Lawsuit: Alaska Villages 'Dumping Ground' for Abusive Priests

Hundreds of Alaska natives have been abused by Jesuit priests, a suit claims.

January 21, 2009, 5:15 PM

Jan. 22, 2008— -- 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."

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.

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.

"It was a paradise for abusers," said Kenney, who is now 74 and living in Juneau.

Elsie Boudreau, who said she was abused by Father James Poole in the town of Nome in the 1970s, said the priest was like family.

"He was loved by a lot of people. He was very charismatic," she said. "I figured because he was a priest, and everybody seemed to like him, that this must be OK. I felt I was really special."

"To me," said Boudreau, who settled a separate lawsuit in connection with her allegations against Poole and now works with plaintiffs attorneys, "I thought it was love."

Poole did not return a call seeking comment. In a deposition, he admitted to "French kissing" Beaudreau, starting when she was about 13 but denied that other sexual abuse had occurred.

Kenney said the mission was an isolated place where girls were encouraged not to have much contact with one another. She said each girl was given a number on arrival, and the nuns frequently called her by her number, "Miss 14."

Kenney said she went into deep depression and stopped talking and eating. "I used to wander around with tears coming down my face, day and night," she said.

Lawsuit: Jesuits Kept 'Hell Files' on Abusive Priests

That was when she was sent to the father superior for help, she said. The abuse started soon after, she claims. Kenney, now 74, says she was 13 or 14 at the time.

The lawsuit claims Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, the head of the Jesuits in the Northwest from 1990 to 1996, had access to "hell files," church documents that contained information about Jesuit priests that was "special," "not public" and "not good."

Sundborg allegedly allowed at least one priest to serve in Alaska during that time frame, despite knowing that he had abused other children, the most recent lawsuit claims.

In a statement, Sundborg said, "The allegations brought against me are false. I firmly deny them. I want the victims and the entire community to know that."

He called the lawsuit "an unprincipled and irresponsible attack on my reputation. Let me be clear -- my commitment to justice and reconciliation for all victims remains steadfast. The sexual abuse by Catholic priests is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of our church. I will continue to work toward the goal of bringing healing to all victims."

Lee said he had never seen evidence that abusers were sent to Alaska.

"Jesuits requested to be assigned to this mission. It was seen as a very challenging place to go, but one which attracted Jesuits who had a deep desire to spread the gospel," he said in a statement.

The claims of abuse range from fondling to child rape, between the 1940s and 2001, in Nulato, Hooper Bay, Stebbins, Chevak, Mountain Village, Nunam Iqua and St. Michael.

But alleged victims like Abouchuk said the priests were known abusers.

"I want to know why they sent them out there. They could have saved a lot of lives. They could have saved our lives," said Abouchuk, who said she was abused when she was a student in the village of St. Michael in the 1970s. "But they never did. They sent them out there."

Abouchuk, now 40 and living in Washington state, claims she was abused by the local deacon beginning when she was 7 years old. The lawsuit claims that the Anton Smario, a church volunteer, abused numerous girls after catechism class.

Smario, who is one of the named defendants in the lawsuit, could not be immediately reached for comment. He was one of several priests and volunteers accused of abuse in a separate lawsuit on behalf of more than 100 alleged victims that settled in 2007 for $50 million. In a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Smario denied any sexual misconduct, although he said he had been naked in front of the girls who came to his catechism classes.

Abouchuk said Smario would ask girls to stay after class and make them sit in a circle around him and touch him. She said at least six people in the village committed suicide because of the abuse by several Jesuit priests.

"You took it all away from us," she said in a letter she wrote to Smario.

Rachel Mike, who settled a lawsuit against the church in 2006, claims that when she became pregnant from abuse by a priest, he convinced her to have an abortion and say that her father was the baby's father.

"I go to [her father's] grave sometimes and say I lied about him and I cry," she said.