ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A recent string of lawsuits accusing Roman Catholic priests (search) of molesting children has reinforced suspicions among some critics of the church that remote Alaska was a dumping ground for problem clergy.
"I absolutely believe that church officials intentionally sent abusive priests to minor communities, transient communities, where kids may be less apt to tell and have less faith in the justice system," said David Clohessy, national director of Chicago-based Survivors Network (search) of those Abused by Priests.
Four priests who served in Alaska have been sued over the past two weeks, with the most recent case brought Thursday against the Rev. James Laudwein, a Jesuit accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl in 1980 in the Eskimo village (search) of St. Marys, some 500 miles southwest of Fairbanks.
All together, 12 priests who served in Alaska have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct. Most of the alleged abuse occurred in remote villages, and most of the alleged victims were Alaska Natives.
Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine priest and consultant for a Costa Mesa, Calif., law firm that has worked on more than 300 church abuse allegations nationwide, said rural Alaska was a prime place to send abusive priests, because of its isolation and because its cultural reverence for authority figures, such as elders and priests, meant parishioners would be less likely to speak up.
The number of priests accused is a small percentage of the 500 who served in Alaska between 1959 and 2002. But Wall said he has interviewed more than 100 Alaskans who have complained of abuse, and "I'm quite sure that by the time this runs its course, we can expect over 200 clients."
"There are whole villages we've never been able to visit that we know perpetrators were in," he said.
Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler disputed the notion of Alaska as a dumping ground.
"My reaction when I hear that is that I feel the opposite is really true," said Kettler, who has been bishop for three years. Those who work or volunteer in the diocese "come with a commitment wanting to serve the peoples of Alaska. They were not forced to come here."
Plaintiffs' attorneys said they have had a hard time obtaining church personnel records that might prove their suspicions.
The Fairbanks Diocese serves 41 parishes spread out over more than 400,000 square miles. It covers Alaska's Interior, the North Slope and the western coast.
Laudwein could not be reached for comment. There was no telephone listing for him in Portland, Ore., where he is now working in a ministry with the poor, according to the Rev. John Whitney, provincial of the Society of Jesus (search), Oregon Province.
Whitney vehemently denied Alaska is a magnet or hiding spot for problem priests.
"It's absolutely untrue," he said. "I have never seen any evidence of that. People were sent to Alaska who requested to go to the missions there. It was considered the hardest place to go, because of the remoteness and the conditions they had to work with at the time. They wanted to spread the gospel."