Alaska News

'Frontline' documents Catholic church's apologies for abuse

Bishop Donald Kettler, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Fairbanks, sat in a tiny meeting room in the Yup'ik village of St. Michael.

"I've come this evening just to, to hear what you'd like to tell me, or what you'd like to say to me," said Kettler, who oversees a northern and western Alaska diocese more than three times the size of Italy. A grey V-neck sweater framed his priest's collar and soft features.

"If there's something that you'd like to tell me, please, uh, you know. Do that."

About 10 villagers stared back at the Bishop in silence. A man and woman sat holding hands next to a window. Someone had closed the blinds.

Finally, a middle-aged man named Ben Andrews spoke.

"Joseph Lundowski. Father Endal ..." he began, naming the men who sexually abused him and a generation of other St. Michael children on an almost daily basis.

"I wish that those who victimized me, I wish they was here, too," said Andrews, who says his father once beat him for saying he'd been raped by a priest. Andrews clasped his hands together on the wooden table, then put his palms to his head as Kettler apologized on behalf of the church.


The moment is quiet and tense and creaking under the weight of decades of hurt in Western Alaska villages where victims suffered rampant sexual abuse by church officials.

It is hard to watch. Later this month it will be seen by nearly 3 million people.

The scene was filmed in early December and is part of a roughly 28-minute documentary that will air April 19 on the PBS series "Frontline." The show, titled "The Silence," investigates the sexual abuse by Catholic and Jesuit personnel in a region that today wrestles with alcohol abuse, suicide and domestic violence.

Through the voice of victims, the documentary tells the story of routine sexual abuse of Alaska Native children in St. Michael and other villages in the 1960s and '70s. The crime was kept secret for a generation and initially denied by the church as victims began to come forward in lawsuits in the mid-2000s.

The PBS show bookends earlier news reports on survivor's stories by following church officials back to St. Michael for a series of court-mandated meetings between Kettler, victims and their families.

The producers estimate that nearly four out of five children in St. Michael were molested by Lundowski, a church volunteer, as well as by the local priest and others affiliated with the church between 1968 and 1975.

"No bishop has ever come face to face with that," said Tom Curran, a documentary filmmaker who wrote and produced "The Silence" with reporter Mark Trahant.

Curran grew up in a strict Irish-Catholic household in Alaska, the son of a former Anchorage district attorney, he said. He read about the state's sex-abuse scandal in the Los Angeles Times in 2005 after leaving the state.

Curran couldn't stop thinking about the case. He knew he wanted to make a documentary. He didn't know the Catholic church would help.


Father George Endal and Joseph Lundowski, a former Trappist monk and Catholic volunteer recruited by Endal, spent years traveling to Western Alaska villages before arriving in St. Michael in 1968.

Lundowski, in particular, targeted Native boys as he traveled from Dillingham to Nulato to Hooper Bay, St. Michael and Stebbins. He plied the children he abused with sacramental wine and candy, money from collection plates and good grades in catechism class.

"Joseph Lundowski was a particularly terrible predator," said Robert Hannon, chancellor for the Fairbanks diocese.

"He stylized himself as a Jesuit brother, but he had never formally been trained or accepted in that role," Hannon said in a phone interview last week.

But while Lundowski was never ordained, he "assumed the role of a Catholic priest," teaching catechism, baptizing children and officiating at weddings, the Times reported.

Lundowski left the Norton Sound village in 1975 after St. Michael resident Martha Abochook caught him in the act, according to a 2004 lawsuit. The diocese removed him from Alaska, and Lundowski died in Chicago in 1996.

Endal, the Jesuit priest, was accused of knowing what Lundowski and another volunteer did and of abusing children himself.


The priest died in 1996 too. Neither man was ever charged with a crime.

In 1997 the Alaskan of the Year Committee honored Endal with a "With Great Respect Award," according to Daily News reports at the time. The honor is reserved for people who have made a "permanent imprint" in the history of state, the committee said.


In 2004, 28 men filed a lawsuit in Bethel describing the abuse and seeking monetary damages from the Catholic diocese and Jesuit Province in Oregon.

Three years later, the Jesuits agreed to pay $50 million to 110 people living in Alaska villages who said they were molested by Lundowski, Endal and a dozen other priests and volunteers.

