Missionary's Dark Legacy
• Two Remote Alaska Villages Are Still Reeling from a Catholic
Volunteer's Sojourn Three Decades Ago, When He Allegedly Molested Nearly
Every Eskimo Boy in the Parishes. The Accusers, Now Men, Are Scarred Emotionally
and Struggle to Cope. They Are Seeking Justice.
By William Lobdell
Los Angeles Times
November 19, 2005
[Photographs and captions in this story were selected by BishopAccountability.org
priest, a portfolio of photographs by Damon Winter that was posted
with this article.]
ST. MICHAEL, Alaska—Peter "Packy" Kobuk has to walk past
the old Catholic church to get almost anywhere. To fill a drum of heating
oil. To take his children to school. To wash his clothes at the only laundromat
in this Eskimo village of 370.
"I think about burning it down, but I have to block that out,"
says Kobuk, 46. "It all comes back to me right away each time I have
to see it."
The decaying wood-frame building also haunts John Lockwood, a married
father of nine. Its bell tower, which rises above the village's 90 plywood
shacks and prefabricated houses, is one of the first landmarks he sees
when returning home in a longboat from hunting seals in the Bering Sea.
"It brings back a lot," says Lockwood, whose weathered face
reflects a life spent in the Alaska outdoors. "He did all those bad
things to us little kids there, and no one did nothing to stop it."
Even after 30 years, the men can't shake their memories of the late Joseph
Lundowski, a volunteer Catholic missionary who arrived in their village
The devoutly Catholic village elders welcomed Lundowski warmly, as they
did all men of the cloth. But the children soon grew to fear and despise
Now grown, they said that over a seven-year period, "Deacon Joe"
molested nearly every boy in St. Michael and the neighboring settlement
Peter "Packy" Kobuk longs to go to the Catholic church
in the Alaskan village of St. Michael but can't overcome a sense of
betrayal by the church—first when as a child he says he was
allegedly abused by John Lundowski, and now as an adult seeking redress
from the church. [Click photo to zoom and view other photographs.]
The alleged victims, now in their 40s and 50s, say they secretly carried
this burden until last year. Then, after watching the Catholic sexual
abuse scandal unfold on satellite television, 28 men from the two villages
decided to break their silence.
"We couldn't tell anyone [before] because no one would believe us,"
said Kobuk, one of the few St. Michael Eskimos who is still a Catholic.
He wears a homemade rosary around his neck, the blue beads held together
by string from a fishing net.
"He worked for God, and I was just an Eskimo child."
In 1886, the Jesuits established their first mission in western Alaska.
Making converts in this frozen, unforgiving corner of the world proved
difficult at first.
For thousands of years, Eskimos' lives as hunters and gatherers had been
ruled by Yuuyaaraq, or "the way of the human being." Yu'pik
people believed that their elaborate oral traditions and spiritual beliefs
helped ward off bad weather, famine and illness.
It wasn't until an influenza epidemic in 1900 wiped out more than 60%
of Alaska's native population that the Jesuits began to make headway.
The Eskimo shamans seemed no match for the deadly virus. The spiritual
defeat, along with encroaching Western influences, caused entire villages
to convert to the new religion.
Today, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks stretches across the upper
two-thirds of Alaska, a rugged chunk of territory bigger than Texas but
with just 41 churches and 24 priests.
Staffing remote parishes such as those in St. Michael and Stebbins with
full-time priests has proved impossible, which is why Lundowski and other
volunteers played a key role in village ministries.
Just 200 miles below the Arctic Circle, the wind-swept settlements of
St. Michael Island sit 12 miles apart on a rugged section of coast where
the tundra meets the Bering Sea. They are accessible only by small plane
or, when the ice melts on Norton Sound, by boat.
In summer, the island is a place of great beauty. Wildflowers blanket
the rolling hills, and the occasional Beluga whale swims among schools
of herring and king salmon in the dark blue sea.
In the winter, the remote Alaskan villages of St. Michael and
Stebbins are accessible only by small plane or, when the ice melts
on Norton Sound, by boat. A 12-mile-long gravel road also links the
villages. [Click photo to zoom and view other photographs.]
