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With Release of Lists of ‘Credibly Accused’ Clergy, Jesuits and Fairbanks Diocese Apologize for Decades of Abuse; Healing and Openness Must Be the Focus, Church Leaders Say

Wooden cross in foreground, large body of water and sub-Arctic mountain range in background
Cross near Teller, Alaska. Photo: David Dodman, KNOM.

On December 7, 2018, the Jesuits West Province — which includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state — released a list of priests and brothers who “have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors since 1950.”

This was the first comprehensive public document of its kind released by Jesuits West, naming more than one-hundred priests and brothers throughout the Province.

In 2009, the Diocese of Fairbanks made public a list of its own clergy members who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. They updated that document last October.

One of the priests named on both lists was James Poole, SJ, who, according to the Diocese of Fairbanks, was a priest accused of at least 19 reports of sexual abuse.

In mid-December, an investigative report from Reveal News, written in part by a former KNOM news director, Emily Schwing, was released about Poole and what happened to him after he was transferred by his superiors from Nome in 1988.

Poole spent a large portion of his life in Western Alaska as he was presiding over parishes in Holy Cross, Mountain Village, St. Mary’s, and Nome for a period of 40 years: 1948 to 1988. In 1971, he assisted in establishing KNOM Radio and, during the years that followed, was reportedly abusing numerous women and girls.

Poole died in March of 2018, yet the healing process continues for his victims, the institutions of the Jesuits West Province, the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, and KNOM Radio Mission. With the release of the alleged abuses from the past, KNOM spoke to the entities involved about how they are moving forward, along with survivors, into the future.

Since 2002, when sex abuse within the Catholic Church was widely reported on by media outlets like the Boston Globe, Director of Communications for Jesuits West Tracey Primrose says things have fundamentally changed.

A more recent grand jury report out of Pennsylvania in August of 2018 cited more than 1,000 children abused by Catholic priests within six dioceses in that state, which Primrose says was the reason why Jesuits West released their own list of credibly accused priests in December.

Fr. Santarosa, the Provincial, or head, of Jesuits West, in a video-recorded message from December of 2018, apologized for the Jesuits’ role related to sexual abuse.

“We cannot stand by and say at any level this is acceptable or we just need to pray this away. No. We need to change what is deeply wrong in our church, and we need to dig deep and say that ‘our church is sinful, and why do we still participate in this?’ It has to be something deeper than because of bishops, or because of hierarchal governance. It has to be ultimately about our faith in Jesus and our desire to express that faith in community, which is the church. But the Society of Jesus has had its part in this, and I have to say publicly that we have, and I have to also say that we are sorry. We realize the wrong, and we bring these cases to justice. And I have to receive people’s anger — I do feel like I have a responsibility to receive people’s anger.”

Primrose says there will be an external review of all Jesuits West files and members this spring by Dr. Kathleen McChesney, who was a former FBI Executive Assistant Director, now working for Kinsale Management Consulting.

The purpose of the review is to determine if there could be more names to add to the list of suspected sexual abusers within the Province. According to Primrose, sexual abuse allegations are handled in line with a Jesuit policy. That policy mandates that once Jesuits West receives an accusation they immediately report it to law enforcement and begin an investigation involving a Review Board. At this point in time, Primrose says no Jesuits currently doing ministry as part of the order have been accused of sexual abuse.

Reference: Map of accused clergy in Alaska

A disclaimer from the Jesuits West Province:

“Inclusion in this list does not imply that the claims are true and correct or that the accused individual has been found guilty of a crime or liable for civil claims. In many instances, the claims were made several years or decades after the alleged events and were not capable of an investigation and determination. Many claims were received after an accused priest was deceased. In those instances, the accused was unable to defend himself or deny the charges. The Province was unable to undertake a thorough investigation.”

Nearly ten years before the Jesuits released their list, in 2009, the Diocese of Fairbanks made public a list of its own clergy members who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. This was part of the conditions put on the Diocese during the settlement of bankruptcy, which was brought on by lawsuits regarding sexual abuse claims from nearly 300 victims.

Poole was named on that document as well, along with Anton Smario, who had 27 allegations against him from his time in St. Michael, and Joseph Lundowski, who was a Jesuit volunteer in Hooper Bay, Stebbins, and St. Michael from the 1960s to 1970s. Lundowski had 112 allegations reported against him to the Diocese. According to Primrose, who works in communications for the Jesuits, the Jesuits West Province and the Diocese of Fairbanks communicate with each other regarding sexual abuse allegations against their priests, religious, or laypersons.

