|Suffer the Little Children
In One of the Darkest Chapters of Sexual Abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, a Generation of Children in Western Alaska Breaks the Silence
By Tony Hopfinger
March 19, 2008
In the Yupik Eskimo village where Tom Cheemuk lived as a child in the 1960s, there was no running water. Homes in the tiny Norton Sound community of St. Michael were lit with gas lamps and generators. The town shared a single telephone. As a boy Cheemuk picked berries and gathered goose eggs on the pockmarked Alaska tundra and fished for tomcod on the windy shores of the Bering Sea. He raised a pet fox on table scraps and, in summer, often worked at the old fish cannery. One of his fondest memories was riding up the Yukon with his father, an engineer on a barge, and delivering fuel to the villages.
And, too, like most other children, he spent many days inside the weather-beaten little Catholic church, helping the Jesuit missionaries who held powerful sway over Eskimo life. Helping meant doing what you were told—even if it was wrong. Cheemuk's mother was a devout Catholic. Attending church was given. So when bad things began happening with church volunteer Joseph Lundowski, Cheemuk felt he had no choice but to stay silent.
For Cheemuk, now in his early 50s, the past was buried for decades, through a lifetime of struggling with shame, anger and alcoholism. "I remember Mom asked me why there was blood on my underclothes," he told me last November in his cramped house in St. Michael. He sat alongside his wife, sometimes breaking into tears. "I was afraid to tell her what happened. I thought I might go to jail."
It is one of the darkest chapters of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. More than 110 children in Eskimo villages claim they were molested between 1959 and 1986, raped or assaulted by 12 priests and three church volunteers. Families and victims believe that another 22 people were sexually abused by clergy members but have since killed themselves. The Jesuit Oregon Province, which includes Alaska, recently agreed to pay $50 million in damages. Lawyers who've worked on such cases say they believe it to be the largest settlement ever against a religious order.
Now, the allegations are threatening to shutter the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks. Earlier this month, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization to help it settle 135 remaining claims, many from the same people who won settlements with the Jesuits. Victims sued the dioceses because it owned and oversaw the churches where the abuse took place, often contracting with the Jesuits to staff its churches. The dioceses' main insurance company has balked at helping the church settle with victims, according to Bishop Donald J. Kettler, who heads the diocese.
Chris Cooke, an Anchorage attorney who represents victims, voiced outrage over the staggering level of abuse by priests and church volunteers. "They had absolute power over the people and the culture," Cooke said in November. "They had language power. They had political power. They had racial power. They had the power to send you to hell. There was nowhere for victims to turn."
This is a culture that values emotional restraint. Especially among men, talking about pain is rare. Cheemuk tried to drink it away, which is partly why he never finished high school and lost his job at the store. He passed his anger on to his wife, Elsie. "That drinking, it landed him in jail twice for beating on me," she said. Tom once tried to escape the nightmares by putting a gun to his head. Elsie grabbed the gun as he pulled the trigger; the bullet whizzed past his scalp. But two of his brothers did take their own lives. Cheemuk wonders if they were abused by the Jesuits too.
When I visited St. Michael in November, Cheemuk and other victims were signing papers to settle their claims with the Jesuits. They were excited to soon receive tens of thousands of dollars; some covered in the settlement will receive more than a quarter-million each. "I'm going to take that money and go be an Eskimo," Stephan Tom, in his mid-50s, told me. That meant doing a lot of hunting and fishing. Another man told me he planned to take a trip to Hawaii. A guy in his 50s said he'd only been to Anchorage twice in his life. He thought he'd make a trip to the big city. I spoke to a middle-aged man with a big family and he said he was going to fix up his house, a crumbling dwelling that seemed better to replace than repair. Most of the men, of course, said they were going to buy new snowmachines and four-wheelers.
