Mark Trahant: Bringing stories of abuse in Alaska into the light

Sunrise over the village of St. Michael, Alaska. The abuse of children here by Catholic priests and other church workers impacted a generation of young people. Photo by Mark Trahant.

ST. MICHAEL, Alaska -- It’s trite to write that winter days are short this far north. And it is remarkable watching the sun skate through the sky in such a hurry to disappear. But more than the sun’s pace, it’s the angle that makes a December visit this close to the Arctic Circle so amazing. The rays from the low horizon create stark shadows, an almost frightening mix of light and dark.

These harsh shadows define, for me, the terrible abuses by Catholic church authorities that took place here and in so many other parts of Alaska. The remote locations and a network of pedophiles and other abusers made these villages ideal settings both for the crimes and later as a way to avoid prosecution. Hundreds of victims brought this tragic story to light. But in the shadows there remains this fact: Not a single person has been criminally prosecuted for their actions.

How could this happen to so many children? Why didn’t it stop? And why didn’t perpetrators go to jail?

Those questions will be answered April 19 on PBS’ Frontline in a 30-minute piece called, “The Silence.” I was the reporter on that film. It was a co-presentation with Native American Public Telecommunications. The Silence was produced by Tom Curran, who grew up Catholic and is from Alaska. He has been working on the story for nearly four years. The veteran documentary filmmaker had shot several Iditarod races and said he felt a deep connection with Native communities. “I saw this as an egregious example of the church did ... and it was a story that had to be told.”

One aspect of that story is the pedophile partnership between Father George Endal and Joseph Lundowski that began in the early 1960s. Endal, acting without the church’s authorization, named Lundowski as a “brother” and placed him in charge of a dormitory. The story should have ended there when a student caught Lundowski in a criminal sexual act. But police weren’t told and the crimes continued for many years. Indeed, some church officials suggested dismissing Lundowski in 1965.

But instead of dismissal, the two were sent to St. Michael where Lundowski’s sexual predation of children “accelerated.” Lundowski began acting as a de-facto Deacon, including administering communion and teaching catechism. That is important because many of the molestations, including rape, occurred after Mass when Lunkowski would bribe victims with candy, money, or sacramental wine.

“I was just a kid,” Ben Andrews told FRONTLINE. “Father Endal and Joseph Lundowski, they couldn’t stop molesting me once they started. It was almost an everyday thing. Father Endal kept telling me that it would make me closer to God.”

Andrews’ story is heartbreaking (more about that on FRONTLINE). He is a survivor. Indeed, the word “survivor” is used so often in the context of sexual abuse. It's always an important word because it conveys a sense of life, that somehow a young man or woman survived an unthinkable evil. But at St. Michael there is a literal definition because each of these victims are those who lived. Nearly every survivor carries in their memory the story or stories about a family member who did not survive. Too many could not live with what happened and killed themselves.

Surviving in a village is not easy even under the best of circumstances. The theme of this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention was just that, village survival. It’s an issue because there are not nearly enough jobs and far too many social ills. Yet, somehow, people survive and pass along their hope for a better day.

The one word that I carry with me from this experience is “resilient.” Andrews, and so many others, talk about forgiveness; it’s an idea that draws from the best of what it means to be a human being.

My favorite experience in St. Michael was a night of traditional songs and dances.

What else here radiates as bright as the sun? How about those moments when a community comes together as it has for several thousand years. The songs, stories and dances that made ancestors smile, still do. It’s that resilience of spirit, of a people being together, that surfaced as fast as the sunrise. You can see the dawn in people’s faces.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s new book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

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