Although these men and 43 others were credibly accused (46 in total), they were not convicted and did not serve jail time. The majority of those named died by the time the list was released. It is unclear exactly when the Jesuits West Province or the Diocese of Fairbanks became aware of the alleged abusive priests, but according to documents from both the Jesuits and the Diocese, these religious entities only took action by transferring the priests to other parishes.

In an incident that occurred more recently, the Diocese gives an example of how they are handling abuse now. During October of 2014, the Diocese documented a report of suspected abuse when a diocesan employee discovered explicit photos of minors on a priest’s computer. According to the Diocese, they immediately contacted law enforcement and assisted fully in the investigation. The priest was then convicted in Federal Court and is now incarcerated and in the process of being removed from his role as a priest (or what is called laicized).

With more information being uncovered and more transparency from religious institutions, currently other changes are underway when it comes to handling sexual abuse by priests (alleged or not).

The man who formerly led the Oregon Province in 2002, John D. Whitney, SJ, was reportedly the authority who moved Poole to the Cardinal Bea House near Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

Whitney wrote in a statement on December 18 that many of the credibly accused men like Poole couldn’t be arrested due to criminal statute of limitations laws in Alaska. Whitney said, “I could have simply moved to have them dismissed from the Society of Jesus, but that would have (I believe and still believe) endangered others. I think in particular Jim Poole might well have offended again, without oversight. Hence, I kept these men in the Society so that we could watch them, believing it was our responsibility.”

Whitney also mentioned that he tried to meet with survivors with the intention of expressing the Jesuits’ grief and responsibility for the abuse. Days after Whitney posted his statement, the President of Gonzaga University, Thayne McCulloh announced the resignation of two higher-ups at Gonzaga who were connected to sexually abusive Jesuits within the Province.

In the hope of encouraging healing within the region, Bishop Chad Zielinski of the Diocese of Fairbanks has spoken directly to some of the victims of these named priests in multiple Western Alaska communities.

“Obviously, this is in very confidential situations. I will never disclose people’s names, but talking to them as they tell you the horror of their story and the pain and the wound they continue to carry, there’s a sickness. And I’m a priest, I’m a bishop, I’m a shepherd. And you (I) carry this within you, and you pray for these people, and you ask them ‘what can I do to continue to bring you hope?’ And I think by responding to them in a caring and compassionate way, that lifts this burden; it starts to place a sense of trust within them. I know many priests and religious within the Diocese of Fairbanks that, on a weekly basis, will tell you that right there is the greatest vehicle, I think, of bringing hope and healing to these crimes caused by people within our ranks in the past. They will walk with these people; they will pray with them; and they will ask God to be a source of healing and strength.”

Zielinski became the Bishop in 2014 following former Bishop Don Kettler’s transfer to Minnesota. Kettler was head of the Diocese starting in 2003 when the first Alaska Clergy sexual abuse lawsuit was filed against the Diocese of Fairbanks. Kettler remained the Bishop throughout the entire bankruptcy process, which was finalized in 2010. Kettler was mandated by the court to travel within the Diocese to each parish that had been affected by abuse, lead healing services, and apologize publicly on behalf of the Church.

Bishop Zielinski continues Kettler’s outreach, because, as he puts it, the healing process is ongoing.

“And yes, I apologize for the grave sins and crimes that have been committed against innocent people when they were young, or adults, or whatever. You look at them as a human being and you can see there is tears involved and intense anguish, and you just say ‘that is not the priesthood of Jesus Christ that we are called to follow.’ And that seems to deeply resonate with them because what they have encountered — and an abuse survivor who tells her story will use these words — they have encountered the worst of the priesthood, therefore, they know what the best of the priesthood is, based upon who the person of Jesus Christ is. It’s his priesthood, and it’s us who are called to follow him, and so some of these sick things that have happened in the past are not the priesthood of Jesus Christ. I tell them that they encountered something that was wickedly evil, and that I want to be an ambassador of hope and healing, a shepherd for the Diocese that’s going to help them encounter something that is holy and sacred. And also to help them see that they are holy and sacred, because often in the conversation, an abuse survivor feels they’ve been used, that there is this dirtiness or awfulness, like this cloak around them. I can’t tell them how to feel, but I can tell them how God sees them and how I see them.”