Meantime, the claims remained against the Fairbanks diocese.

"Cases were being set for trial, and so they filed bankruptcy to shut down all the cases," attorney Ken Roosa said in a phone interview. A former prosecutor, Roosa represented the victims and appears in the "Frontline" documentary.

Hannon, the Fairbanks diocese chancellor, said church officials realized that even a few of the trials would bankrupt the diocese, which he said sought to provide a fair resolution for all the victims.


The diocese emerged from bankruptcy in early 2010 under an agreement that called for the church to pay about $9.8 million -- an unusually low figure, Roosa said -- to nearly 300 people who reported abuse. It also called for the Bishop to read a letter of apology in every affected parish.

That process, which includes the bishop's December visit to St. Michael that was filmed by "Frontline," has taken more than a year. It still isn't finished.

"That was a welcome responsibility," said Hannon, who estimated the bishop has been to about 30 parishes.

Still, Roosa said many victims aren't interested in meeting with the bishop in their villages.

"The bulk of them don't even go to these services. The bulk of them can't even stand to be in the same room as a priest," he said.


Curran wanted the Catholic Church's side of the story in his documentary but didn't know what to expect when he first phoned Fairbanks headquarters in fall of 2009.

He talked to Hannon, the diocese chancellor. He talked about his Irish-Catholic childhood and studying theology in college.

For his part, Hannon said he was encouraged by the producer's efforts to visit the village again and again and his seeming interest in filming what Hannon called the healing process as well as telling the story of past abuse.

"That coincides pretty closely with what we want to do which is heal. Reach out, inform people," he said.

Over dozens of conversations, Curran arranged to film the bishop's visit to St. Michael. There, men and women who were abused as children by Lundowski, Endal and others were given the option of attending meetings with and without cameras, the producer said.

As the Bishop's meetings with abused Alaskans continue, Kettler held a "listening session" Friday afternoon at the Anchorage Marriott Downtown.


The meeting was meant to allow Western Alaska villagers who have since moved to the state's largest city to meet with church officials and talk about the abuse.

Of the dozen people who attended, only a few identified themselves as abuse victims. Kettler offered apologies -- both for sexual abuse and for the church prohibiting children from speaking Native languages in schools or performing Native drumming or dancing.

A woman told Kettler she had tried to tell priests in the village what happened to her. But it seems like the villagers were viewed as "savages," she said, who could be hurt with impunity

"I'm glad the silence is broken," she said.


Peter "Packy" Kobuk was 12 years old when Lundowski brought him into a bedroom, locked the door and pulled the boy's pants down.


Kobuk told the Los Angeles Times in 2005 that he had to block thoughts of burning down the church as an adult. In the upcoming "Frontline" documentary, he says he still has nightmares about Lundowski having sex with him.

"(I) get up sweating, angry, feel like I could hurt somebody, but I never meaned to get angry at my children, but the anger went on my children also," Kobuk says.

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, months after Kettler's visit, Kobuk said it was good for the bishop to come and apologize. Kobuk said he apologized to Kettler too, about the lawsuit.

"I'm still a Catholic," he explained.

He's still having nightmares.


About 2.7 million people watch "Frontline" each week, according to a spokeswoman for the show. "The Silence" will premiere as the lead story on the April 19 episode followed by another short documentary.

An Alaska screening is planned for 8 p.m. April 28 at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Grill. After the screening, Curran and others will appear on a panel to talk about the documentary, said Elsie Boudreau, a victims advocate who settled her claims involving Jesuit priest James Poole in 2005.

Boudreau told church officials on Friday that they should not expect a round of apologies to cure decades-old scars from abuse. "This has been going on in the church for a very long time and there's been a lot of cover up," she said.

Boudreau also appears in the "Frontline" episode. Near the end of the documentary the Fairbanks bishop is seen delivering Mass to Andrews, Kobuk and other victims at the St. Michael church.

Only a few people showed up, the narrator says. The village church hasn't had a full-time priest in decades.

In the documentary, one by one, villagers walk to the front of the church for a blessing from Kettler.

The bishop traces a small cross on Andrews' forehead with his thumb. "Please forgive me and the church for any hurt that has come to you ..." he says.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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Read the Fairbanks Diocese letter of apology to abuse victims


Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email