In winter, the landscape becomes a white, windy Arctic desert, and even
the sea freezes for months on end.
Lundowski arrived in 1968, at the end of a long personal odyssey. An orphan,
he was raised in West Virginia by his aunt. During World War II, he served
in the Army under Gen. George Patton in North Africa and Europe, former
After the war, he lived at a Trappist monastery in Oregon and worked as
a commercial fisherman in Alaska before volunteering to help Father George
Endal, a Jesuit priest, in several Eskimo villages.
Father Endal was responsible for St. Michael, Stebbins and a third settlement,
Unalakleet, 45 minutes away by plane. Villagers said that for long stretches
of time, he left parish affairs on St. Michael Island in the hands of
Lundowski and another lay missionary.
Though Lundowski was never ordained, he assumed the role of a Catholic
Villagers said he wore vestments and held Sunday services, gave homilies,
taught catechism, baptized children, officiated at weddings and performed
burial services at a hillside cemetery, where digging a grave required
breaking through six feet of frozen tundra with picks and shovels.
Lundowski started molesting boys soon after he arrived, according to
legal documents. Joseph Steve, a slight, soft-spoken man in his mid-50s,
believes he was the missionary's first target.
Then 17 and a devout Catholic, Steve had volunteered to help Lundowski
teach catechism classes at St. Bernard Church in Stebbins.
One afternoon, he said, Lundowski asked him to stay after class and wash
some dishes. "He sneaked up on me," Steve said. "He pulled
my pants down and penetrated me."
"I never finished the dishes," he said.
Lundowski had daily access to the village children, teaching them catechism
and holding afternoon recreation sessions in the "monkey rooms,"
as parish play areas were called.
Kobuk said he attended Lundowski's catechism classes at the St. Michael
parish beginning at age 12.
One day, after Kobuk recited the Ten Commandments and sang "This
Is the Day the Lord Has Made," Lundowski told him to stay after class.
After the other boys left, Lundowski locked the doors and lowered the
window shades, Kobuk said.
"I was scared and asked him what he was going to do, and he says,
'You'll see,' " Kobuk recalled.
Kobuk said that Lundowski removed his dentures and performed oral sex
on him in the missionary's rectory bedroom. Then Lundowski gave Kobuk
a $20 bill—a fortune for an Eskimo boy in 1971—and told him he was
a "special kid," Kobuk said.
Over the next four years, Kobuk said the missionary plied him with altar
wine, sodomized him and forced him to engage in sexual acts with other
Eskimo children—boys and girls.
Kobuk said that when he threatened to tell, Lundowski told him to go ahead,
insisting that no one would believe a child over a man of God. Kobuk said
the missionary also threatened to flunk Kobuk in catechism class.
"I was torn between getting my first Communion, the money, the alcohol
and the candy, and the molestation," he said.
Priscilla Otten holds her 8-month-old son, Steve, in the tiny
two-room house that she shares with her boyfriend, Elias Pete Jr.,
who claims in his lawsuit he was sexually abused for years by Joseph
Lundowski. The alleged victims, now in their 40s and 50s, remained
silent until they learned about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal
last year. [Click photo to zoom and view other photographs.]
Another villager, Elias Pete Jr., 43, hung out at the Stebbins church
on weekday afternoons and Saturdays through the winter, drawn by the warmth
of its oil-burning stove. When he was 9, Pete said, Lundowski performed
oral sex on him for the first of many times. Afterward, he said, the missionary
gave him 25 cents that he shook out of an Easter Seal donation can.
Nicolas Pete, Elias' 41-year-old uncle, said Lundowski would threaten
to take away stars that tracked his progress toward confirmation unless
the boy consented to sex.
"When he was all done, he would say, 'You can keep that star,' or
'I'll give you another one.' Silver or blue, those were the high-ranking
Nicolas Pete, 41, claims in his lawsuit that as a child he, like
his nephew Elias Pete Jr., was sexually abused by Joseph Lundowski.