Here is an excerpt from the Bishop’s apology message:

“During my travels as a bishop, I have publicly apologized for the grave abuses of Church personnel that have left horrible wounds in people’s souls. I also have apologized for ethnic abuse directed at our Native Alaskan brothers and sisters from priests and religious in the past. I am grateful we now understand the importance of sharing the Gospel in culturally-affirmative ways.”

To read more about the Bishop’s letter and formal apology, go to their website, dioceseoffairbanks.org.

Zielinski plans to finish traveling to Teller and Little Diomede this spring, which will complete his pastoral visits to all 46 parishes within the Diocese, but the Bishop expects delivering apology messages will never fully end. When it comes to covering all Catholic churches in the Diocese, frequent air travel is common for the approximately 20 priests who each preside over three or four parishes.

In an effort to prevent further sexual abuse by priests and religious who interact with so many rural communities, the Diocese of Fairbanks has adopted policies and trainings for all employees under the umbrella of “Safe Environment.” Bishop Zielinski explains that these changes, and others within the Catholic Church, have taken time to come to fruition.

“So I think what you see regarding the change that we have was in 2002, following the Dallas Charter, that every Bishop and every Diocese across the United States agreed to follow. That would be absolute transparency, reporting any incident that happened involving a minor or vulnerable adult, and I think we’ve done a really good job of promoting Safe Environment and will continue to accelerate that as awareness increases. And yes, that happens within the Diocese and the Church, but I think also what you see in the society in general, and the public sector, is that schools, sports organizations, scouting organizations that involve minors and vulnerable adults, have accelerated their awareness of promoting a Safe Environment. But particularly for the Diocese of Fairbanks, I believe we are very keen on promoting Safe Environment, we advertise our victim’s assistance coordinator, and her willingness to reach out to abuse survivors or, if there are any new allegations, to immediately report them to the authorities and also contact Barb Tolliver at the Diocesan office.”

The Diocese’s efforts for more transparency and healing also includes supporting a program called Pathway to Hope which has been used by Alaska Native communities in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta since 2012, to help survivors heal from abuse of all kinds. Sister Kathy Radich leads rural ministries for the Yukon Kuskokwim region.

Pathway to Hope: Healing Child Sexual Abuse was put together by Alaskans for Alaskans. It was done by Native people for Native people. The whole purpose is to educate about sexual child abuse and also to help the tribal leaders get the communities to begin talking about child abuse within their communities.”

Radich has been with the Diocese of Fairbanks for 22 years. Through this program and other trainings, Radich says the goal is to break the silence around sexual abuse. 

She says seven priests currently live in the Y-K Delta, but six of them are tasked with covering about 24 communities. None of the priests are Alaska Native, but Sister Kathy says all 18 of their rural Deacons are Alaska Native.

“There’s a process that people go through as they go through healing from abuse of any kind, and part of it is speaking out in the first place, but after that happens, there still needs to be healing that happens for the person. The Church spoke out about child sexual abuse, but there’s also a lot of abuse that happens in communities that is not connected to the Church. And until communities are ready to talk about that, it is not going to end. It’s an ongoing process, the readiness of people (victims themselves), the readiness of communities, the readiness of parishes, the readiness of leaders to talk about this. It’s a long process, and it takes time. So we continue to need to address the healing that needs to happen, and this is one path to do it.”

And that’s where Teresa Pitt Green comes in.

“Yes, I am a survivor of clergy abuse. I try not to share details about my background and experience, less I re-wound others, but what I will say is I was abused by a series of priests (when I was) between the ages of about seven until I was 19. And (then I) left home and didn’t look back for quite a long time.”

Although she hasn’t participated in Pathway to Hope, Pitt Green is trying to help others find healing through a non-profit organization called Spirit Fire, located in Northern Virginia. She identifies herself as a Catholic and a survivor of sexual abuse, who works in survivor advocacy and helps the Church provide care to survivors all over the country.

“Spirit Fire came about when I met another survivor, Louis Torres, and we synced up in an area of care for survivors in the sense that families who had also been hurt and the Church could heal, especially when developing relationships with survivors and their families. And (we) help priests and sisters and others know how to speak to survivors and families, so that we could come back together as a family.”

Pitt Green has been especially supportive of Bishop Chad Zielinski and the Dioceses’ efforts to prevent further abuse from happening in the region at the hands of the Catholic Church. Pitt Green says the Bishop approached her and the organization Spirit Fire after hearing her speech in Baltimore.

