Frontline airs documentary on clergy sex abuse in Alaska

Elsie Boudreau and Alberta Steve in St. Michael, Alaska, are part of Frontline's "The Silence." Credit: Courtesy of Frontline/WGBH

“The Silence,” a Frontline PBS documentary on sexual abuse in the village of St. Michael, Alaska, opens with scenes of one kind of silence. It is the vast silence of the snowy mountains of remote, far northern Alaska.

But the silence that is the broadcast’s real focus is of a different type. It is the silence of shame, guilt and despair that descended on this 360-person village beginning in 1968. In that year, sexual abuse that would extend to 80 percent of the children of St. Michael began. It would not end until 1983. An entire generation of St. Michael’s children were devastated by a Catholic priest, George Endal, and his assistant, Deacon Joseph Lundowski.

Though Lundowski was caught in the act of abuse and removed from St. Michael in 1975, Father Endal, “revered and above suspicion,” remained in St. Michael until 1983, continuing to molest the boys and girls of the village. When the children spoke of what was happening, no one, including their parents, would listen. The children retreated into silence.

“The odds of being abused as a little Catholic boy or little Catholic girl in that diocese (the Diocese of Fairbanks) was staggeringly high,” says attorney Ken Roosa, “higher than anyother place in the United States that has been investigated to date.” Roosa serves as an attorney for many of the victims and brought a class action suit against the Fairbanks Diocese in 2002.

When legal action was begun and victims did begin to speak, the Catholic Church initially denied knowledge of Lundowski’s abuse or any responsibility for what he had done. Attorney Roosa used internal church records to build a case which, in time, the diocese could no longer deny. The silence was broken.

Meanwhile, other victims of other priests, including “the radio priest,” Jim Poole, once profiled by People Magazine as “One of Alaska’s Hippest DJ’s,” came forward. In all, according to “The Silence,” 112 victims of Lundowski would come forward, 26 victims of Endal, while 18 victims would name Father Jim Poole. “Ultimately, several dozen priests and church workers would be named as abusers,” reports Frontline, “not just in St. Michael but in Alaska native villages across the state.” 

Certainly, the most powerful moments of the Frontline broadcast are those in which victims, now middle-aged, gather in St. Michael to tell the stories of events that as children changed their lives forever. 

Reporter Mark Trahant, a Northwest journalist who writes for Crosscut and many other publications and was for several years the editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, narrates the story. By way of introduction, Trahant notes, “As a journalist, and member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, I’ve been writing about Native Americans my whole career, but little could prepare me for what happened in St. Michael.” 

A unique part of the 2009 court settlement was a requirement that Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler travel to all the affected villages, including St. Michael, to meet in person with the victims and apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church. Frontline is able to tape these 2010 meetings of Bishop Kettler (who was not bishop at the time the abuse took place) being confronted by the victims and apologizing.  

“The Silence” has been broken. The victims themselves have broken the silence of shame and guilt by speaking through their tears. The Church has broken its silence and complicity by facing the victims and apologizing. But viewers may experience another silence. I found myself moved to silence by this broadcast, a silence of sorrow and deep sadness. 

It seems right, if ironic, that the Frontline broadcast airs during Christianity’s “Holy Week.”  As the Church tells the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, the innocent son of God,  this story from St. Michael is of another crucifixion, of a kind of death for innocent children in Alaska, suffered three and four decades ago at the hands of the church and its priests.  

One can only hope that telling the story in this straightforward and respectful way will contribute in some measure both to healing and new life.

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