Rural Alaska

Despite abuse allegations, a Jesuit with Alaska ties worked for a prominent Northwest university for years

In 2011, the Jesuit Order in the Northwest settled a bankruptcy case for $166 million. It’s one of the largest settlements in Catholic church history. A small fraction of that money — less than $500 every month — is going to a man who spent most of the last year behind bars at the Anchorage Correctional Center. His criminal history includes a lot of alcohol-related violence and he blames much of his record on an experience he had with a Catholic priest when he was still a child.

“I was young, I was innocent,” said the man, now 31, back in January. He wore yellow prison-issued scrubs. He alleges a Jesuit named Father Brad Reynolds, S.J., sexually abused him when he was a child. “Ever since then I’ve been a violent person,” he said. His V-neck shirt revealed a sea of tattoos: references to marijuana and other drugs, a demonic Virgin Mary, and the words “trust no bitch.” He said he got that one after a girlfriend broke his heart. Days later, he was out on bail.

Father Brad Reynolds was never officially assigned by his religious order, the Jesuits, to work in Alaska, but he visited a number of Alaska Native villages frequently. For more than 20 years, he’d come north to take photos of daily village life and write about the people here. In 1990, National Geographic published an article he wrote about life in Interior Alaska.

In 2008, that man in prison and another male relative filed a lawsuit in Bethel Superior Court. They allege Reynolds sexually abused them, when they were nine and eleven years old. The Anchorage Daily News has agreed not to identify the village where they grew up or the people in this story because of privacy concerns for survivors of sexual abuse.

The details in the lawsuit are graphic. One of the boys said Father Reynolds used a vacuum cleaner to masturbate him. It also says the priest would lure them with video games and offer them homemade oatmeal cookies in exchange for sexual acts.

But these were not the first allegations against Reynolds. Four years earlier, another Jesuit working as the parish priest in the village where the boys grew up tried to blow the whistle. Father Dave Anderson S.J., wrote a letter to Jesuit leadership back in Portland, Oregon. In the letter, Anderson said he heard from the parish administrator that Father Reynolds had taken two young men on a trip out of the village. The letter said they were all in a hot tub when Reynolds convinced the men to let him photograph them naked. The letter also alleges Reynolds took nude photos of a young Jesuit student a few years prior. And there’s a third allegation in that letter: “where Brad allowed three to four boys to take off their clothes and compete in doing pull ups.”

“He always had boys in there,” recalled the parish administrator in the village. “Young boys, some only wearing (swimming) trunks.” She agreed to talk about Father Reynolds during a visit to the village last winter. She said she warned Father Reynolds. She said he was not supposed to be alone with children. “Young kids weren’t supposed to be in (t)here without their parents,” she said, “I did tell him that, but he never listened,” she said.

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The history of the Catholic church in this part of Alaska is complicated. While the Jesuits are credited with providing education in remote communities, the crimes they committed as priests against children have made headlines for years. In this particular village alone, six credibly accused priests have celebrated Mass since 1964. All of them, including Brad Reynolds, are listed on Bishop Accountability, an online database that keeps track of abusive priests, and all of them are included on a list released in December, 2018 by Jesuits West, formerly the Oregon Province of the Jesuits. One name that is not on the Jesuits’ list, however, is Father Brad Reynolds.'

People in this village are aware of the dark history of the Catholic church, but they’re also hesitant to talk about it. “My mother’s aunties have talked about it before,” said a 25 year-old mother of three. When she’s not taking care of her kids, she works as a cashier at the local store. “But … I don’t think they wanted us to know that history,” she said. “It’s mentally and emotionally and physically traumatizing. And you just don’t want to pass those to your children,” she said.

The number of abusive Jesuit priests is more than three times higher in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest than it is anywhere else in the nation, according to a 2018 investigation from Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting. That report also shows that of the more than 90 Jesuits who are credibly accused of abuse in this region, at least 80% of them spent time in Alaska Native villages and on Indian reservations in the Northwest.

The Tribal Court administrator in the village said he believes people in his community should talk more openly about the impact of clergy sex abuse there. “The more you know about stuff like this,” he said, “the more that it’s going to be harder. It’s still gonna happen, but it’s not going to be as easy ... to do it,” he said.

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When Jesuit leadership received Father Dave Anderson’s letter about Father Reynolds in 2004, they sent Reynolds for a psychological evaluation. A report concluded that Father Reynolds “did use some bad judgement,” but “none of the mistakes constitute abuse.” The psychologist recommended short-term counseling. A year later, Reynolds was deposed as part of another sexual abuse lawsuit. A Yup’ik woman had accused the founder of Nome’s beloved radio station, KNOM, of sexual abuse. Elsie Boudreau became the first Alaska Native woman to publicly identify herself as the survivor and, with her elders’ permission, she also publicly identified her abuser: Father James Poole, S.J. It’s arguably the most well-known clergy sex abuse case in Western Alaska. But plaintiffs lawyers in that case say they didn’t know Father Reynolds had also been accused of abuse when they deposed him, because the Jesuits hadn’t released Father Dave Anderson’s letter to them. It would be another three years before Reynolds was also sued.

The four men who allege abuse by Father Reynolds are all receiving payments that come from the Jesuit Order’s 2011 bankruptcy settlement, but none of them have said the money has actually helped them. According to an email from Jesuits West spokeswoman Tracey Primrose “no matter whether a valid defense existed … every claimant received something.” But plaintiffs’ attorneys disagree. They say every claim in that case was carefully vetted. According to U.S. code, it is a federal crime to make a false claim in a bankruptcy case.

After the lawsuit was filed against Father Reynolds in 2008, he was placed on administrative leave and investigated by the Jesuits. A JesuitsWest Spokeswoman responded to request for more information by email. “After a thorough and lengthy investigation,” she wrote, “the Review Board determined that the allegations against Fr. Reynolds were not credible.” She declined to provide further details about how the Review Board came to the conclusion, citing the Jesuit Order’s confidentiality practices.

A year after the Jesuits settled their bankruptcy case, Reynolds was assigned a high-level position at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He worked there as the Assistant Director of Mission and Ministry until the end of the 2019 school year, when he quietly disappeared from campus. The school made no announcement about his departure, despite the fact that for years, he had ministered to students and taken them on retreats. He even blessed their commencement in 2018. In response to requests for an interview, Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh wrote in an email last month that Father Reynolds has “not been active with the University for some time.”

Meanwhile, the man from jail, who alleges Father Reynolds abused him has been awaiting his settlement payment in the mail for more than a month. He’s asked for a full payout of what’s still due to him in order to cover the costs of his legal bills. He got drunk and resisted arrest a few months ago in Bethel. It was a violation of the condition of his release. He hasn’t returned phone calls in nearly two weeks.

This story was first reported for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Emily Schwing

Emily Schwing has worked as an Alaska-based reporter for nearly two decades. She has produced work for Reveal, NPR, the New York Times and others.