 to 2002.
• Edmund Penisten, who took administrative leave in 2019, and is alleged to have viewed child pornography in 2010. Penisten was assigned to Holy Name Church in Ketchikan in 2002, St John by the Sea in Klawock in 2003 and from 2015 to 2019, St. Therese of the Child Jesus Church in Skagway and Sacred Heart Church in Haines from 2004 to 2007, Holy Name Church in Ketchikan from 2007 to 2010, St. Gregory Nazianzen in Sitka in 2010, Northern Missions while residing in Juneau from 2011 to 2014.
• Frederick Raehsler, who returned to his religious community — Brothers of Holy Cross — in 1993, and is alleged to have committed sexual misconduct involving a minor from 1988-1993. Raehsler resided in Skagway from 1988 to 1993 and had no official Diocese of Juneau assignment. He was appointed by the bishop to serve as a Eucharistic Minister for St. Therese of the Child Jesus Church and served on the Parish Council.
• and Henry Leo Sweeney, who died in 1959, and was convicted of assault with intent to rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 1952. Sweeney served time in federal prison before returning to active ministry, according to the report.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.