In many ways, that year in Nome was a revelation. Most of the JVs lived in a new house next to the station called Luella—named after Poole’s mother, who had been KNOM’s first volunteer. I covered local legislation, corruption, and Walrus Commission meetings. Between shifts, my friends and I partied a lot in the local saloons, worried a bit that we might be damaging KNOM’s reputation. The following spring, I covered a referendum in the village of St. Mary’s, where Poole and KNOM had gotten their start. There was a sadness hanging over the village, as in Nome, which I attributed to the high rate of alcoholism. But it was also a magical place. The ice had just begun to separate on the Andreafsky River and sounded like chimes as it pulled apart. While there, I met Frances, a young Alaska Native woman who’d gone away for college but had recently come back.
“When I was sad in the city, I just stayed sad,” she said, explaining her return. “I tried throwing my sadness away, but it bounced off the big buildings and came right back. Here,” she said, waving her arm at the river and the trees, “I toss it out and it keeps going.” I was starting to feel a little like Frances, having space for my sadness to fly in a place as lovely as St. Mary’s. I was beginning to feel a little closer to the church.
While I was in St. Mary’s, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the Black Pope—the head of all Jesuits worldwide—flew in. No one had mentioned to KNOM that he was coming. I did an impromptu story and asked to interview him, but the Jesuits declined. They told me he was there to meet privately with the village elders. But I attended his Mass, where the congregation sang quiet hymns in Yup’ik. It was a beautiful and solemn ceremony. A few months later, I flew back to New York—my volunteer year over, my spirits slightly revived, my head partially cleared.
That summer, the JVC decided to pull out of KNOM. The new volunteers would be the last. Some of us worried our partying in Nome had something to do with the decision. Only much later did I learn the real reason. By then I’d returned to the church; I had children, had them baptized, and was taking them to Mass. But in 2004, when my daughter was still an infant, the news came that, for decades, Fr. Poole and some of his fellow priests had been molesting Alaska Native children. The allegations were just beginning to break that spring when I was in St. Mary’s—which now I realized probably explained Kolvenbach’s visit with the village elders. Yet by then, the church already knew of Poole’s history.
He had been banished from St. Mary’s in the 1960s for abuse and was sent to Oregon, where the abuse continued. He was then sent to Nome and eventually to Barrow, where he molested a six-year-old. He landed in Nome again, where he opened and manned the station until the 1980s, when he was run out once more and sent back to the Lower 48.
Because no one at KNOM knew about the allegations, volunteers continued playing Poole’s sermons and, using a signature machine, signing fundraising letters with his name. Not only I, but dozens of others, were made complicit in the church’s actions. I had pushed the button on Poole’s homilies and prayers, broadcasting his booming radio voice over the airwaves into the homes of his victims. I added to their pain by reminding them of him on a daily basis.
After reading news of the lawsuits brought against the Diocese of Fairbanks and the Oregon province of the Society of Jesus, I left the church for good, a decision mixed with guilt and anger. Guilt that I hadn’t dug deeper while working as a reporter in Alaska, anger over not being the slightest bit aware of something so horrific unfolding around me.
When people ask why my kids never made their First Communion, or why I don’t go to church anymore, I tell them the story of a disillusioned woman in her twenties who went to Alaska to find something besides herself, not even knowing what the word “disillusionment” could mean. I tell them about the aurora borealis and skiing on the sea ice and hearing true silence for the first time out on the snowy tundra. Then I tell them about Poole and how the diocese covered up his actions, pretending he was still an active leader at KNOM to help raise money. I tell them how Poole molested one of his previous victims while she was in Nome’s hospital recovering from a suicide attempt. I tell them the story of the woman who says Poole raped her when she was nine, even as he carried on an affair with her mother, who eventually committed suicide. The victim who said Poole’s own mother—Luella—caught him masturbating in front of young girls and did nothing to stop it. And then I say that Poole wasn’t the only one, that attorneys know of 345 cases of molestation in Alaska by twenty-eight different pedophile priests, brothers, deacons, and others associated with the church.
Sometimes their reaction is visceral. I see them cringe. I tell them I think the church should not only pay every victim of abuse, but should also be charged with racketeering for decades of lying and abetting some of the worst criminals in the country. I once covered the Mafia for my newspaper, but the church was far worse. Gangsters never pretended to be anything other than gangsters.
Poole was never criminally prosecuted because of the statute of limitations, but the church and its insurers paid more than $100 million in settlements to Alaskan victims. Until recently, he was living comfortably in Spokane, supposedly under twenty-four-hour supervision. I sometimes fantasized about knocking on his door and sucker-punching him, for all those victims. And for making us all walk away from the church we were trying so hard to be part of.
Last spring, Poole died. I’m still angry at him. I’ve tried throwing my anger out, like Frances described on the beautiful banks of the Andreafsky River. But when I do, it just keeps bouncing back.
WHY I STAY
It was somewhere in the process of explaining transubstantiation to my skeptical seven-year-old that I taught her the phrase “Go big or go home.”
I hadn’t intended to bring up transubstantiation, or religion, or anything at all—we were just trying to make it through a rare sit-down post-church brunch (we usually do more of a perching coffee and pastries), helping the two-year-old balance scrambled eggs on her spoon, when my older kid asked, pretty much out of nowhere, “The cracker and the wine…they’re not really the body and the blood of Jesus, right?”
Even though my husband attended Catholic school for five years and has sat through more theology classes than I have, I’m the actual Catholic, so I was fielding this one.
I grabbed the moment as best I could to explain that yes, well, actually, the craziness of that idea was the point. The whole idea that something could literally transform before our eyes. That we could, daily if we wanted to, eat the body and drink the blood of a two-thousand-year-old man, alongside a billion other people across the globe. She raised her magnificent eyebrows. “Okaaaaaay.”
And, I should explain—we don’t do a lot of imaginary-type stuff in our household. I know moms who carefully write notes in glitter pens from fairies that they leave in tiny backyard fairy houses. I know moms who do Elf on the Shelf. The children of these moms, I should add, are delighted by this stuff. It’s delightful. But it’s not really me.