“The Silence,” a Frontline investigation of church abuse in Alaska, airs on PBS on Tuesday April 19 at 9 p.m.
The tiny white plane banks, scouting out the cluster of shack-like homes below spread out on a field of snow, then lands in what is a God-forsaken stretch of Alaska, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The village of St Michael is clustered around an early 20th century wooden church, population 360 Alaskan native people, nearly all Catholics— until recent years, when nearly all have left the church.
The passenger is a journalist from Frontline, Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes who has been writing about Native Americans for years, but is ill-prepared for what he is about to hear.
In one sense, the story of sexual abuse in the Catholic church has been unfolding for years, as one country after another faces the crimes in its closet and the here-we-go-again pattern emerges. In that sense, Frontline’s visit to snowbound St. Michael is a familiar tale. But proportionally, since about half the village’s citizens still bear the scars of abuse that began in the 1970s, and because its isolation made it so vulnerable, the case is extraordinary; and because the reporter approaches it with sensitivity, it’s a classic work of TV journalism.
It is, on one level, the story of two priests and one supposed “deacon” who committed the crimes, of the 150 victims, many of whose lives have been shattered by the abuse, and of a bishop who had to slowly learn his responsibilities.
For American priests with a missionary vocation Alaska was a challenge and an opportunity. Fr. George Endal was a pioneer priest who arrived at St. Michael in 1968 after several years experience throughout the territory. (Frontline does not mention that Endal, now deceased, was a Jesuit). He brought with him Joseph Lundowski, a church volunteer, as his assistant, whom he placed in charge of the boys’ dormitory. Both led boys to their rooms, played with them sexually, told the children this would make them closer to God. When the children told their parents they were punished for accusing the priest and his “deacon.” One boy’s father was so angry he got drunk and accidentally killed the boy’s brother with his pistol. Meanwhile the priest and “deacon” moved about the villages as a law unto themselves, molesting children almost daily.
This continued until 1975 when Lundowski was caught in the act and spirited away. Endal stayed, above suspicion, but continually molesting boys and girls, nearly 80 percent of the town’s children. Other abusers were named across the state, particularly the popular radio star, Fr. James Poole (who is also a Jesuit), profiled in People magazine and considered a hip DJ, who liked to French-kiss the girls, some of whom accused him of rape.
If the story has a heroine it is Elsie Boudreau, a victim determined to bring justice to the village. She hired a lawyer and confronted the bishop, Donald Kettler, who was installed in 2002. According to Boudreau, Kettler heard her story, but “didn’t get it.” So she and the lawyer assembled dozens of victims to pour out their tales to one another, and filed a class action suit against the church. In the most heart-rending scenes the victims, many of their lives in shambles, now 40 years after the traumatic events, break into tears as they share their pain.
It takes the bishop eight years to accept responsibility. The court orders him to visit every church and every village, meet with all the victims and personally apologize to each. As the film ends Bishop Kettler, fully vested, stands at a liturgy in the ramshackle church, only a few dozen natives present for the ceremony, and tells each one as they approach in line how sorry he feels and marks each forehead with oil in the sign of the cross.
As the evidence piled up, 112 people accused Lundowski, 26 Endal, and 18 Poole. The first two are dead, Poole, in his 80s, is in a priest’s retirement home. Frontline, mercifully, does not tell us where.
Raymond A. Scroth, S.J.