Speak Your Piece: Silence No More

Finally people are listening to us. Now we can stop carrying this terrible silent burden alone within our families.

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The Silence, a film reported and narrated by my friend and colleague Mark Trahant, was tough for me to watch when it aired this week on the Public Broadcasting System’s Frontline series. 

Mark, of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, tells the story of sexual abuse of children by clergy in the isolated Alaskan native village of St. Michael.  The Frontline documentary aired ironically during holy week, on PBS and can be viewed online here.

As Trahant tells the story, beginning in 1968 and ending in 1983, a Catholic priest, George Endal, and his assistant, Deacon Joseph Lundowski, sexually abused 80 percent of the village’s children.  For years, according to victims, no one believed them when they spoke about what was happening in the village. Initially, church leaders denied any knowledge of the abuse by these men who were “revered and above suspicion.” 

When the victims’ attorney was able to build a case using internal church documents, the church finally stopped denying knowledge of the abuse. The 2009 court settlement required that Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler meet in person with victims and apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church. (He was not bishop at the time the abuse took place.) 

The meetings are featured in The Silence, and caught me emotionally off guard. I heard hoarse, ragged cries come from somewhere and realized they were coming from my own mouth. I cried not only for the victims, but also for my mom, who will be 86 next month. Although dementia has claimed much of her mind, she still speaks guardedly of the abuse she suffered at the “Sister School,” the catholic boarding school where she was raised. 

She makes ominous, veiled references, still filled with fear of retribution from the priests and sisters who ran the school. They have robbed my mother and so many others of any real peace or serenity. 

Since my mom entered the nursing home, I have been managing her modest affairs. She recently received a notice from a Jesuit organization with which she had purchased a small annuity. Since she has outlived the annuity, they wanted to know if she would like to donate the original sum, $100, to the organization or receive the money in the form of taxable income. 

My first reaction was one of rage. I thought, “My god, hasn’t this woman given you people enough already!?” Eventually, however, I decided to turn the money over to the Jesuits. I have grown exhausted with holding onto the bitterness and pain that has haunted my family. 

In watching The Silence and, to me, the disingenuous apologies by Bishop Kettler to the victims of abuse, the experience underscored the fact that now, finally people are listening to us. Now we can stop carrying this terrible silent burden alone within our families.  

Rural, isolated and disenfranchised from mainstream white America, reservation kids have been especially easy pickings for sexual predators. Attorney Ken Roosa notes that, “The odds of being abused as a little Catholic boy or girl in the Fairbanks diocese was higher than any other place in the United States that has been investigated to date.”

Other stories are surfacing in Indian Country about similar cases of clergy abuse such as South Dakota and Oregon.

Mark Trahant reports that several dozen priests and church workers are named as abusers throughout Alaska. The Silence tells this story simply, powerfully and elegantly, never losing sight of the real story of the people whose lives have been changed forever.

The first section of Trahant’s film is below:

 

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

 

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