Sex Abuse in Alaska Church

In the Yupik Eskimo village where Tom Cheemuk lived as a child in the 1960s, there was no running water. Homes in the tiny 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 Alaskan tundra and fished for tomcod on the windy shores of the Bering Strait. Like most other children, he also spent many days inside the weather-beaten little Catholic church, helping the Jesuit missionaries who held such powerful sway over Eskimo life. That meant doing what you were told—even if it was wrong—and staying silent about it.

For Cheemuk, now 53, 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 said one recent frigid night in his cramped house in the Eskimo village. 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, has agreed to pay $50 million in damages. It is believed to be the largest settlement ever against a religious order.

Chris Cooke, a partner in an Anchorage law firm that has represented Eskimo victims, voices outrage over the staggering level of abuse by priests and church volunteers. "They had absolute power over the people and the culture," says Cooke. "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 once tried to escape the nightmares by putting a gun to his head. His wife grabbed the gun as he pulled the trigger, the bullet whizzing past his head. But two of his brothers did take their own lives. Cheemuk wonders if they were abused too.

Cheemuk was allegedly abused by Joseph Lundowski, a volunteer who performed many of the duties of a priest. In the span of seven horrific years, Lundowski allegedly abused nearly every boy in the villages of St. Michael and neighboring Stebbins. Thirty-eight of these men, now in their late 40s and 50s, have come forward to say Lundowski abused them. Villagers believe six other alleged victims committed suicide. Ken Roosa, a lawyer in Anchorage, began taking his first Jesuit priest abuse cases in 2002. When he later ran a newspaper ad seeking information about Lundowski, calls poured in, and eventually the church volunteer, now deceased, was accused by a total of 60 victims, the majority of the Alaska abuse cases covered in the $50 million settlement.

Chase Hensel, a retired anthropologist and expert on Yupik Eskimo culture, says the lasting damage cannot be overstated. "You see the alcoholism, the severe mental problems, people in and out of jail," he says, "and you wonder, how do you put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall?" 

The Alaskan victims come from some of the poorest, most vulnerable pockets in America. Their great-grandparents faced a wave of epidemics that killed off more than half the indigenous population of western Alaska. Convinced they had been failed by the shamans and old beliefs, many turned to the missionaries. The Jesuits descended on the frontier in the late 1800s.

Only three priests covered in the 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. According to Father John Whitney, the head of the Jesuit Oregon Province, the priests are under close monitoring at a senior care facility run by the order in Spokane, Wash. Neither could be reached for comment.

Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk and Catholic priest who has served as a consultant to Roosa and other lawyers in the Alaska suits, said the Jesuits knew these missionaries were predators. These priests "had abused elsewhere," he said, "and then were unleashed in the most uncontrolled environment."

The Jesuits contend that they did not know that the priests were pedophiles. "These were the most difficult missions in the world," said Whitney, "and that is why it's quite challenging for us to reconcile that some of our heroes have now ended up named in these accusations."

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.

"He knew these kids were very vulnerable," said Wall. "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, 54. Tom says 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," says Tom. "He unbuckled my pants. I was fighting. I was crying. I told him, 'No! No!'"

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 George Endal, now deceased. The priest was also sexually abusing him, Cheemuk says.

These days Cheemuk concentrates on spending time with his wife and children, trying to heal, trying to stay sober. He still hasn't told his mother about what really happened. She is a village elder and a regular at Sunday mass. 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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