[Are you an app user? Click here to view the full-screen map of priests “credibly accused” of sexual abuse in Alaska. (Map by Ben Matheson)]
The Rev. Rene Astruc died a hero. Awarded a humanitarian prize by the governor and lionized in portraits and biographies, the French-born priest spent a lifetime celebrated as an advocate for Yup’ik culture.
What Alaskans didn’t know at the time of his death in 2002 is that Astruc also sexually abused teenage girls over three decades, according to a newly published list of 33 Jesuit priests and volunteers who face “credible claims” of crimes committed in Alaska. Created by Jesuits West, the Dec. 7 report puts names, places and dates to generations of sexual abuse inflicted by ordained priests, church volunteers and employees in 35 villages and cities across the state.
Many, like Father Astruc, worked in remote Alaska Native schools and orphanages with unfettered access to children.
While the identities of the priests and volunteers named by Jesuits West have been previously revealed in reams of bankruptcy filings and posted to obscure diocese webpages, a Daily News review of the priests found one-third have never been widely linked to the Jesuit sexual abuse scandal in Alaska. Even now, the full extent of abuse by clergy in Alaska is unknown.
“There are additional victims in Alaska that haven’t reported," said attorney Ken Roosa, who has represented more than 300 abuse victims across the state. “But can I prove that? Not until they report."
Roosa said the 2010 bankruptcy of the Diocese of Fairbanks included a settlement that set aside money for future claimants of sexual abuse. Some victims, he said, have died.
“I talked to men and women who told me they had a friend who they saw being molested, who (later) committed suicide,” Roosa said.
The Alaska abuse mushroomed in rural communities where priests worked without oversight, where there was little or no local law enforcement and no health system in place to flag signs of abuse among children, the lawsuits argued.
Father Robert Fath, director of the Office of Faith and Family Formation for the Fairbanks diocese, said the diocese now works to keep in regular contact with priests assigned to remote communities. The diocese has a “zero tolerance policy” for abuse by clergy or volunteers and in 2014 reported a priest to Alaska State Troopers, he said.
“Today we are much more aware of the necessity of staying in contact with each other to make sure these problems don’t surface, for the protection of everyone,” he said.
The abusive priests listed by Jesuits West were members of western provinces and “against whom a credible claim of sexual abuse of a minor ... or a vulnerable adult has been made,” according to the Portland-based organization. Many also appear on a separate list, mandated by the 2010 bankruptcy settlement, posted to the Fairbanks Diocese website. That list includes priests, lay employees and volunteers accused of abuse and in which the claims were found to be “admitted, proven or credibly accused."
Astruc, who served as superintendent of a Catholic boarding school in St. Marys, appears on both registers. Jesuits West says he was accused of sexual abuse of a minor, with the offenses occurring in the 1960s, 1975 and between 1982 and 1985. According to the Fairbanks diocese, three credible reports of sexual abuse were filed against him.
Roosa represented two of Astruc’s victims but would not describe the nature of the abuse. “I cannot be specific, but I can say that the allegations I am aware of involved sexual contact with teenage girls,” Roosa said.
Almost all the priests named are now dead and never faced an Alaska judge or jury on criminal charges. While some priests admitted to the abuse, many died before civil lawsuits were filed and could not be interviewed or defend themselves.
Jesuits West has hired a former FBI executive, Dr. Kathleen McChesney, to review the province’s records to determine if additional abusers should be named. “If there is someone who shouldn’t be listed or someone who should be listed, all of that will be addressed at that time," said Jesuits West spokeswoman Tracey Primrose.
The Fairbanks diocese serves a relatively small number of people but is geographically massive, stretching from Tok, near the Canadian border, to Little Diomede near the border with Russia. The diocese sought to minimize the culpability of church leaders when lawsuits and allegations of sexual abuse by Alaska-based priests first began to surface in the mid-2000s.
In 2003, when a lawsuit was filed naming the Rev. Jules Convert, accusing him of sexually abusing boys in the village of St. Marys, the Oregon Province initially said that “no allegations of misbehavior were ever reported to his religious superiors.” But under the 2010 settlement and bankruptcy plan, the diocese agreed that it would not refer to those abused by the priests as “alleged” victims and would publish an updated list of offenders online.
In addition to the Jesuits West list revealed this month, the diocese has continually published a “list of perpetrators” that now includes 338 reports of sexual abuse committed by 47 priests, deacons, brothers and laypersons. It overlaps with the Jesuits West list — both include offenders such as Convert and the Rev. James Poole of Nome, who have been the subject of documentaries and news reports for a decade or more. A recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that Alaska priests who sexually abused children enjoyed a comfortable retirement at Gonzaga University.
Other accused priests escaped public condemnation, writing memoirs and speaking on behalf of the Alaska Native communities where they preyed. Some died in Alaska, hailed by glowing obituaries.
Primrose said Jesuits West was not legally required to publish a clearinghouse of abusive priests but is doing so in an attempt to provide transparency.
“To help in the healing process for victims. For accountability. And so, honestly, parents don’t have to worry if their children are safe when they are in one of our parishes or schools or with a Jesuit,” she said.
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Many of the offender priests were assigned by the church to tiny Alaska communities, prompting accusations that remote villages here became dumping grounds for predators. Jesuit leaders have denied that the order used Alaska as a hiding place for pedophile clergy.
“Jesuits requested to be assigned to this (Alaska) mission," Father Patrick Lee, former head of the Oregon province, said in 2009. "It was seen as a very challenging place to go, but one which attracted Jesuits who had a deep desire to spread the gospel.”
In a recent phone interview, Roosa said the high number of victims and offenders in sparsely populated Alaska could hardly be coincidence.
“How do you get that many abusers together in one place by accident?" he said.