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Alaska project aims to ease suffering from priest abuse

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Posted: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 4:32 am | Updated: 1:09 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — A large, burlap-covered book, decorated with a simple brown looped ribbon, accompanies Bishop Donald Kettler in his ongoing journey of atonement to rural communities across the sprawling Fairbanks Catholic Diocese.

This spring, Kettler began carrying out one of the non-monetary mandates of the diocese’s January bankruptcy settlement with more than 300 sexual abuse victims.

The bishop has been meeting with and apologizing to abuse victims, as well as holding healing ceremonies and listening sessions or talking circles in Interior and coastal communities where clerical sexual abuse took place.

The book Kettler carries with him is filled with heartfelt notes offering sympathy and support to abuse survivors. The messages are written by local members of the Catholic community who want to express their personal sorrow to survivors and to show solidarity with the bishop as he visits villages where abuse took place as far back as 60 years ago.

The book has been well received and knowledge of its existence now precedes the bishop in his travels.

“Where is that book? We want to see that book,” is one of the first things Kettler is asked when he arrives in one of the far flung communities.

“The book will continue to travel with me,” Kettler said, describing the messages within as a “joining of hands and hearts” of urban and rural Catholics.

A plan to help

The message book and penance patches materialized last spring via members of St. Raphael’s Catholic Church who were searching for a way to extend expressions of sorrow and sympathy to the victims of abuse.

The group was inspired by an Oregon couple, Quenton and Ann Czuba, who with others in their congregation started wearing small burlap patches with a small looped ribbon to symbolize sackcloth and ashes, a biblical sign of repentance.

Gloria Slagle, a St. Raphael’s parish administrator, read a letter of their intentions to the congregation suggesting the penance patch project as well as the message book.

The letter read in part that the patch project would be a visible sign to the victims that they are being prayed for and all others hurt by the scandal.

“We are all part of the body of Christ, and as long as anyone is suffering, we all are suffering. There is a desire in so many people to try and do something to help express our grief over what has happened.”

After Slagle read the letter and looked out at the congregation, she said, “I never saw such sadness and compassion on their faces.”

Parishioners didn’t just sign their names in the burlap-covered book but wrote personal messages, Slagle said.

Soon, people were delivering bolts of burlap to the church for the penance patches.

Slagle frequently wears a penance patch. Whenever she is asked what it is about, she explains that she is a Catholic and grieving for and praying for the injured people in her church.

Betty Johnson’s take on the book and patch project is similar. “It makes us feel like we can do something for our brothers and sisters who are hurting,” she said.

When the information about clerical abuse first came to light, Sam Demientieff said it was hard to understand and assess, especially since much of it occurred when he lived in the lower Yukon and attended a mission school.

“Talking about it has helped,” he said, as he sewed ribbons on patches.

Approximately 400 patches have been made by volunteers, from teens to elders in their 90s, Slagle said on Wednesday, and more are in the works.

Penance patches will be distributed Thursday through Saturday at the Catholic diocese’s table at the Alaska Federation of Natives Conference .

Patches also will be available today at a 3 p.m. Healing Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral, presided over by three Alaska bishops, Bishop Roger L. Schwietz of Anchorage, Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, and Kettler.

A healing journey

To date, Kettler has met with and apologized to 70 abuse survivors and conducted healing services, listening sessions and held potlatches in 14 of 26 designated communities.

Kettler began his atonement travels this spring, paused after breakup and resumed the visits this fall. He will not be traveling to the Lower 48 for survivors who live Outside.

“In all the places I’ve gone, there is much more healing to be done,” Kettler said. “Many of the survivors have not come to see me, but the communities respond.”

“I wish I would be able to personally offer apologies to more of the survivors.” he said, adding, “I think they have the right not to come forward.”

The healing services include prayers, apologies, the placing of non-sacramental oil on the head, and smudging with ayak (grass), a purification rite in places where sexual abuse took place.

The listening sessions or talking circles have been pretty difficult but worthwhile, Kettler said.

“There is a lot of emotion and a lot of pain, not just for the survivors but with the church,” he said.

Kettler acknowledges that the survivors are “definitely scarred by what happened to them.”

Some, who are in counseling, have moved forward, he said.

Pilgrimage retreats are being set up in the Bush, based on the 12-step program and a another program is being organized with Natives ministering to Natives.

Each village visit ends with a community potlatch and sometimes Native dancing.

Whenever the bishop is in Fairbanks, the burlap-covered book continues to grow as it is circulated among parishes and lay organizations.

Kettler values the local community’s involvement in the mission.

“The fact that local lay Catholics initiated the book and the penance patches points out that the abuse in the church had an impact on the whole community, Kettler said. “They too want healing and offer sorrow.”

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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