Alaska Native Panel Addresses Sex Abuse Issues

By Diana Campbell
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner [Fairbanks AK]
Downloaded March 23, 2004

A group of concerned Alaska Natives formed a committee to address recent allegations about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests and a legal deposition from a Jesuit supervisor that characterized Native culture as sexually "loose."

The group supports victims of child abuse and wants to rectify false assumptions about Athabascan culture.

"Right now we want to be a catalyst for people to come forward and express their hurt," said Miranda Wright, one of the committee's co-chairs.

The committee issued a statement Friday at the Doyon Ltd. annual meeting in Fairbanks. About 14 people are members so far, Wright said.

Eight Alaska Native men have filed separate lawsuits against the Fairbanks Catholic Diocese for abuse they claim occurred when they were boys. They said the late Rev. Jules Convert fondled them when they slept, or in one case, while watching a movie.

In another lawsuit against the Fairbanks Diocese, a young Native woman claimed to have been molested by Father Jim Poole, the founder of KNOM, an award-winning Catholic radio station in Nome. The woman said that Poole began sexually abusing her when she was 10 years old and continued until she was 16.

"We support them in their statements and recognize that, in so doing, they have given us all an opportunity to pause and consider the past, present and our future, and to question all aspects of society--religion, education, jurisprudence and politics, as well as imposition of healing through Western models," the committee statement read.

The group also wants to examine greater issues that yielded "unwarranted, negative statements about Athabascan morals," the statement said.

That concern stems from a deposition was taken by Convert's superior, the Rev. William Loyens, who taught anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In his deposition, which was quoted in the media, Loyens called Alaska Native culture "fairly loose" sexually and that village mothers sometimes fondled their little boys' testicles.

In a letter he wrote to Harold Brown, president of Tanana Chiefs Conference, Loyens apologized and said his remarks were taken out of context.

Wright, who has a master's degree in anthropology from UAF, said she read the entire deposition and that Loyens' remarks were not taken out of context. She also has read Loyens' academic writings, which she disagreed with.

"I was so angry and outraged by those allegations," Wright said.

Wright said the era in Alaska Native history to which Loyens was referring was the rapid breakup of Native culture and the assimilation of Western ways.

"Many of our Native people didn't feel they had a voice in what was happening," she said. "You didn't question the church, that the Lord works in mysterious ways."

Wright said she knew of "several individuals who have been abused who have shared with me."

Sam Demientieff, the committee's other co-chair, said that he was surprised by the abuse allegations. His sister called him to discuss the news reports, he said.

"We've got to do something," he said. "This is an implication on the culture; concerns the Catholic faith, which we are members of; and Holy Cross, where we were raised."

The group has met once by teleconference and once in person, Demientieff said.

In those meetings, people expressed a range of emotions, from outrage to sadness to concerns about their faith, he said.

Demientieff said he knew both Convert and Poole.

"Most of the people I know were totally shocked," he said of the allegations against the priests.

Fairbanks Catholic Diocese Bishop Donald Kettler said he thought the committee was taking a reasoned and wise approach to the situation.

"It seemed to offer an invitation to the church to sit down together and look at our relationship and history," Kettler said. "I would certainly respond gratefully to that situation."

For more information about the committee, contact Patricia Bessette at 459-2177.

Diana Campbell can be reached at 459-7523


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.