Other villagers, however—mostly people who are not part of the settlement—told me they were concerned about the millions of dollars soon to wash over St. Michael, a community of several hundred, where about a quarter of the families live below the poverty line. Will the money go to rebuilding lives or will it disappear in yet more pain, they wondered. Many victims have battled alcoholism and drugs since they were abused as teenagers. Some have been arrested for assault. They've done time for various crimes. They've attempted suicide. When I was in St. Michael, I met one church victim who was listed on the state's sexual offender registry. His brother, who is also covered in the settlement, was imprisoned for sexually abusing a minor. Another man I met was charged with theft several days after I left the village.
Chase Hensel, a retired anthropologist in Fairbanks and expert on Yupik Eskimo culture, said the lasting damage from the church cannot be overstated. "You see the alcoholism, the severe mental problems, people in and out of jail," he said, "and you wonder, how do you put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall?"
Only three priests covered in the $50 million settlement are still living. They include Father James Jacobson and Father Jim Poole, both in their 80s. Jacobson is accused of fathering a total of four children with four women, as well as impregnating a 16-year-old who had an abortion. Poole, who founded a popular Catholic radio station in Nome that can still be heard in the villages, also allegedly impregnated a girl. According to court filings, Poole told her to abort the fetus and blame it on her father. Father John Whitney, the head of the Jesuit Oregon Province, says the priests are under close monitoring at a senior care facility run by the order in Spokane, Washington. "We are honestly deeply sorry that this ever happened," he said in November.
The abuse shattered entire families. Brothers and sisters were allegedly raped by clergymen—sometimes by more than one priest. Father Jules Convert, a Jesuit who served in rural Alaska, is accused of abusing scores of boys, like Rudy Francis. Francis lives in St. Marys, a picturesque Yupik community crawling up the hills along the Andreafsky River and a crossroads for traveling missionaries. "Way before all this happened, I was a normal person," Francis, who is in his early 40s, told me in December. "That church ruined my life."
Francis didn't tell anybody what happened until last May, when he broke the news to his sister, Elsie Boudreau—herself a victim of Father Poole. She says church leaders "have no concept of the harm they caused. They really believed Native people would not speak out, that we were too dumb."
Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk and Catholic priest who has served as a consultant to lawyers in the Alaska suits, said the Jesuits knew these missionaries were predators. They "had abused elsewhere," he said, "and then were unleashed in the most uncontrolled environment."
The Jesuits contend that they had no idea of the abuse. Until the allegations came to light in recent years, the order held up Alaska missionaries as their "heroes." Serving Alaskans was considered "a great honor and a great challenge, like walking in the footsteps of Frances Xavier," Whitney told me. "These were the most difficult missions in the world and that it is why it's quite challenging for us to reconcile that some of our heroes have now ended up named in these accusations."
In early December, I met Bishop Kettler, of the Fairbanks Diocese, as he was preparing to confirm children in St. Marys. He said that some of the abusing priests might have succumbed to Alaska's isolation and long winters, along with the loneliness of living in a different culture. "Did the conditions of Alaska contribute to this? Yes, I think they did in some cases," he said. "I think even today the hardships here for priests are as severe as in Africa or Asia."
But that fails to explain Joseph Lundowski, the most notorious of all the accused abusers. He allegedly went village to village, raping dozens of children over a 16-year period before disappearing from Alaska in 1975. Nowhere is his legacy felt more than on St. Michael Island. He is accused of abusing a generation of boys in the villages of St. Michael and Stebbins. Thirty-eight of these men, now in their late 40s and 50s, have come forward. Villagers believe six other alleged victims committed suicide.
Much of Lundowski's life remains unknown. He apparently served as a monk for a brief time before he went north. He was fluent in Russian, according to a friend, and he sometimes worked as a salmon fisherman in summers. He began helping the Jesuits in Alaska in the 1950s, and by 1959 he was allegedly abusing children, according to court documents.
Lundowski, a bald, heavy-set man, was a church volunteer who performed many of the duties of a priest, presiding over baptisms, Sunday Mass and last rites, according to the victims' attorneys. He was dispatched to St. Michael in 1968, under the recommendation of Father George Endal, a long-time Alaskan Jesuit who died in 1996. Church documents show that Endal, who oversaw St. Michael and other villages in the area, depended on Lundowski to help tend to the churches.
