For Bishop Donald Kettler, Monday’s bankruptcy settlement is taking him on a continuing journey he began in August 2002 when he was ordained the fifth bishop of the Fairbanks Catholic Diocese.
Kettler’s appointment came 22 months after the death of the Most Rev. Michael Kaniecki in 2000 and when the Catholic sexual abuse cases were just being publicly filed.
In a 2002 interview, the former Sioux Falls, S.D. parish priest and canon lawyer said he had just six hours to accept or reject the vacant Fairbanks bishopric.
“It was a shock; I didn’t expect it,” Kettler said at the time. “It was too much to be a coincidence.”
In the nine years since, Kettler has been at the center of hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits levied against the missionary diocese. In March 2008, the diocese declared bankruptcy.
Following Monday’s reorganization settlement and as the diocese emerges from bankruptcy, Kettler faces a new deadline from by the Creditors Committee, which represents nearly 300 abuse victims.
A non-monetary section of the settlement puts the burden of making personal amends to the hundreds of abuse victims and their communities on the bishop.
Kettler will be making personal visits to apologize to victims who wish to meet with him, and he will read a statement of apology from the pulpit in communities where abuse took place and encourage parishioners to support victims. He will also hold healing ceremonies and continue holding listening sessions.
“It was something we had hoped for and it said to me you’ve got a lot of work to do for healing, and a lot more work yet to do.
“I have no objection. Most of what they asked us to do I had already started to do,” Kettler said. “It will be my primary task.”
The bishop’s list of directives is extensive and specific. It ranges from identifying by name all the sexual abuse perpetrators who have served in the diocese to encouraging all future abuse victims to report abuse to law enforcement or health care professionals.
All of Kettler’s visits to rural parishes will have to be publicized in advance in specific places announced on radio station KNOM in Nome.
In addition, a general letter of apology will be posted for 10 years on the diocese Web site with the names of suspected abusers.
Kettler said he is going to ask an Intercultural Advisory Group in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region for advice on how to communicate the message he wants to give in the healing services.
At Monday’s court hearing, California attorney James Stang, representing the abuse victims, said it was an honor to represent Alaska constituency.
Stang, who has been involved with five other similar diocese bankruptcy cases, said, “These people are certainly unique and their ability to come forward is a testament to their bravery. The remoteness of people from each other makes it more extraordinary.”
“This has been mostly about money,” Stang said, referring to the settlement. “But those non-monetary provisions are just as important, if not more important. All we want to make sure is that this does not happen to anyone ever again.
“Oftentimes, this is a final chapter, but there is no final chapter for the survivors. This case has become part of who they are. It just doesn’t end with them. It affects their children, their grandchildren and it affects the whole Alaska society.”