“My ministry partner, Louis Torres, and I were the two survivors of clergy abuse who spoke at the Baltimore conference of all the Catholic Bishops when they gathered just this fall (2018). And we found many many many bishops really open to our message that there was spiritual healing that had been unattended, and that greater efforts need to be made towards survivors and family members who bare that burden, if there is going to be anything done to heal the whole Church. And immediately, one of the first bishops who came forward to us was Bishop Chad Zielinski. We had never met him, he hadn’t met us, but we hit it off, we told him the kind of stuff we do, and we also shared what other bishops are doing, that bishops don’t really have a chance to hear about. And he was really keen to bring us on and help the Diocese of Fairbanks take the next step in providing spiritual care and safe havens for survivors who have been abused. And I have to say that there is something really lovely about the connection between the Diocese and the people already that really will help survivors find healing.”

Bishop Zielinski says the partnership between the two organizations has greatly benefitted the Catholic Church in Alaska:

“And they are giving me some very helpful guidelines, which I am sharing with our review board, trying to make them see that they are not just a review board to process allegations, but they are there to promote Safe Environment, first and foremost. Working with Teresa Pitt Green and Louis Torres, I think that they are helping kind of create a whole new pastoral vision based upon how Jesus Christ has called us to be a Church. He’s called us to see that every individual is created in the image and likeness of God, that every individual is sacred and holy in God’s eyes, that every individual needs to be seen as sacred and holy in the eyes of Church personnel and all of us. Every person that I look at is my brother or sister in Christ, because they are created in the image and likeness of God, and they reflect that holiness; therefore, they demand, particularly on the part of Church personnel who follow Jesus Christ as disciples and basically raise their hand, that make a vow to live this life consecrated to Jesus Christ; there’s an expectation that we live this life of holiness which places this trust between us and the people that we work with. And so, that is a sacred trust, and we have to continue to increase the awareness of this sacred trust among our own clergy, our religious, and our other Church personnel as we have regular trainings, regular discussions about Safe Environment, and so on.”

It hasn’t always been Pitt Green’s preference to partner with the Catholic Church, but in more recent years, she and her ministry partner Louis Torres decided to change that policy. She fully understands, though, why some survivors may be skeptical about seeking healing from the same Church or institution that played a role in their abuse.

“I’ve been doing this now for 17 years, and only recently have I started to partner with Dioceses, in the past two years. I get it, and if they don’t trust the Diocese, there are two things. One is, don’t come forward if you’re going to hurt yourself. Be sure to find help; if it’s not the Diocese, find help. Second, there are parts of us, many survivors, who remain restless without making some peace with the Church, maybe not the Diocese, but the Church and making some peace with God. Because often when you’ve been abused by somebody who represents the Church, somewhere deep in one’s psyche is this false lie that remains from the liar (who is the abuser) that God doesn’t love us or we aren’t deserving, or that God is dangerous. So some of what we do is help survivors make peace with that, even if they aren’t comfortable back in the Church. A number of survivors I know just can’t step back into a Church building. There are a lot of ways people stay wounded and find ways to work around those wounds to create a relationship with God, and if that isn’t within the Church, what still may be very important is making peace with the Church and hearing people say that is a lie in the psyche (that would suggest God doesn’t love that survivor). So I get it, and I guess it will be up to each person to discern if it’s safe and it’s up to the Diocese and the people we work with to earn that trust.”

Pitt Green continues by discussing how each survivor’s situation is different and may require healing through various avenues.

“Healing has a lot to do with a capacity to have relationships, the capacity to trust. These measures you can take on a day-to-day basis as you yourself come through, consciously, choices that may take years to undo the wounds, and there are people who can help that. And those wounds are also spiritual, which is why working with Bishop Chad means so much, because he gets it and the idea that there are spiritual wounds and spiritual care that can help and sustain the other healing, too. The most important thing I know in my healing is certainly coping with the psychological fallout of having been abused and all the decisions you make when you’re busy hating yourself. My experience was, I kind of picked up where the abusers left off. They taught me to hate myself when I was very young; they taught me a whole lot of lessons that were lies about who I was. So, a lot of my decisions reflected what they thought and not what God thinks. And that all of my healing, when hinged on what God thinks of me, a God who sent his son to die for my salvation, this is a life-and-death reality. A lot of people approach that as spiritual, for a lot of people it’s arms length, I don’t know what it is. But for me, it’s life and death, because it meant decision by decision, small tiny step at a time, I kept deciding between the abuser’s lie about me and God’s truth about me, and it changes life, it changes life. Therapy will help with that, it’s very good, but amplified by one’s awareness of what God wants for us is supercharging that.”

