BETHEL - In two separate lawsuits filed in Bethel Superior Court, 49 plaintiffs contend they were sexually abused for decades by Catholic priests and church associates in rural Western Alaska.
The lawsuits, filed by the law firm Cooke, Roosa and Valcarce, claim the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks is liable for the abuse.
Because of the sensitive nature of the allegations, the names of the victims are omitted from the lawsuit and are sealed at the courthouse.
One of the lawsuits, alleging that the late Rev. Jules Convert sexually abused and assaulted 18 young boys in the region, was filed two years ago and is awaiting a ruling on the statute of limitations by the state Supreme Court before arguments can be heard in Bethel.
"We're asking the court to deal with this suit under the statute of limitations," said Robert Groseclose, an attorney representing the Fairbanks Diocese. "By the same token, the church abhors any sexual abuse and is doing anything it can to reach out to victims."
The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, the Catholic order to which Convert belonged, originally named as defendants in the case, were dismissed from the complaint last summer.
In 2001, the Alaska Legislature removed incidents of sexual abuse from the list of offenses subject to the statute of limitations. However, when the abuse is alleged to have occurred the law gave victims only two years from the time they learned of their injuries to file suit.
Plaintiffs' lawyers contend that regardless of how the statute of limitations law is applied to the case, their clients are entitled to a trial.
"In molestation cases the injury, in most cases, is not the physical, it's the psychological implications," said attorney Jim Valcarce. "This type of abuse causes long-term psychological, spiritual and personal problems in the victims."
The incidents alleged in the Convert case occurred between 1956 and 1978. Convert was originally sent to Alaska in the 1940s.
During at least part of that timeline, Convert was the mission superior of the Jesuits in Alaska, overseeing Jesuit activities in the state.
Most of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had been altar boys between the ages of six and 17 years old, according to the complaint. Convert would invite altar boys to spend the night at his residence, tell them to sleep in his bed and molest them while they slept, according to the complaint.
In a second lawsuit, 28 plaintiffs contend that Joseph Lundowski, a former monk, sexually abused them while he was a church volunteer and possibly a deacon between 1965 and 1975.
Since the lawsuit was filed in Bethel this month, three additional Western Alaska men have joined the case, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. According to the court document filed last week, a fourth man is filing a civil lawsuit in Dillingham on related complaints.
Attorneys claim that both the Diocese of Fairbanks and the Jesuits are liable for injuries to those plaintiffs. According to church documents, Lundowski was a Trappist monk in Oregon before leaving the order some time in the 1950s. It is unclear whether he moved to Alaska to work for the church or began volunteering after moving to Bristol Bay for work in fisheries.
Lawyers for the church dispute that Lundowski was a deacon, as lawyers for the plaintiffs contend in the lawsuit.
"There are records that list Lundowski as a volunteer, but I've yet to see anything that indicates he was, in fact, given the position of deacon," said Groseclose. "I understand he may have been a candidate to become a deacon."
The lawsuit claims that although Lundowski was not a priest during the time of alleged abuse, he acted in a ministerial role under the direction of church and Jesuit officials.
The plaintiffs were between the ages of 6 and 24 when the alleged abuse occurred. The complaint outlines a pattern in which Lundowski is accused of enticing his victims with gifts and telling them if they reported the abuse, no one would believe them.
"He gave them hard candy, money he stole from the collection plate, cooked food, baked goods, beer, sacramental wine, brandy and better grades on their catechism assignments in exchange for sexual favors," the lawsuit alleges. "Joseph Lundowski told many of the boys not to tell, and also warned some of them that if they told what he was doing to them, no one would believe them because he worked for God."
Ken Roosa, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, said that some of the children tried to tell relatives what Lundowski was doing to them but were dismissed and told not to lie.
Convert was in charge of operations at the Jesuit missions where Lundowski was working as a volunteer. Lundowski's last known address was a Chicago shelter for the homeless in 1993.
Lawyers representing victims of Lundowski and Convert claim the church did little to protect children from abusive priests.
The problems of priest abuse in Western Alaska are indicative of a worldwide and centuries-old church policy of denial, said Patrick Wall, a former priest and investigator for the church.