The volunteer missionary threatened to take away stars that tracked
his progress toward confirmation unless he consented to sex, Elias
Pete said. [Click photo to zoom and view other photographs.]
Lockwood, 48, of St. Michael, said Lundowski would drag him into the rectory
bedroom, digging his meaty fingers into Lockwood's biceps hard enough
to leave bruises.
"He'd block the door, and there was no way to fight that big, blubbery
guy," Lockwood said.
After one attack, he said, "I showed him the bruises and said I was
going to tell. But he just said, 'You're a little kid. People will just
think you fell down.' "
The isolated and impoverished Eskimo villages had spotty telephone service
and no police officers. But Kobuk and several others said they tried to
get help. A few told their parents, who didn't believe them. Three said
they reported Lundowski's conduct to Father Endal, who promised to take
care of it, though the molestations continued.
Endal died in 1996 and has since been accused of molesting a minor.
"I thought [Lundowski] would get in trouble for what he was doing,"
said Thomas Cheemuk, who alleged that he was molested as a boy. "I
couldn't figure it out. I decided one time to tell somebody, but I couldn't
figure who to go to."
The end came without warning. One day, Lundowski was teaching catechism
classes to the village boys. The next morning, he was gone.
Jerry Austin, who owned St. Michael's only plane, said an agitated Father
Endal approached him one day in 1975 and asked him to fly Lundowski to
Unalakleet the next morning.
Austin suggested Lundowski wait until later in the day, when a bush pilot
was expected to fly in. "He said it would be too late," Austin
He said he agreed to make the flight as a favor to the church. "Everyone
around here had heard the rumors about Lundowski," Austin said.
The next morning, Lundowski climbed into the single-propeller plane carrying
only a small duffel bag. They flew in silence to Unalakleet.
Like other alleged abuse victims in the Alaskan village of St.
Michael, John Lockwood, a 48-year-old father of nine, turned to alcohol
and drugs. He made "home brew" alcohol, a mixture of yeast,
sugar and fruit juice. "It's not good, but it does the job,"
he said. [Click photo to zoom and view other photographs.]
With the missionary gone, most of his alleged victims set about trying
Like many others, Lockwood turned to alcohol and drugs. Because both villages
are dry settlements—a fifth of hard liquor goes for $150 on the black
market—Lockwood made "home brew" alcohol, a mixture of yeast,
sugar and fruit juice.
"It's not good, but it does the job," Lockwood says.
Thomas Cheemuk says he is tormented by memories of sexual abuse
he suffered as a child and has filed a lawsuit against the church
alleging that Joseph Lundowski, a volunteer missionary, molested him.
Cheemuk has attempted suicide three times. [Click photo to zoom and
view other photographs.]
Thomas Cheemuk got married, raised six children and attempted suicide
three times. In 1999, his brother, John "Dunny" Cheemuk Jr.,
killed himself, a death Tommy attributes to the molestations.
Kobuk vented his rage with a string of assaults—on fellow villagers,
a church secretary and his own children. His convictions drew sentences
totaling 495 days in jail.
The troubles of Lundowski's alleged victims stood out, even in the Eskimo
villages of western Alaska, which have some of the highest rates of alcoholism
and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide in the world.
"They are probably the ones I arrest the most," says Theresa
Kobuk, Packy's niece and St. Michael's public safety officer for the last
Thomas Cheemuk visits his older brother John's grave in a cemetery
overlooking the Alaskan village of St. Michael in February. Cheemuk
said he believes his brother killed himself in 1999 because as a child
he had been molested. [Click photo to zoom and view other photographs.]
H. Conner Thomas, a criminal defense attorney in Nome, says he often wonders
why the men of St. Michael Island seemed to have "more than their
fair share of significant problems" with the law.
"This may be an explanation," he says.
Packy Kobuk was one of the only Eskimos to talk openly about what had
happened. He said he spoke about the alleged abuse with at least nine
priests and one nun. On three occasions, he said, he brought it up with
Bishop Michael Joseph Kaniecki, who came to the village annually to perform
the confirmation ceremonies.
