Diocese of Juneau finds ‘credible evidence’ of sexual misconduct by Southeast Alaska priests

Bishop Andrew Bellisario addresses reporters at St. Ann’s Parish Hall on Aug. 21, 2019. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

The Diocese of Juneau announced Wednesday that there is enough evidence to conclude that at least seven people who served the Roman Catholic Church in Southeast Alaska since 1951 engaged in sexual misconduct involving minors or vulnerable adults.

The individuals named in the report are priests Francis Cowgill, Javier Gutierrez, Patrick Hurley, Michael Nash, Edmund Penisten and Henry Leo Sweeney, and brother Frederick Raehsler.

Each of them served in several churches throughout Southeast Alaska. One of them also served in Kodiak and Anchorage.

Bishop Andrew Bellisario commissioned the independent investigation last December.

During a press conference Wednesday, Bellisario expressed his remorse at the findings.

“I want to offer a very sincere apology. It brings a lot of shame and a lot of regret, a lot of sorrow to me personally as the bishop of this diocese,” Bellisario said. “But it is something that needs to be expressed to those who have been harmed.”

The most recent allegation involves Edmund Penisten, who recently served in Klawock at St. John by the Sea Parish before being placed on administrative leave earlier this year.

Penisten was also removed from his post in Sitka in 2010 after being accused of accessing child pornography from a parish computer. An investigation at the time concluded that he could return to ministry. He then lived in Juneau from 2011-2014 before moving to Klawock in 2015.

Bellisario said the decision to remove Penisten again resulted directly from a review of the 2010 case by the commission. His case is still being reviewed by the diocese.

Another former priest named in the report, Michael Nash, died in a plane crash near Ketchikan in July.

Nash was dismissed from the clergy after allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused young boys while serving at churches in Juneau and elsewhere in Southeast. He was living in Wrangell at the time of his death.

The investigation relied on personnel records going back to 1951, when the diocese was founded. The independent commission tasked with conducting it was made up of retired Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell and retired judges Keith Levy and Thomas Nave.

Levy and Nave replaced retired judges Patricia Collins and Thomas Schulz, who were both unable to continue for personal reasons and left early in the investigation, according to the diocese. 

Bellisario acknowledged that there may be more victims and perpetrators than the investigation was able to reveal.

“What we’re hoping for, of course, is if somebody, whether they were a past victim and sees this, or a new victim, that they will be willing to come forward and share with us,” he said.

The diocese will update the list of offenders if new information becomes available.

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