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Saturday, June 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle priest faces removal: Im so clearly not a danger

Seattle Times staff reporter

A prominent local priest, who recently headed the Archdiocese of Seattle's AIDS ministry and is a former director of its Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), may no longer be allowed to minister under the new rules passed by the nation's bishops earlier this month, the archdiocese said yesterday.

The Very Rev. David Jaeger, 58, who also is a former director of seminarians for the archdiocese, admitted several years ago that he had inappropriately touched children at a CYO camp in the 1970s.

The Seattle Archdiocese settled in 1988 with one of those victims, a man who was 13 when Jaeger molested him at Camp Don Bosco in 1978.

Jaeger, who currently works in an administrative position at the archdiocese, said yesterday that "I was mortified and deeply upset" and "very concerned for the young man in question" when the accuser first came forward and Jaeger realized he had crossed a sexual boundary — something he hadn't realized at the time of the act but now knows was wrong.

"I didn't think that (touching) the buttocks and legs — that that would be crossing a boundary," he said, adding that he never touched a boy's genitals.

Still, Jaeger said he thinks removing him from ministry would be "unwarranted, because I'm so clearly not a danger. ... It would be heartbreaking for me. I love being a priest. I love the church. I love serving people."

It is unclear whether removing Jaeger from ministry would also mean that he can't do administrative work for the church.

Jaeger is feeling a "tremendous sense of sorrow for his misjudgments of the past," Auxiliary Bishop George Thomas said yesterday. "He's said in a hundred different ways the regret he feels for the betrayal he had on the victims and the terrible embarrassment for the church."

New national policy

The national policy, passed by the nation's Catholic bishops June 14, states that any priest or deacon who has ever sexually abused a minor even once will no longer be allowed to minister. Such priests will no longer be allowed to say Mass, wear clerical garb or represent themselves as priests. They will also be forbidden from priestly ministry of any type, whether in hospitals, nursing homes or military chaplaincies.

The archdiocese doesn't know yet how many priests would fall under that category, but Thomas says the number is probably "very, very few — probably one or two at present."

Those cases — including Jaeger's — are expected to be presented to a special-cases committee for evaluation, perhaps beginning as early as July. The committee then would make a recommendation to Archbishop Alex Brunett on whether to permanently relieve Jaeger and any others of all ministerial duties.

Jaeger admitted to touching the one boy who complained and eight to 10 others in a 1997 lawsuit involving another priest, the Rev. Paul Conn. Jaeger, as director of seminarians, had said Conn was qualified to enter the priesthood. Conn, formerly a priest at Queen of Angels parish in Port Angeles, pleaded guilty in 1988 to molesting altar boys and served prison time. Conn is no longer a priest.

Lawyers in the Conn case questioned whether Jaeger had properly screened Conn, especially in light of Jaeger's own past behavior involving minors.

The Conn court papers say Jaeger was at Camp Don Bosco either as the CYO director or the camp chaplain when the molestation happened. Jaeger said in a deposition that "what happened was that in the course of bedding children down at night in the cabins, I offered to give massages to kids who wanted them and did to a few that indicated that they would like that."

In the case of the boy who came forward in 1988, Jaeger said in the court document that "I had massaged his back and shoulders, his buttocks and legs."

From June 1989 on, Jaeger was forbidden to minister one-to-one to any minors. In August 1989, he was sent to Toronto for treatment.

When Jaeger returned to Seattle afterward, he was assigned to a new position in the archdiocese — coordinator of AIDS ministry, a position he held until last year.

He was given the AIDS ministry job because the archdiocese wanted to give him "limited ministry, directed to adults ... so as not to have sustained contact with minors," Thomas said.

From early on — Thomas doesn't remember when but says it's been years — the archdiocese hired a state parole officer to monitor Jaeger, an arrangement that's still in place.

Administrative role

Last year, Jaeger was assigned to administrative work, developing resources for parishes to care for sick and disabled people. He was assigned to that new position as part of normal rotations in assignments, Thomas said.

Currently, Jaeger may also substitute for pastors on vacation or who are ill, saying Mass and fulfilling other priestly duties. Two years ago, when the pastor at St. Anne Church on Queen Anne Hill took a six month sabbatical, Jaeger filled in.

Kathy Kirschner, a member of the St. Anne parish council, has known Jaeger for nearly 25 years. "He was and is the most wonderful guy, understanding and tolerant. He listens to you and did what he could to help you."

She said Jaeger chose the priesthood when he was about 14 and was known throughout the community for his ministry with the gay community and for being involved in the recruitment of priests. Kirschner said it would be a great loss to the archdiocese if Jaeger were expelled.

"It just makes me wonder, are we going to kick out everyone who ever even once touched someone inappropriately?" she said.

Jaeger has had ongoing counseling for years, Thomas said. His state-certified therapist, in a recent report, said that Jaeger would only need to come in for periodic checkups, and that "I've found no evidence since 1978 that Father Jaeger has engaged in any impropriety or demonstrated any inclination toward sexual misconduct including acting improperly with children," Thomas said, quoting the therapist's report.

Thomas said Jaeger has a "very deep commitment to justice, pastoral outreach to persons who are hurting, including the sick, persons with AIDS, the imprisoned, persons with mental-health difficulties."

"He did a lot of volunteer work with us through the years," said Chuck Kuehn, executive director of Lifelong AIDS Alliance in Seattle. Everything he's heard about Jaeger has been "nothing but positive," Kuehn said.

'How did I do that?'

Jaeger said yesterday that looking back now, his actions with minors seemed to be something "an adolescent might do when they're first coming to terms with sexuality." He said he had delayed his own sexuality, avoiding anything to do with sex for years while going through the seminary and preparing for priesthood.

After the victim made his complaint in 1988, "I had to ask myself: How did I do that?" Jaeger said yesterday. "It raised such a question about my judgment and credibility."

He knows now beyond a doubt, he says, that what he did was wrong and may have harmed the young man. But "I'm not inclined to cross those boundaries (now) and haven't for 24 years," he said.

The archdiocese's special-cases committee, which will decide Jaeger's fate, is composed of therapists, attorneys, a canon lawyer and a priest. Friday, when it meets next, members will be briefed on the requirements of the new policy and decide how to carry it out locally, Thomas said. Committee members are not expected to review individual cases at that meeting.

The Seattle archdiocese already has in place many of the provisions of the new policy, including mandatory reporting of all new allegations of child sexual abuse to civil authorities, and the use of independent review panels composed mainly of experts who are not clergy.

What is new is the requirement that all priests and deacons with even one incident of child sexual abuse in their backgrounds may no longer be allowed to minister.

In the past, Thomas said, the Seattle archdiocese has "used our graduated sanctions, as opposed to zero tolerance," allowing some priests with incidents of abuse in their past who have been cleared by experts to continue ministering in a limited capacity.

Since January, when sex scandals involving priests first began coming to light nationwide, the archdiocese has been reviewing files of priests to find previous accusations of sexual abuse of minors.

The committee will evaluate whether the allegations merit removal of the priest from ministry.

Priests in the diocese were briefed on the policy during a previously scheduled, four-day retreat at Ocean Shores that began Monday. These annual meetings, usually focused on the spiritual development of priests, this time involved much sadness.

"There's always sorrow in looking back over the years and seeing some that have behaved in ways that have hurt other people," Thomas said. "And they're sorrowed that some priests themselves may be lost to ministry. And they're also terribly sad for the church. The church should stand for balance and health and wholeness and joy. To see that the actions of the few have really hurt and damaged the church's life is very hard."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. Staff reporters Ray Rivera and Christine Clarridge contributed to this story.

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