Newly appointed St. Cloud bishop spent years in Alaska dealing with past clergy abuse

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A bishop who has spent recent years in Alaska dealing with the repercussions of decades-old clergy sexual abuse has been appointed to lead the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Donald Kettler, who has been a bishop in Fairbanks since 2002, will take over as the new bishop of the St. Cloud diocese Nov. 7.

Kettler, 68, was born in Minneapolis and graduated from St. John’s University. At a news conference Friday morning, Kettler said he’s happy to return to his Minnesota roots.

“In a little bit of a sense, I’m coming home,” he said.

A self-described builder of relationships who puts people over policies, Kettler takes over the second-largest Minnesota diocese, one that has experienced growing diversity, consolidation of churches due to a shortage of clergy, and sex abuse lawsuits of its own.

He will replace John F. Kinney, who has served as bishop of the St. Cloud diocese since 1995. Kinney is in the hospital battling Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological disorder, and did not attend Friday’s announcement.

Kinney announced his retirement in June 2012 after he turned 75, the mandatory age for bishops to submit their resignations to the pope. But the appointment of his replacement was delayed by the resignation of Pope Benedict and the appointment of Pope Francis.

In a statement, Kinney said he has been anxiously awaiting word of his successor. He called Kettler “a true pastor and a bishop who loves and serves the poor.”

“Our prayers have truly been answered,” Kinney wrote.

St. John’s graduate

At an early age, Kettler moved with his family to Sioux Falls, S.D., where he and his three siblings grew up. He attended the Crosier Seminary in Onamia for two years, he completed his undergraduate studies in in philosophy and psychology at St. John’s in 1966 and graduated from the seminary with a master’s of divinity in 1970 — the same year he was ordained to the priesthood.

He spent 32 years as a priest and in various other positions in South Dakota before being appointed bishop of the Fairbanks diocese in 2002. He was associate pastor in Aberdeen and Sioux Falls from 1970-79. From 1979-81 and 1984-87, he coordinated work for the Sioux Falls diocesan offices. He attended The Catholic University of America for two years, received a canon law degree and was then named the Judicial Vicar for the Diocese of Sioux Falls in 1983.

In 1984, he began ministry as the weekly TV Mass celebrant, which continued until his move to Fairbanks.

The Alaskan diocese is geographically the largest in the nation, covering 400,000 square miles. Most of the 48 churches are in remote areas with no connecting road system.

Kettler called his time in Alaska “wonderful years” with “great people, great beauty,” and said he enjoyed getting to know the many different cultures of people who live there.

However, during his tenure in Alaska, Kettler also had to confront the fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal. The Fairbanks diocese filed for bankruptcy March 1, 2008, en route to reaching a settlement with more than 300 victims regarding incidents that happened from the 1950s to the 1980s. The settlement required the church to pay $9.8 million to people who reported abuse, and Kettler was required to read a statement of apology from the pulpit in every affected parish.

Kettler comes to Minnesota only a few months after the implementation of the Child Victims Act, which created a three-year window for victims of decades-old sexual abuse to file lawsuits. Previously, lawsuits filed under the act typically would have been dismissed because they were filed outside the statute of limitations. The new act has led to several lawsuits being filed involving clergy sex abuse claims, and more similar lawsuits are expected.

At Friday’s news conference, Kettler called sexual abuse within the church “a terrible thing.”

“There was no excuse, and all I can say about what has happened is that I hope we have turned the corner and that we will take care of our young people like we ought to,” he said.

In Alaska, Kettler gained attention for traveling to remote villages to meet with victims and apologize on behalf of the church. He was interviewed for a 2011 PBS Frontline documentary, “The Silence,” detailing the sexual abuse of Alaska Native children by Catholic officials.

Filmmaker Thomas Curran at the time told the Cape Cod Times that no other bishop had done what Kettler has — seek to meet every victim face to face. At the time, the diocese also posted a letter of apology from Kettler online as well as a list of the names of 44 priests, deacons, nuns and volunteers linked to abuse.

Kettler said he “learned the value of listening” from the Alaskan Natives, and he hopes that the church can turn the corner and improve how it deals with clergy abuse.

“Now I hope that the church can be an instrument of healing, not just for sexual abuse,” he said. “There are so many other things where healing is needed, and the church can reach out. I think, I hope by what we have gone through we will be become better healers for other things that come.”

However, Kettler’s appointment drew fire from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. In a statement, SNAP Executive Director David Clohessy said that for a decade in Fairbanks, Kettler has “run a scandal-ridden diocese” with clerics credibly accused of molesting children.

“We’ve seen no signs that Kettler has learned from these experiences and handles child sex crimes any differently than most of his peers, who continue to put their careers above the well-being of their flocks,” SNAP’s statement read.

New leadership

When asked what his priorities will be once he takes over the St. Cloud diocese, Kettler said his first aim is not to “mess up anything.”

“Things are going well here,” he said. “I’m just impressed, so I’d like to support and encourage it.”

Kettler cited an ongoing need throughout the church for evangalization, working with young people and what he called rural life issues.

His top goal, Kettler said, will be “trying to bring an enlivened church that has gone through some difficulties to the people, (so they) know that we are there for them and we’re going to help them.”

The announcement of Kettler’s appointment came the same week Pope Francis made headlines with publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and by outlining his vision that the church should be a “home for all.”

Kettler called the pope’s remarks “fascinating and interesting,” and said his vision supports many of the same things Kettler himself has tried to do — instead of focusing on divisive issues, “rather to sit and to form relationships and to care for the people.”

“He doesn’t only want us to only look out the doors at the people. He wants us to get out there with them,” Kettler said. “That’s always been my desire.”

Kettler said he supports and endorses the church’s teachings on same-sex marriage, which became legal in Minnesota on Aug. 1. But he added, “That’s not where I begin.”

“Where we begin is just trying to form relationships with everybody,” Kettler said. “The church is for everyone. We sit there, we begin to form these relationships, and then after that we begin to talk about and work on these things. So I want to reverse how these things happen.”

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Newly appointed St. Cloud bishop spent years in Alaska dealing with past clergy abuse
St. Cloud Times
Sep. 23, 2013

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Topics: Donald Kettler, John Kinney, John Klassen, SNAP

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