A recent report offers details on Roman Catholic Jesuit priests, deacons, and laypeople accused of sexual abuse in dozens of communities across Alaska. Those communities include 13 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The region has a long history with the Roman Catholic Church, dating back to the late 1800s. Most of the church officials accused of abuse in the report are deceased. Jesuits West issued the recent report listing the perpetrators in December. Anchorage Daily News editor Kyle Hopkins has been following the story and talked with KYUK about his reporting on the issue.
KYUK: "Jesuits West calls these 33 church personnel 'credibly accused of sexual abuse.' Eight of them were in Bethel. Do we know why Jesuits West chose this moment to release this information?"
Hopkins: "I spoke to a spokesperson for Jesuits West, and she was relatively new to that organization, which represents churches all in a 10-state area which includes, of course, Alaska. And it's the organization that encompasses what used to be the Oregon diocese, which went bankrupt. And in that bankruptcy in Oregon, that led to a release of names of priests who had been accused, and there were a round of dioceses that went bankrupt when these civil lawsuits were filed in the mid to late 2000s after the abuse and the cover up were exposed in 2002 in Boston. In the subsequent years, you had many, many civil lawsuits that were filed, including a really big one in Alaska which involved the 300 plus people who were abused, or victims who were abused by priests. Many, many in western Alaska. And that lawsuit led to the bankruptcy of the Fairbanks diocese, and it was that lawsuit way back in 2013 that actually first revealed a lot of these names that many of us are seeing for the first time because the Jesuits then dug up those names, along with a whole slew of other names all across the West Coast, and put them all together for what might have been the first time, and then publicized that list, not in response to any kind of a legal requirement. But that effort did come after there was a really scathing report that came out of Pennsylvania that reignited interest and outrage at priest abuse all over the country."
KYUK: "What new information are we learning from this report?"
Hopkins: "Well, I think people who were part of that class action lawsuit, they would be familiar with a lot of these names. The Alaska-wide lawsuit that involved many people in Western Alaska and many priests who were deployed through Fairbanks or possibly through the Oregon diocese. So that is to say that there's names on this list that were known publicly, theoretically, or technically, but you have to know where to look for them, and you had to go find them. You had to kind of dig around on the Fairbanks diocese website. Many of them were new to me, and I went name by name to see how many of these dozens of Alaska priests had been publicly linked to or identified in the news before as potential abusers. And there were very few. There are many names that are going to be new to many people in Alaska, including Rene Astruc was the one that I included in my lead story because that was someone who was really lionized in Alaska as an advocate for Yup’ik culture and Yup'ik dance, and was heralded as a force of good in the state. But according to Jesuits West into the Fairbanks diocese, he had three credible accusations made against him by teenage girls."
KYUK: "And he served in multiple communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta."
Hopkins: "Yes. And the key is that you have these 33 priests, and also brothers and some volunteers, who were the subject of what the Jesuits call 'credible accusations,' which means that the accusations weren’t criminally investigated, but they looked at the time and place that the accusations were made. They saw that the priest was indeed in that location at that time. So when we say 'credible accusations,' it's important to note that these were not vetted by law enforcement and result in criminal charges. In many cases they couldn't be, because these are decades old allegations, but they're credible in the sense that multiple people came out and said, 'This person abused me as a as a child.'”
KYUK: "And when you said 33 priests that were accused, that's just within Alaska. There are many more priests beyond Alaska involved with Jesuits West who are also on this list."
Hopkins: "Yeah, there there are many, many more that we didn't list because they were never based in Alaska. Our most recent reporting didn't include some with the Anchorage diocese that Jesuits West did not include. Fairbanks diocese includes some names that we didn't because we had no secondary source for those accusations, and that included many brothers and volunteers. So I think it's fair to say that we listed 33 names because Jesuits West listed 33 names, but there are certainly many more people who have had accusations made against them, and their names and their behavior are the subject of ongoing investigations or research on the part of the Jesuits."
KYUK: "Kyle, you've been researching legal records. Do you think there may be more abusive priests and church personnel who were involved with sexual abuse that are undisclosed at this time?"
