Anchorage Archdiocese forms abuse review committee

Posted: Friday, February 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Catholic Archbishop Roger Schwietz has formed a new, independent committee to re-examine past allegations of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Anchorage.

Schwietz said Wednesday that he hopes the committee can help the church connect with people who made allegations.

''Can we reach them, can we seek to reheal or make up for mistakes? All that's on the table before us,'' Schwietz said.

Robert Erwin, a former state Supreme Court justice; Mark Rowland, a retired Superior Court judge; and Elaine Christian, executive director of the Providence Foundation, form the committee, Schwietz said. Only Erwin is Catholic.

The committee will look at records that may contain allegations of sexual abuse. About a dozen priests have files marked confidential that may contain such accusations and will be looked at closely, Schwietz said.

The committee will look for allegations involving minors and other types of criminal abuse and examine how they were handled, Schwietz said. The committee also will review files of all the estimated 75 priests who have served in Anchorage's archdiocese since 1966.

Erwin said they will look at whether allegations were handled properly. But he also wants to talk to as many of the original complainants and accused parties as he can, since most of the allegations are old.

''We're going to try to get to the truth,'' he said.

The group will then make recommendations to Schwietz. If the committee advises him to make the findings public or take cases to the authorities, the archbishop said he will do that.

Erwin said he plans to organize the group as quickly as possible and get recommendations to Schwietz in the next few months. Schwietz said that if credible allegations emerge against an active priest, he will suspend the priest from the ministry. If the allegation is proven, he could permanently remove the priest, he said.

The committee has been planned since June, the archbishop said. But the need for it grew in urgency with a recent allegation of sexual abuse by Pat Podvin. The Service High School principal said he was sexually abused when he was 18 by Francis Murphy, a former Anchorage priest. Podvin said he reported the abuse to retired Archbishop Francis Hurley, who led the diocese from 1976 until 2001, but never heard back.

Hurley apologized to Podvin earlier this month and apologized again in a letter read at Mass in all 31 parishes of the Anchorage Archdiocese this past weekend. Murphy's files will be among those reviewed by the new committee, Schwietz said.

The church ''needs to be more open,'' he said.

The independent committee is separate from a sexual abuse committee in place that reviews new allegations and makes recommendations to the archbishop.

The archbishop said he wasn't aware of allegations against current priests. But since Podvin came forward, more people have approached the church with past allegations, he said.

Schwietz said he would consider making some of the new allegations public if necessary, such as a public statement telling people that an accused priest could be a danger to youths.

''If we need to, we will,'' he said.

The Anchorage Archdiocese hasn't paid any money in settlements involving accusations against priests, said Robert Flint, the diocese's chief fiscal officer. The diocese has provided counseling, he said.

The committee ''is an attempt to clear the air,'' said Brother Charles McBride, the diocese's spokesman. ''We've never had anyone who's really gone through the files and done this.''

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