In the Yupik Eskimo village where Tom Cheemuk lived as a child in the 1960s, there was no running water. Homes in the tiny community of St. Michael were lit with gas lamps and generators. The town shared a single telephone. As a boy Cheemuk picked berries and gathered goose eggs on the pockmarked Alaskan tundra and fished for tomcod on the windy shores of the Bering Strait. Like most other children, he also spent many days inside the weather-beaten little Catholic church, helping the Jesuit missionaries who held such powerful sway over Eskimo life. That meant doing what you were told—even if it was wrong—and staying silent about it.
For Cheemuk, now 53, the past was buried for decades, through a lifetime of struggling with shame, anger and alcoholism. "I remember Mom asked me why there was blood on my underclothes," he said one recent frigid night in his cramped house in the Eskimo village. His sat alongside his wife, sometimes breaking into tears. "I was afraid to tell her what happened. I thought I might go to jail."
It is one of the darkest chapters of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. More than 110 children in Eskimo villages claim they were molested between 1959 and 1986, raped or assaulted by 12 priests and three church volunteers. Families and victims believe that another 22 people were sexually abused by clergy members but have since killed themselves. The Jesuit Oregon Province, which includes Alaska, has agreed to pay $50 million in damages. It is believed to be the largest settlement ever against a religious order.
Chris Cooke, a partner in an Anchorage law firm that has represented Eskimo victims, voices outrage over the staggering level of abuse by priests and church volunteers. "They had absolute power over the people and the culture," says Cooke. "They had language power. They had political power. They had racial power. They had the power to send you to hell. There was nowhere for victims to turn."
This is a culture that values emotional restraint. Especially among men, talking about pain is rare. Cheemuk once tried to escape the nightmares by putting a gun to his head. His wife grabbed the gun as he pulled the trigger, the bullet whizzing past his head. But two of his brothers did take their own lives. Cheemuk wonders if they were abused too.
Cheemuk was allegedly abused by Joseph Lundowski, a volunteer who performed many of the duties of a priest. In the span of seven horrific years, Lundowski allegedly abused nearly every boy in the villages of St. Michael and neighboring Stebbins. Thirty-eight of these men, now in their late 40s and 50s, have come forward to say Lundowski abused them. Villagers believe six other alleged victims committed suicide. Ken Roosa, a lawyer in Anchorage, began taking his first Jesuit priest abuse cases in 2002. When he later ran a newspaper ad seeking information about Lundowski, calls poured in, and eventually the church volunteer, now deceased, was accused by a total of 60 victims, the majority of the Alaska abuse cases covered in the $50 million settlement.
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