Lawsuit: Alaska Villages 'Dumping Ground' for Abusive Priests

Whenever it happened, Flo Kenney said she counted the thin wooden slats in the ceiling of the father superior's spartan room at the Holy Cross Mission in Alaska's lower Yukon territory. As long as she counted the same number each time -- 123 -- she felt as is she'd be OK.

She says she never told anyone about the priest's alleged sexual abuse, which she said started when she was about 13 or 14, until years later.

"It affected my whole life. It made me unresponsive to other human beings," she said. "I don't feel like I've had a normal relationship with another human being."

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When Rena Abouchuk told her family about the things one of the Jesuit deacons in the Alaskan village of St. Michael did with the young girls, the ways he made them touch him, she said her parents told her not to say such things. "I was just a child who knew nothing but to trust my family and people who taught me about God," she said.

Kenney and Abouchuk are among a group of 43 Alaska Natives who claim in a lawsuit that the Jesuit order used remote Alaskan villages as a "dumping ground" for priests who sexually abused children, and accuse the president of Seattle University, who led the Jesuit order in the region from 1990 to 1996, of covering up some of the alleged abuse.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the latest claims are part of a larger pattern of alleged abuse over nearly 60 years by Jesuit priests in Alaska, involving at least 315 known victims, nearly all of them Native Alaskans, and nearly 30 abusers.

Lawyers Claim Pattern of Abuse of Alaska Natives

Another 60 men and women who say they were abused by Jesuits in remote parts of northern Alaska between the 1940s and 2001 are preparing another lawsuit. Attorneys say that in some villages, some of which have as few as 500 residents, they know of dozens of abuse victims.

The Jesuit Oregon Province, which covers Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Montana, has already paid out at least $50 million to settle allegations of abuse by more than 100 Alaska Natives.

The Province is reportedly considering bankruptcy to cope with the claims, though in a statement, the Rev. Patrick Lee, the head of the Province, would say only that the Province is "reviewing all options."

Jesuits Deny Hiding Problem Priests in Alaska

He denied that Alaska was a hiding spot for problem priests, however.

"The Oregon Province takes these allegations seriously and will investigate them to the fullest extent," Lee said. "The Province is committed to a just and healing course in all cases of misconduct and child abuse."

The latest lawsuit claims that Jesuit leaders sent priests with histories of abuse to remote villages, in some cases reachable by only dogsled or plane, so the abuse would not be detected.

They "made a calculated effort, initiated at the highest levels of the Society of Jesus ... to 'dump' these 'problem priests' in a location in which the priests could avoid detection and continued to sexually abuse countless Native children," the lawsuit claims.

"Imagine a situation where there's no police, no fire department, no doctors, no nurses. There's nobody except the priest," said John Manley, one of the lawyers representing the alleged victims.

Kenney said priests were considered the most respected, powerful people in the area and were rarely questioned. Children who tried to report abuse were called filthy minded, she said.

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