The move came after church leaders received notice that pornographic material might have been accessed on parish computers.
Juneau Diocese Bishop Edward Burns made two trips to Sitka to conduct weekend Masses and talk to parishioners at St. Gregory Catholic Church about the removal of their pastor.
“It was important for me to be present to the people here,” Burns said. “It’s important for me to share with them where we are, and why it is that their pastor was suspended. To be pastorally present to them is also a chance to subscribe to them what we know.”
Father Edmund Penisten was suspended from public ministry on Nov. 14, after a software program installed at St. Gregory alerted diocese leaders that pornographic websites might have been accessed from Parish computers.
Those computers were turned over to police. As of Friday afternoon, the Diocese was awaiting the results of an investigation. No charges have been filed.
Penisten resigned his pastorship of St. Gregory shortly after his suspension. Burns says Penisten is headed to a facility in the lower 48 states for evaluation and assessment.
“We want to see whether or not he or any other priest has the capacity to live out a life of priesthood,” Burns said. “It takes a discipline and there’s high expectations in priesthood. And yet, we recognize too that Christ even called plain ordinary men.”
Throughout the investigation of Penisten, the Diocese has spent a lot of time talking to parishioners, and to the local media. Burns held four town hall meetings: two in Sitka, one in Ketchikan and one in Juneau. He says in a situation like this, openness can only help.
“Our priests are public ministers,” Burns said. “And as public ministers, when there’s a moment, a very sad moment, in which you suspend a priest, it raises a lot of questions in people’s minds. In order for us to dispel and to answer some of those questions, and also for us to demonstrate the way we have responded, is appropriate and responsible. It’s important for us to be open. It’s our goal to be transparent in all this, and through it all we recognize the humanness and the frailty of every member in this church. It takes a community to stay strong, and so in order to maintain that strength, it’s important for us to be informed. And so, it’s important for us to bind together. And the openness is just a part of it.”
The Ketchikan meeting took place at Holy Name Parish. Penisten was assigned there for the eight years prior to his arrival at St. Gregory. Burns says the Diocese is discussing with police whether investigation needs to occur at Holy Name.
“The response is we need to take this one step at a time, and that’s how we’ve been proceeding,” he said. “It’s at their direction that we’re proceeding in that way. You’re right, some of the questions do come, and some very dear parishioners at Holy Name have said, ‘Bishop, tell me: Was any of this brewing while he was here at Holy Name, and could this have been the reason why he was transferred from this Parish, and sent to St. Gregory’s in Sitka?’ It afforded me the opportunity to assure them of the confidence in the diocese that I suspended Father Penisten within 24 hours of learning of this situation.”
The transfer, Burns says, was a normal process of the church, and in the works since early summer. It involved four different priests throughout the diocese.
The Advent and Christmas season Masses at St. Gregory will be led by Father Peter Gorges, the church’s retired priest-in-residence.
With a Catholic population of about 10,000, the Diocese of Juneau is one of the smallest in the nation, and its priests work very closely together, Burns said.
It will be up to Bishop Burns to figure out what to do about a new pastor at Sitka’s only Catholic church, but in the meantime, he’s focusing on caring for the old one.
“He’s still my brother,” Burns said, “and to be attentive to him is important.”
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