Hopkins: "I think there are definitely people who were accused of abuse who have never been publicly identified, at least not by the church, not in the news. I'm an Alaskan; I'm from Southeast Alaska. I grew up in a small community where there was a brother who was essentially run out of town because he abused a boy at my high school. His name [the brother] has never publicly been on any of these lists; I don't even know if anyone made a formal report. So just in my own experience I know of a credible complaint because this was my good friend who was abused. That never led to this person being outed or being publicly identified. So if it can happen in my hometown, I imagine it happened in many other hometowns where some of these cases were never kind of part of the public record and when it comes to this abuse problem."
KYUK: "Many of the allegations of abuse by church officials in Alaska occurred in rural Western Alaska communities, at least the ones that have been disclosed in this report. Do we know why so much of the abuse appears to have happened here in these rural Western Alaska communities?"
Hopkins: "I don't know for sure. One reason we may see some of those names in Western Alaska is that many of the names were made public through the Fairbanks diocese, and that's where the Fairbanks diocese operated. So it could be that in addition to Western Alaska there were many more places with many more of these priests, so it could just be a lack of disclosure of other reports of abuse. But I think it's fair to say that you had many of these priests and brothers being assigned to these communities, and then reassigned and moved around as the abuse was happening. One of our key questions in this reporting was why would that be? Why would there be, in communities where at the time there were maybe 100 people or a couple hundred people, how could there be person after person who is being accused of sexual abuse? How could they all just coincidentally end up in those areas? And the response from the church when these lawsuits were happening was that they have never admitted to using Alaska as a dumping ground for these priests. But the attorney who represented all of these successful claimants who made accusations against the church said, 'Look, that's too many people to simply be a coincidence.' And so I think that's one of the key questions moving forward, and I think where there are still really some unanswered questions is: What did the church know at the time? Why were all these guys sent to Western Alaska? And who was making the decisions to keep them there or to shuffle them around as the abuse was being learned about, at least within the institution of the church?"
KYUK: "And like you highlighted in your reporting, in these rural Western Alaska communities there's often a lack of law enforcement. There's also often a lack of health professionals who could identify abuse victims and people who can step in and intervene in these situations."
Hopkins: "That was part of the case being made by the victims, was that this was particularly egregious because it was occurring in places where there was kind of no help to be found. There was no local police, no mandatory reporters. That it was happening, and in isolation."
KYUK: "The church says it's taking steps to prevent abuse from happening. Do you think these steps appear to be adequate?"
Hopkins: "Well, I can't be a judge of what steps they're taking. I can only repeat what they told me, which is that there is now an emphasis on accountability and communication among the Jesuits who are deployed to remote Alaska communities. In other words, what they say is that they're taking steps to not only train these folks, but also to make sure that they're not operating in a vacuum without being accountable to any of their peers or their supervisors. So what the church is saying is that they've increased oversight and accountability, and basically just keeping more of an eye on people who are otherwise far removed from the power structure of the church."
KYUK: "What about the victims? One attorney in Alaska says he's already representing more than 300 victims at this time. So what are the options for survivors, for victims?"
Hopkins: "The attorney [Ken Roosa] who represented all those all those victims, one thing that he said, and that I think is important for people in Western Alaska to know, is that when the church settled these cases, they set aside some money for future victims. In other words, for victims who were not known at the time, but who were to come forward in the future. Because there was this understanding that this is a very difficult thing to talk about this thing happening to you, even though the victims are not named in the lawsuits. There are many reasons that people might not have been involved in those lawsuits the first time around. So there has been money set aside for people who come forward at a later date with accusations against the Jesuits. And so what that attorney told me is that if someone was abused by these priests and has never come forward, they can still do so. They can find an attorney, and they can still do so and possibly might be entitled to some of that settlement."
KYUK: "Kyle Hopkins is the Anchorage Daily News special projects editor. Thank you for joining us."
Hopkins: "Thank you."
Survivors of priest abuse can contact SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. They are available online and over the phone at 1-877-762-7432.