Archbishop says he'll help with grief process

Posted: Thursday, April 01, 2004

The Archbishop of Anchorage apologized to Catholics from Kenai Peninsula parishes Tuesday evening for failures of leadership in conjunction with the sexual abuse case involving a former Kenai priest.

The Rev. Robert Wells, who died in April 1992, was named as the abuser of a female minor while Wells was assigned to the Kenai Peninsula between 1974 and 1990. The victim was not identified.

"We have certainly discovered that we in leadership have failed," Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz told nearly 100 men and women at a meeting at Soldotna's Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.

"I want to apologize and assure you, we will work to see that the failures don't continue in the future," Schwietz said.

The leader of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, which includes the Kenai Peninsula, originally was slated to visit area parishioners to speak about the church's evangelization program, report on its financial audit and describe the archdiocesan implementation of child and youth protection measures.

Schwietz altered his agenda in Soldotna after sending a letter to all parishes during the previous weekend that identified Wells as the priest implicated in the alleged abuse.

The letter, which was read at parishes in Homer, Kenai, Seward and Soldotna and sent to all parishes in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, said church officials are concerned that there are other victims of abuse who may need to be encouraged to come forward.

"Nothing we can do can take away the pain and torment of a victim of abuse by someone whom they have trusted, but as a faithful people, we can offer comfort and support and as an archdiocese we will make available funds to assist a person in their healing process," the letter stated.

People who may have been victims are asked to contact Sister Barbara Scanlon, the victims' assistance coordinator in Anchorage at (907) 276-3455, or to call Standing Together Against Rape at (907) 478-8999.

Wells served at Our Lady of Angels in Kenai from 1974 to 1988 and in Seward and Cooper Landing from 1988 to 1990.

In 1990, Wells suffered a heart attack and returned to the Seward-Cooper Landing assignment in July 1991. That fall, he suffered a stroke and died in April 1992.

The archbishop told the Soldotna audience on Tuesday that the church had first become aware of the abuse in 1992 when the victim came forward after Wells' death.

The case immediately was referred to an archdiocesan review board and church officials began working with the victim.

When asked why parishioners were not told until now that the allegations were directed at Wells, Schwietz said several guiding principles dictate when the identity of an alleged abuser is disclosed.

"When the question comes up as to when we reveal the name of the abuser, we look at whether the victim or the victim's family has requested anonymity, if there is reason to believe there might be other victims, and we want to make sure that doing so doesn't do more harm than good," Schwietz said.

He said the victim's family in this case has requested anonymity all along, but based on professional evaluations, the case fits a profile that suggests more victims may be involved.

"We convinced the victim's family to reveal the name of the abuser," he said.

A number of people at Tuesday's meeting spoke in defense of Wells, saying he was a good priest who helped many people while serving in Kenai.

One woman said on hearing that Wells was accused of sexual abuse, she felt a loss as if a member of her family had died.

"We need to have a whole process in dealing with this," Schwietz said. "You're right. It is a grieving process."

Some people at the meeting who were Kenai parishioners while Wells was pastor of Our Lady of Angels, said they voiced complaints and wrote letters to the archdiocese criticizing Wells' behavior on other matters.

"I personally wrote a letter to Bishop (Francis) Hurley," said Kenai Mayor John Williams.

He said it led to a confrontation with Wells in the foyer of the church, but no action was taken by church officials in Anchorage.

Schwietz, who was appointed archbishop in March 2001, replaced Hurley, who had held the position since July 1976.

Schwietz said no such letters, nor other allegations of sexual abuse were found in Wells' personnel file.

Williams later asked how people can put the Wells case behind them and help the parish.

"I think we need to let some of this sink in so the healing can begin," Schwietz said.

The Rev. Donald Bramble, vicar general of the archdiocese, who accompanied the archbishop's meeting along with Sister Charlotte Davenport, chancellor, said sometimes it is necessary to let an illness run its course before the healing can begin.

"It's best not to rush to healing," Bramble said.

One Soldotna parishioner, Tammy Slone, said, "We need to pray. The spirit will come through us and allow us to forgive."

"I agree. I believe in the power of prayer," said Schwietz.

"I want to be with you as you go through this process as a parish," he said.

"We know the church will emerge in a purified way as a result of this process of healing."

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