Bishop Zielinski says he is available, as well, to help survivors find healing.

“I, as the Bishop, am very open to meeting individually with survivors of abuse. If they’ve never had an opportunity to meet with a bishop or priest to talk about this, they can confidentially contact their parish priest or just call the diocesan office at 907-374-9500 and leave a message for the Bishop to contact them. Or better yet, contact the victim assistance coordinator, Barb Tolliver, at 907-374-9516 and she and I work together confidentially to respond to people’s needs.”

Even for KNOM Radio Mission, which has roots directly connected to James Poole, SJ, the healing process continues. But as KNOM’s Board of Directors expressed in a statement in late December of 2018, the Radio Mission moves forward.

“We are a Catholic institution that carries the scourge of an abusive priest in its past, but we choose not to abandon our ministry because of it. The needs for inspiration, information and positivity are as present now in our remote region as they ever have been – not to mention the profound amount of healing necessary for the families and communities of those abused. We choose to be part of the future of the Church as we all humbly contribute toward rebuilding God’s Kingdom.”

KNOM board president Tim Bodony adds:

“I am hoping that KNOM can be part of a new movement in the Catholic Church that:
— won’t leave the Church because of this. The Church is ours. The abusers, and superiors who ignored or abetted them, should leave; 
— speaks the truth with clarity;
— and demands transparency and honesty from leadership.”

There are many ways to move forward in healing. Pursuing closure through the legal system is one option, but there are others outside of the Catholic Church, as well.

For example, Behavioral Health Services through Norton Sound Health Corporation has several employees who are trained to help survivors of sexual assault. One of BHS’ clinical social workers, Spencer Cook, reiterates that it’s never too late to start the journey towards healing.

“One of the things that research has actually shown is that one of the most important things to help people process and work through trauma is the relationship between the victim and the therapist.

“So one thing that I would highly encourage to anybody who is listening is, if things just don’t feel right for whatever reason — it may be a personality conflict or they may remind you of the perpetrator — we as the mental health professionals do not take things personally if you request to see a different provider. Being comfortable and being able to share that personal story with somebody that you trust is what’s most important, so developing that relationship and sharing your story when you are ready and comfortable with your provider would be some of the most important things to think about.

“Throughout the course of my career and in other settings, I’ve worked with very young clients through elderly clients looking to try and process things, move on, and heal. It is a very personal process, particularly with sexual assault, and can be a very scary and intimidating thing. I just want to encourage people that you can heal, that you can continue on, and for those who might be apprehensive about coming to Behavioral Health for whatever reason, there is a women’s trauma group that is held at the hospital from 6 to 7pm on Thursdays. We have a couple of behavioral health providers who have teamed up with the tribal healers. It is for 18 years and older; however, youth under the age of 18 can attend with a parent or guardian, and that’s one of those ways you might be able to start to process or talk about things without having to get involved or enrolled with BHS.

“Our main line at Behavioral Health Services is 907-443-3344. They are going to ask some triage questions, but we don’t expect people to go into detail about what brings them in. Something like ‘I’ve experienced trauma’ would be sufficient. If an emergency or something happens after hours, there are some people who want to discuss things quickly after it happens or don’t know what to do, you can contact our on-call number after hours, on weekends, and on holidays at 907-443-3200 and ask to speak with a Behavioral Health consultant. They’ll get your name and phone number, and then someone from BHS will give you a call shortly thereafter.”

Anyone who “has felt victimized by a Jesuit” may contact Mary Pat Panighetti, who is the advocacy coordinator for the group, at 408-893-8398. Jesuits West also encourage people to contact both local law enforcement and child protection agencies, as appropriate.

To contact the Diocese of Fairbanks and/or report abuse by a priest or member of their clergy, call Barb Tolliver – 907-374-9516. More information is available on their website.

Additional Resources

Image at top: a cross near Teller, Alaska. Photo: David Dodman, KNOM.

Because of the sensitive nature of this story, public comments have been disabled. If you would like to contact KNOM about this story, email general manager Margaret DeMaioribus at margaret.demaioribus@knom.org or news director Davis Hovey at davis.hovey@knom.org. Additional contact options are available here.

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