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  Lawsuits Detail Sexual Abuse Allegations in Western Alaska; Tundra Drums

By Jon Grover
Associated Press State & Local Wire
November 25, 2004

In two separate lawsuits filed in Bethel Superior Court, 49 plaintiffs contend they were sexually abused for decades by Catholic priests and church associates in rural Western Alaska.

The lawsuits, filed by the law firm Cooke, Roosa and Valcarce, claim the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks is liable for the abuse.

Because of the sensitive nature of the allegations, the names of the victims are omitted from the lawsuit and are sealed at the courthouse.

One of the lawsuits, alleging that the late Rev. Jules Convert sexually abused and assaulted 18 young boys in the region, was filed two years ago and is awaiting a ruling on the statute of limitations by the state Supreme Court before arguments can be heard in Bethel.

"We're asking the court to deal with this suit under the statute of limitations," said Robert Groseclose, an attorney representing the Fairbanks Diocese. "By the same token, the church abhors any sexual abuse and is doing anything it can to reach out to victims."

The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, the Catholic order to which Convert belonged, originally named as defendants in the case were dismissed from the complaint last summer.

In 2001, the Alaska Legislature removed incidents of sexual abuse from the list of offenses subject to the statute of limitations. However, when the abuse is alleged to have occurred the law gave victims only two years from the time they learned of their injuries to file suit.

Plaintiffs' lawyers contend that regardless of how the statute of limitations law is applied to the case, their clients are entitled to a trial.

"In molestation cases the injury, in most cases, is not the physical, it's the psychological implications," said attorney Jim Valcarce. "This type of abuse causes long-term psychological, spiritual and personal problems in the victims."

The incidents alleged in the Convert case occurred between 1956 and 1978. Convert was originally sent to Alaska in the 1940s.

During at least part of that timeline, Convert was the mission superior of the Jesuits in Alaska, overseeing Jesuit activities in the state.

Most of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had been altar boys between the ages of six and 17 years old, according to the complaint. Convert would invite altar boys to spend the night at his residence, tell them to sleep in his bed and molest them while they slept, according to the complaint.

In a second lawsuit, 28 plaintiffs contend that Joseph Lundowski, a former monk, sexually abused them while he was a church volunteer and possibly a deacon between 1965 and 1975.

Since the lawsuit was filed in Bethel this month, three additional Western Alaska men have joined the case, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported Thursday. According to the court document filed Wednesday, a fourth man is filing a civil lawsuit in Dillingham on related complaints.

Attorneys claim that both the Diocese of Fairbanks and the Jesuits are liable for injuries to those plaintiffs. According to church documents, Lundowski was a Trappist monk in Oregon before leaving the order some time in the 1950s. It is unclear whether he moved to Alaska to work for the church or began volunteering after moving to Bristol Bay for work in fisheries.

Lawyers for the church dispute that Lundowski was a deacon, as lawyers for the plaintiffs contend in the lawsuit.

"There are records that list Lundowski as a volunteer, but I've yet to see anything that indicates he was, in fact, given the position of deacon," said Groseclose. "I understand he may have been a candidate to become a deacon."

The lawsuit claims that while Lundowski was not a priest during the time of alleged abuse, he acted in a ministerial role under the direction of church and Jesuit officials.

The plaintiffs were between the ages of 6 and 24 when the alleged abuse occurred. The complaint outlines a pattern in which Lundowski is accused of enticing his victims with gifts and telling them if they reported the abuse, no one would believe them.

"He gave them hard candy, money he stole from the collection plate, cooked food, baked goods, beer, sacramental wine, brandy and better grades on their catechism assignments in exchange for sexual favors," the lawsuit alleges. "Joseph Lundowski told many of the boys not to tell, and also warned some of them that if they told what he was doing to them, no one would believe them because he worked for God."

Ken Roosa, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, said that some of the children tried to tell relatives what Lundowski was doing to them but were dismissed and told not to lie.

"One guy would bring home candy and food that Lundowski gave him. His grandmother loved the candy," Roosa said. "When he tried to say, 'Hey, this guy is doing these awful things,' his grandmother said she didn't believe him because he (Lundowski) worked for the church, that he wouldn't do something like that."

Convert was in charge of operations at the Jesuit missions where Lundowski was working as a volunteer. Lundowski's last known address was a Chicago shelter for the homeless in 1993.

Lawyers representing victims of Lundowski and Convert claim the church did little to protect children from abusive priests.

The problems of priest abuse in Western Alaska are indicative of a worldwide and centuries-old church policy of denial, said Patrick Wall, a former priest and investigator for the church.

"There are confirmed bishop's meetings outlining penalties for priests that sexually abuse children as early as 309 A.D.," he said. "It's as old as the hills. This has been a worldwide problem for a couple of thousand years and the ramifications are unfathomable."

Wall was a Catholic monk and parish priest for 12 years before leaving the priesthood. While serving as a priest, Wall was assigned to the church's Tribunal Court as a judge where he first learned of the scope of the abuse problem. At times, Wall also investigated abuse cases for the church. His last assignment before leaving the priesthood was taking over in parishes where claims of abuse had been made.

"I'm good at damage control but every assignment I got was increasing in severity," he said. "I started saying to myself 'I'm 35 years old do I want to do this for the rest of my life? Is this authentic Christianity?' And then I left the priesthood."

Wall now works for the California law firm, Manley and MaGuire, which specializes in priest abuse cases. He has done work on both the Lundowski and Convert lawsuits, traveling to villages in the region to interview victims and families.

Wall said high-ranking church officials have kept the abuse issue, which began receiving national media attention two years ago, quiet for years.

"The majority of Jesuits and parish priests didn't understand the scope of the problem, but the people in charge, by God, they do, " he said. "They're the ones in charge of all the records. The machine is extremely good at covering things up."

Roosa and Wall contend that the church is attempting to cover up the Convert and Lundowski cases by destroying documents. Church officials contend any destroyed documents had no connection to the legal matters.

"Anything even remotely connected with litigation is put aside for safe keeping," said Ronnie Rosenberg, director of human resources for the Fairbanks Diocese. "From time to time we do weed out old files, just as any other business or office does."

In recent years thousands of lawsuits have been filed in Australia, Europe, Canada, Argentina and the United States. Victims are seeking billions of dollars in damages from the Catholic Church and governments that contracted with the church to run schools, according to Suzy Nauman, regional coordinator for the Voice of the Faithful in several Western states.

Voice of the Faithful is a Boston-based victim advocacy and church accountability group with members in 40 countries.

In Canada, Catholic, Anglican and other churches responsible for running "Indian boarding schools" that taught indigenous populations have been accused in the abuse of thousands of children over more than 100 years.

The schools have been closed for years, but the social problems fostered by the abuse continue, according to victims' advocates.

Officials at the Tundra Women's Coalition said young victims of abuse often experience severe problems when they reach adulthood.

"It's really important that people get treatment," said Erin Smith, director of the coalition's Children's Advocacy Center. "If they don't talk about it and heal it results in so many different behavior problems."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the lawsuits said some of their clients suffer from depression or have become alcoholics or sex offenders.

Wall said the Catholic Church has left huge scars in Alaska since the Jesuits first arrived in 1886.

"The Jesuits will say, 'It was us who preserved the culture here.' In reality, they came out here and stomped all over it," Wall said.

 
 

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