To this day, many middle-aged men in St. Michael recall that it was Lundowski who gave them their first drinks. They say he kept a wooden barrel of homebrew in the bell tower. After catechism or Sunday mass, the boys often hung out in what Lundowski called "the monkey room," where kids played checkers and board games and watched religious movies. Lundowski doled out candy, juice and food, along with holy wine and his sour homebrew. Adjacent to the monkey room was a bedroom. Sometimes he'd snag a few bills from the Easter Seal donation canister and give the money to the boys afterwards.
"He knew these kids were very vulnerable," Wall said. "He knew they were hungry. He knew they were cold. He knew they had nothing. And he provided food, candy and money, and had his way with them."
In St. Michael it's not difficult to find middle-aged men who can recount experiences of abuse by "Brother Joe," as Lundowski was called. One of them is Stephan Tom. He will never forget the time Lundowski asked him if he knew about oral sex, and then attacked him. "He grabbed me and threw me on the bed," said Tom. "He unbuckled my pants. I was fighting. I was crying. I told him, 'No! No!'" The last time Tom was abused, Lundowski showed up at his family's plywood house. Tom was home alone bedridden with pneumonia. "After he was done, he told me, 'Here's five dollars. Now go to the store and get you something to get better,'" Tom said.
"Some of these things he did to me, that I didthey are embarrassing to talk about,"
another Lundowski victim told me before ending the interview.
James Niksik said he tried to tell his father about Lundowski and "he whipped me."
Tom Cheemuk remembers Lundowski sternly telling him that he should never speak about what happened, and that no one would believe him, anyway. The boy could scarcely have spoken the truth to Lundowski's superior. Father Endal was also sexually abusing him, Cheemuk said. Others also say they were abused by Endal, including one victim who was allegedly raped by both the priest and Lundowski at the same time, according to an account detailed in a court filing.
Phyllis Fenstermaker is the long-time pastor at the St. Michael Assembly of God Mission, a small brown building several blocks from the Catholic church. In the 1970s, she recalls two boys telling her about a Jesuit "Brother" named Joseph who was sexually abusing kids. She didn't connect the name with Lundowski because she was new to St. Michael. Neither did Fenstermaker speak up. "I wasn't sure if it was true, so I thought I'd play it cool and not say anything, because people in the village think that white people are at fault for everything around here," Fenstermaker told me during my visit to the village.
Accounts vary about what prompted Lundowski to suddenly leave St. Michael in 1975. Some villagers say he was caught molesting a kid. Jerry Austin, a former Iditarod musher and long-time resident of St. Michael, said that he flew Lundowski out of the village on his prop plane, acting on an urgent request from Father Endal. Nobody in the village ever heard from "Brother Joe" again.
Lundowski eventually landed at Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago and spent the next 15 years as the facility's nighttime phone operator, said David Saulnier, a former superintendent at the mission who befriended Lundowski when he showed up in the 1970s. Saulnier heard a much different version of Lundowski's life in Alaska.
"Joe told me he'd been living in a small cabin and was a fisherman by trade," Saulnier said. "The fish were not as abundant as they used to be, and he was spending more and more months in the cabin, so he got out of there."
Lundowski was quiet and kept to himself. He did not drink. He read the Bible. "He worked seven nights a week," Saulnier said. In his last years, Lundowski lost most of his sight and had to quit his job. Saulnier placed him in a nursing home. Lundowski died in 1996 at the age of 81. Saulnier didn't learn about the allegations against his friend until reporters contacted him three years ago.
When I saw Tom Cheemuk a few months ago, he still hadn't told his mother about what really happened with Lundowski and Father Endal. She's a village elder and a regular at Sunday mass. But talking about it with friends, his wife, even a stranger, brings some peace to Cheemuk. These days, he concentrates on spending time with his wife and children, trying to heal, trying to stay sober.
Cheemuk doesn't attend mass himself, but he sometimes longs for the church of his childhood, the one that existed before Lundowski and Endal stole his innocence. "I miss going to church on Christmas," he said. But he cannot go back, not yet. The memories still haunt.
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