"He would just change the subject," Kobuk said. "He didn't
want me to bring it up."
The prelate has since died and church officials said they have no record
of any complaints about Lundowski.
One summer evening in 2004, Kobuk saw a television news report about a
sexual abuse case against a popular Nome priest. For the first time since
the Catholic Church molestation scandals had erupted, someone was taking
on the Alaska church.
Kobuk said he began to consider taking legal action himself.
"I wanted everyone to know that there was a lot of us involved, and
the abuse happened out here too, and not just in the cities," Kobuk
The first lawyer he approached turned the case down, citing a conflict
of interest. The rejection hit him hard.
He said he rode his four-wheel Honda ATV to a remote beach where a grizzly
bear had been spotted and he followed its tracks in the sand.
"I didn't want to kill myself," Kobuk said. "I wanted an
animal to do it."
After a few hours of walking and crying, he had a change of heart.
"I was saying the rosary on the way back," he recalled. "I
didn't want that bear to eat me."
A week later, Kobuk saw an advertisement in the Nome Nugget: "Did
You Know Joseph C. Lundowski, Also Known as Brother Joe or Deacon Joe?"
The ad read, in part: "You may be able to help several children who
were possibly abused. Any information, no matter how small, can help a
child seek justice and healing."
Kobuk called the number at the bottom of the ad, placed by attorney Ken
A former state sex crimes and federal prosecutor, Roosa signed up his
first client in Alaska's clergy sexual-abuse scandal in 2002. Shortly
afterward, he was swamped with calls from others who said they had been
abused. He brought in John Manly, a Costa Mesa attorney who had helped
negotiate a record $100-million settlement for sexual-abuse suits against
the Diocese of Orange County.
Since then, 85 Alaska natives from 13 villages have filed claims against
the church for alleged abuse by six priests and two lay missionaries from
1956 to 1988.
The flood of allegations has led to speculation that the Eskimo settlements
were a "dumping ground" for abusive priests and lay workers
affiliated with the Jesuit order, which supplied priests and bishops to
the Fairbanks diocese.
"It's like the French Foreign Legion—you join rather than go to
prison," says Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who is an authority
on clergy sexual abuse and has served as an expert witness in hundreds
of cases, including those in the Eskimo villages. "I was absolutely
convinced this happened in Alaska."
Father John D. Whitney, chief of the Jesuits' Oregon Province, which includes
Alaska, denied that known deviants were shipped there. To the contrary,
Jesuit literature portrayed Alaska as "the world's most difficult
mission," a prestigious assignment for the most courageous and faithful
"They weren't in exile," Whitney said. "They were looked
on as people who were blazing the trail for faith."
Initially, all of the Stebbins and St. Michael men wanted to remain
anonymous, agreeing to file suits only under the legal pseudonym "James
Doe." That changed when Kobuk came forward and encouraged others
to go public as he had.
"I wanted the priests to know they had hurt us," he said, "and
not just a bunch of James Does."
Now the men must prove their claims. As victims of clergy sexual abuse
across the country have learned, reconstructing events that occurred decades
ago in secret is a daunting task. For the Eskimos, the job was complicated
by the church's initial insistence that there was no record that Lundowski
had ever volunteered for the church.
The villagers and their attorneys dug through church archives, family
photo albums and old letters looking for evidence.
Roosa came across a grainy copy of a 1975 church newsletter that listed
participants in a training program for deacons in the Diocese of Fairbanks.
It included a photo of a bald man with horn-rimmed glasses. The caption
read: "Joe Lundowski, 59 yrs., Stebbins."
This was proof that the church had trained Lundowski as a deacon and knew
he was serving in Stebbins.
In the same file, Roosa found a 1965 letter by a senior Jesuit stating
that the church "should have gotten rid of [Lundowski] a long time
The letter was written three years before Lundowski arrived in St. Michael
by Father Jules M. Convert, then in charge of the Jesuits in Alaska, to
Father Jack Gurr, chancellor to the bishop of Fairbanks. Convert began
by asking for a shipment of food for his men and more nails to complete
the building of a village church, but most of the letter was devoted to
his concern about Lundowski.
