Local Lawyer Takes on Priest Sex Abuse
The men who came forward and said they were molested as children by the Rev. Jules Convert appeared to be the only ones, Roosa said recently. But mediation failed. Roosa, a bearded ex-prosecutor who spent years working with sexual abuse victims, and the four men, identified in the lawsuit as John Does 1-4, sued in June 2003.
Not long after, a man who had followed the national coverage of priest sex abuse called Roosa from Texas and said he too had been abused by Convert as a child in rural Alaska. In November, he got a call from another man with similar accusations against Convert.
Eventually, the lawsuit included 18 plaintiffs who say Convert invited them, as boys between 6 and 16 years of age, to spend the night with him, sometimes asking them to sleep in their underwear or even naked. They say they would awake in the middle of the night and find the priest fondling them, according to the civil complaint filed in Bethel Superior Court.
As publicity about the first case spread, the issue gained momentum and the number of lawsuits has swollen to four, with dozens of victims from rural Alaska saying they were abused by priests in Bush Alaska for decades. Nearly all the victims are represented by Roosa, who has become the nexus for Catholic priest sex abuse cases in Alaska, gaining expertise in the intricacies of Catholic canonical law, personnel structure and record-keeping.
At the end of 2003, Roosa got a call from a woman accusing another priest, the Rev. James Poole, of sexually molesting her as a child in Nome. He sued on her behalf in March 2004.
In early May, he heard from a man who said he had been abused by Trappist monk Joseph Lundowski in St. Marys. As Roosa traveled to Bush villages to talk to his clients in that case, he found that each time he showed up at someone's house, a couple more men would appear, telling similar tales of abuse by Lundowski. They say the monk bought sexual favors from them with candy, better grades, sacramental wine and money from collection plates. Roosa filed a lawsuit against the Fairbanks diocese and the Jesuits based on those accusations in November.
Since then, he has filed yet another lawsuit on behalf of a client who said he was molested in rural Sheldon Point by two priests, the Rev. Segundo Llorente, a former state lawmaker, and the Rev. Francis Nawn. Three more plaintiffs joined that suit on Jan. 13 with complaints against Nawn.
Less than two years have passed since the original lawsuit was filed, and Roosa now has sued the Fairbanks Diocese and the Oregon province of the Jesuits four times on behalf of 56 victims for their role overseeing four priests and one monk the victims say abused them. He says he knows of accusations against two other priests and expects to sue again.
"It's like it's gathering momentum and I don't know where it's going to go," he said.
Bishop Donald Kettler of Fairbanks said the number of cases is distressing.
"All I can do is two things," he said. "To try to work for the truth and justice of all the cases. And secondly, all I can do right now is to do everything I can to see these kinds of things, the possibility of these kinds of things never arise again.
Ronnie Rosenberg, director of human resources for the Fairbanks Diocese, said the high volume of victims has been a "shock and a surprise to everyone." The diocese did not suspect these cases were coming, she said.
Fairbanks is a missionary diocese, which means it does not have as many self-supporting parishes and does not have tremendous financial resources to rely on to resolve cases, she said. The diocese has instituted mandatory sexual abuse training for employees and volunteers who work with children, she said, and children are told to report anything that could be related to sex abuse.
"We would urge people to come forward as well as anyone who feels they may have been a victim at the hands of anyone employed by the church, so we can get some handle on total claims, as well as to promote healing and assist victims with getting on with their lives," she said.
And the Rev. Patrick Ford, spokesman for the Oregon Jesuits, said the stories he has heard personally from some of the men are "devastating."
"Where we have found that we're at fault, we've tried to come to terms with these people," he said. But he distanced the Jesuits from Lundowski, who he says was never under Jesuit supervision. The cases also involve some events that took place decades ago, which makes them difficult to resolve, he said.
Roosa has settled on behalf of two of 18 Convert plaintiffs with both the Jesuits and the diocese, and with just the Jesuits for another 12 plaintiffs. The remainder of the complaints are still in litigation.
The national scandal over priest sexual abuse, publicity about the Poole case, and news stories about controversial statements made in a deposition by the Rev. William "Lom" Loyens have all contributed to the explosion of claims, Roosa said.
Loyens, 77, is an anthropologist as well as a Jesuit priest who supervised Convert. In his deposition, released by Roosa in March, Loyens said that Native victims of abuse don't suffer much from it because the Native culture was "fairly loose" on sexual matters. The statements unleashed outrage in the Native community, and Loyens later apologized.
Poole's case also was highly publicized in Nome because of his role in establishing the award-winning Catholic radio station KNOM.
In each case, church officials are accused of failing to protect the victims and of shifting priests from parish to parish to conceal their activities, even in cases like Llorente and Nawn, where Roosa doesn't have specific information on why they moved.
"That is an allegation that we made based on information and belief, and that we believe the evidence we discover during the course of this case will verify it," he said.
The cascade of new cases has overwhelmed him, Roosa said. He recalled getting a phone call while in Spokane, Wash., for a deposition in the Poole case and learning about seven more victims from St. Marys.
"I just couldn't deal with it anymore," he said, wiping away tears. "When is this going to end?"
He said he first heard of accusations against Llorente and Nawn almost by accident. The original plaintiff in that case, who goes by the pseudonym Jack Doe 1, was at Roosa's Anchorage office because a friend of his was in mediation in the Convert case. Jack Doe happened to mention that he was a dual victim.
"We couldn't believe it," said Roosa. "It was just horrific."
He is passionate about trying to prevent sexual abuse from recurring.
"I want to make sure this never happens to any other kids," he said. The same goes for his clients.
"They just don't want anybody else to suffer."
His battle against the church has at times grown contentious. In the latest lawsuits involving Convert, Lundowski, Llorente and Nawn, Roosa accused the church of shredding or burning documents relating to priest or religious officials' misconduct prior to January 2003. Attorneys in the Poole case asked a judge in August for a gag order on releasing documents, and both sides have agreed not to release documents until a judge rules on the request.
Fairbanks' Rosenberg denied the accusation that the church destroyed documents.
"To my knowledge, it's totally baseless," she said. "In fact, we have done whatever we could to locate and preserve documents pertaining to these defendants."
She said the church's goal is for the truth to emerge.
But victims have seen on a national level that suing is the only device that forces the church to change its treatment of sex abuse victims, said Roosa.
"If their abuses are brought out publicly, then it reduces their power and impacts the offering of donations to the church, and civil suits affect their cash on hand, and all that results in real changes, not just lip service," Roosa said. "The point is to bring about change. This is a social action effort in many, many ways."
Daily News reporter Nicole Tsong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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