Stories of sexual abuse, healing follow screening of 'The Silence'
May 2nd, 2011 | Alex DeMarban
A film and discussion addressing Catholic sexual abuse in rural Alaska prompted an outpouring of emotion last week, with some viewers tearfully disclosing their own history of abuse and others calling for increased victim services.
Panelists included Elsie Boudreau, the first to bring a civil lawsuit against Father James Poole and a key figure in the film, The Silence. Boudreau was 10 in 1978 when the Nome priest began molesting her, the first of hundreds of assaults that continued for years, according to the film and related documents.
Noticeably absent from the screening at the Bear Tooth Theater last Thursday were officials with the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, which agreed in a 2010 out-of-court settlement to pay $10 million to almost 300 victims.
The diocese was invited to attend the Anchorage event but declined, saying it had other obligations, according to Megan Baldino, former KTUU news anchor and discussion moderator.
Many who spoke touched on their recovery and personal battles with faith. Audience member Andrew Todd said he'd been raped in St. Michael in the 1970s by Catholic volunteer Joseph Lundowski.
"When Lundowski put his mouth over my penis, I remember. I have learned to forgive the Catholic Church although Joseph Lundowski was the one who assaulted me," Todd said.
A priest from the Archdiocese of Anchorage spoke afterward, kneeling in the theater's aisle and saying to Todd and other victims, "I'm sorry to you personally."
"If priests or bishops covered it up or knew you were abused, I humbly ask for your forgiveness as a member of the Catholic Church, and I pray that you'll know how deeply and profoundly you're loved," said Father Tom Lilly.
The powerful half-hour show debuted last month on the PBS documentary program, Frontline. The story centers on St. Michael in Northwest Alaska, once home to the late Jesuit priest George Endal and his assistant, Lundowski.
The two church workers had served together in other Alaska villages before Endal requested they move to St. Michael in 1968.
Though not a deacon, Lundowski played a big role in the St. Michael church and villagers saw him as a priest, according to film background on Frontline's website.
Over the next several years, the two men molested 80 percent of the village's boys and girls, "virtually an entire generation," Anchorage attorney Ken Roosa says in the film.
Despite the often daily abuse, the priests won the trust of adults in part by acting as a bridge between the Yup'ik community and an English-speaking world of government officials, police and documents such as fishing permits needed to help make money, the web site notes.
When told of the assaults, parents didn't believe their own children.
"It was the perfect storm for molestation," Roosa said.
Church documents show the diocese was aware of the problems but dealt with the matter by transferring problem priests and workers to other locations. Both Endal and Lundowski are dead.
The show also discusses Poole, who today lives in a retirement home for Jesuits in Spokane, Wash. In court statements, he acknowledged French-kissing Native girls but denied raping them, the film notes.
Boudreau, who settled with the diocese and the Oregon Province of the Society Jesus in 2005, said Poole raped her. The film notes that several other women also said they'd been raped.
The film also addresses the class-action settlement against the Fairbanks diocese and its unusual stipulation that today's bishop, Donald Kettler, apologize personally to victims in several villages.
In the show, Kettler visits anguished survivors in St. Michael in December.
"Please forgive me and the church for any hurt that has come to you from the church," Kettler says on film, during an atonement mass in the village.
Speaking out one step
After the showing, Native and non-Native viewers lined up in a theater aisle to reveal their own history of abuse, some saying it was unrelated to the Catholic Church.
Former lieutenant governor candidate Diane Benson said she survived sexual abuse and multiple rapes growing up in Southeast Alaska.
Like a soldier suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, a child-abuse victim faces a lifetime of uncertainty because the fear of another attack never disappears.
"I'm 56 years old. I'm still recovering," Benson said.
Panelist Gretchen Schmelzer, a trauma expert with Teleos Leadership Institute in Philadelphia, said repeated abuse for a child is as traumatic as having a hurricane hit someone's house daily for years. To protect themselves, victims put up a wall. They dismantle it piece by piece, in part by talking about it.
Yup'ik natural healer Rita Blumenstein said that even today at 77, she's still angry about abuse she suffered decades ago, becoming pregnant at age 12.
"I want to tell the young people here, speak out, even if they don't believe you. No more hiding. No more secrets," she said.
Boudreau publicly thanked filmmaker and panelist Tom Curran for trusting her and for telling her story and others'. Other panelists were Alaska Native Max Dolchok, a survivor of sex abuse; Native American journalist Mark Trahant, the film's narrator and reporter; and Patrick Wall, Catholic-law attorney.
Boudreau, asked how she gathered the courage to break the silence years ago, said she relied on her heritage to overcome powerful emotional ties to the church.
"I found strength in being Yup'ik," she said. "It's something greater than all of us."