Convert expressed dismay that the bishop in Fairbanks, Theodore Boileau,
had moved Lundowski from one village to another after receiving "complaints"
about his conduct.
Convert described Lundowski as a church volunteer and wrote that he had
forbidden him to use the title "brother" because "it greatly
confused the folks."
In his reply, Gurr questioned "why the Mission Superior (i.e., yourself)
cannot give 'guidance' to [Jesuit priests and volunteers] on such matters.
What would you do if it involved a woman? ... You should try to bring
the scandal to end...."
Convert replied that he didn't have the authority to remove Lundowski,
and that only the bishop could do so.
"He's a lay volunteer, sent by the bishop to Hooper Bay against what
he knew to be our thinking of the fellow. I happen to know he's a possible
cause of trouble, so I refer him and the case to the proper [church] authorities,
for whatever action they see fit to take...."
There is no evidence that church authorities investigated the allegations.
Convert himself now stands accused of molesting 20 Eskimo children.
An additional piece of evidence against Lundowski came from one of his
alleged victims. The man, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and
is serving a prison sentence for rape in Alaska, gave the plaintiffs'
lawyers a letter Lundowski had written to him in 1993.
The inmate, who asked to remain anonymous, told attorneys that he wrote
Lundowski to describe the emotional turmoil he had suffered as a result
of the missionary's molestations.
In a handwritten letter with a postmark from Chicago, Lundowski replied:
"Your letter came to me as a shock and sadden me as to your condition.
It goes without saying that if I am in anyway to blame for your illness,
"I pray to God who relieves all illness to comfort you and to restore
you to perfect health. Since I left Alaska and came [to Chicago] to work,
I have accepted the Lord in a real and personal manner .... I too have
suffered. Two years ago I had a heart attack with a stroke and still have
limited use of my legs and arms. My prayer for myself every day is for
Him to come and take me. I don't write this for sympathy, but to let you
see the Lord punishes us in his own ways."
Lundowski spent the final decade of his life as the night switchboard
operator at a Christian rescue mission on Chicago's South Side. He died
Officials of the Diocese of Fairbanks and the Jesuits' Oregon Province—the two defendants in the Lundowski suits—have asked a Superior
Court judge to throw out the claims.
In legal papers, they argue that the statute of limitations on the allegations
has run out, and that Lundowski was an unauthorized volunteer not under
the supervision of the diocese or the Jesuits.
None of the missionary's 28 accusers in St. Michael and Stebbins—nor
the dozen who have filed suit from other villages in which Lundowski previously
served—has received a settlement offer.
Bishop of Fairbanks Donald Kettler said the church must find a way to
help any victims of abuse, but that money is a problem for his cash-strapped
Whitney, head of the Jesuits' Oregon Province, said that "we're not
culpable for the actions of Mr. Lundowski, who was never a Jesuit. We
have a moral responsibility in our role as priests to be part of the reconciliation
work of Christ."
Whitney said that reconciliation and healing would come in a relationship
with God, and not in a courtroom.
"We've remained faithful to the people in the villages," Whitney
said. "We haven't withdrawn or run away. We want to be companions
in their pain and healing. We want to know how we can help."
On most Sunday mornings now, the Catholic church in St. Michael is nearly
Packy Kobuk says he longs to go to church but cannot overcome the feeling
that the elders there have turned their backs on him twice—once
when he was a child and again now.
If the weather is right, he takes long strolls through the village during
the church service. On his walks, he sometimes recites the Lord's Prayer
or the Apostle's Creed or another of the prayers he learned in his youth,
many from Joseph Lundowski.
To the Virgin Mary, he offers his own prayer.
"We need your help," he tells her.
He goes on to pray that wrongdoers will be exposed.
"I want everyone to know what happened to us here," he said.
"It's been covered up too long. And I also pray for forgiveness.
That's the hardest part."