Alaska priest abuse cases still pending in Fairbanks diocese

Catholic organization considers filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Victims of sex abuse by Alaska-based Jesuit priests have settled for $50 million in a lawsuit against a Catholic organization in Oregon, leaving the diocese in Fairbanks as the sole defendant in the case.

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The Fairbanks Catholic Diocese is facing approximately 150 unresolved clerical sexual abuse claims and is pondering several options, including reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"It's great that they settled," said Robert Hannon, special assistant to Catholic Bishop Donald Kettler, "but it doesn't change too many things for us."

Hannon said the diocese is still hoping to find a settlement and is optimistic that a Dec. 14 Anchorage court hearing will provide that opportunity.

"We're all for anything that brings resolution and healing and some sense to anybody who feels they have been harmed by Catholic clergy staff or volunteers," Hannon said.

James Niksik of St. Michael said it is more important that the church acknowledge his sexual abuse by a Catholic cleric.

"I tried telling my father when I was a kid, and he beat me," Niksik told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "He said I was lying about the people at the church. He said the church people don't do that, and he took it out on me."

Niksik, now a grant writer, is one of 110 Alaska Natives who will share the recent $50 million settlement with the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province. The province encompasses five states - Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho.

"We weren't believed as children, and it took this lawsuit for them to finally say that something did happen," said Niksik, who lives on the Bering Sea coast in western Alaska.

Peter Kobuk, also of St. Michael, also tried telling his parents, many priests and the late Bishop Michael Kaniecki about the sexual abuse by Joseph Lundowski, a brother and deacon.

"They didn't want to talk about it. They said, 'It's in the past, let it be,' but it isn't in the past for me. It hurts," said Kobuk, who travels to Anchorage for counseling paid for by the diocese.

The two men who settled with the Jesuits and Diocese out of court in 2005, are just three of the many plaintiffs in the numerous clerical sexual abuse cases.

The Rev. John Whitney said the province has incurred $22 million in settlements to date, which includes a $5 million portion of the Alaska settlement. Insurers are handling the remainder of the settlement, he said.

Whitney, whose six-year appointment has centered mostly on sexual abuse litigation, calls the Alaska cases a tragedy and said he will continue trying to bring healing to the whole church.

"Mistakes were certainly made by predecessors, but the allegation that Alaska is a dumping ground (for pedophile clergy), that simply is not true," Whitney said.

"I think we didn't screen well enough. No one went there (Alaska) who didn't request it. A large number of men served there with distinction and honor and loved the people and sought to bring the good news," he said.

Whitney said he plans to visit western Alaska in the spring to apologize in person.

But his actions come to late for some people.

Two years after her settlement, Elsie Boudreau, formerly a devout Catholic, has left the church.

"As soon as I did that, a lot of guilt washed away. It was a very freeing moment," she said. Boudreau said she now believes in "ellum yua," a Yup'ik word that means "person of the universe."

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