By RICH MAUER, NICOLE TSONG and JOEL GAY
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: February 26, 2004)
A year after breaking the silence of his sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and exposing the shameful secrets of the Archdiocese of Anchorage in a dramatic television interview, Service High School principal Pat Podvin has apparently killed himself. Anchorage police said they found his body Wednesday morning and his death appeared to be self-inflicted.
Podvin was 40 and is survived by his wife and two sons in Chugiak. His body was found in a separate townhome they own in Eagle River about 8 a.m. after a relative called police to say Podvin had missed an appointment. With their investigation still open, police declined to say how and when he died or whether he left behind a note or some other explanation of why he took his own life.
Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau said Podvin had been on medical leave since calling in from an Anchorage hospital over Christmas break and leaving the state for treatment. But he planned to return to work full time March 1 and over the past few weeks had been spending time at Service talking with staff and catching up with work, Comeau said. She most recently met with him on Feb. 17 and he seemed upbeat and happy about getting back.
"We just had a great meeting -- that's why I was just so stunned this morning," Comeau told reporters at a press conference at district headquarters Wednesday. "It's just a tragedy this has occurred."
On Feb. 6, 2003, Podvin appeared in a televised interview with Channel 2's Maria Downey and declared he had been sexually abused as an 18-year-old by Monsignor Frank Murphy, a priest who worked in parishes around Anchorage from 1960 to 1985. Podvin said he was going public because the Anchorage Archdiocese had failed to acknowledge that any local priest had sexually abused youngsters here, and he was also critical of retired Archbishop Francis Hurley, to whom he complained about Murphy in 1982 but who never personally responded afterward until after he went public.
Comeau said Wednesday that Podvin had alerted her to the interview a few hours before it aired. Describing herself as a former Catholic who is disgusted by the church's failures in the abuse scandal, she said she saluted his courage. Comeau said she periodically checked in with him over the year to gauge how he was doing personally.
"He was a good-looking man, and well regarded," she said. "He was an outstanding teacher, a very strong administrator in instruction."
Now Comeau was struggling with the personal agony of losing a bright, energetic, promising colleague of 15 years whose wife was also a district employee and whose two sons attended district schools.
At the same time, she had a high school with more than 2,500 students and staff to notify, and the sudden risk that Podvin's death could trigger other troubled people to take their own lives. Comeau and other officials -- psychologists, supervisors, security officers and others -- assembled at district headquarters. They called in about a dozen substitutes, knowing that some teachers, when they heard, would be unable to go on. They drove to the Hillside school and while students were busy during the noon lunch period, directed every teacher and staff member to attend an emergency meeting.
Comeau asked Mike Henry, the district's high school director, to report the news. As Henry spoke, Comeau heard gasps from around the theater where they had gathered. The teachers were handed a statement to read to their fifth-period classes:
"It's with deep sadness that I inform you of the death of Service High School principal Pat Podvin. Initial indications are that he may have taken his own life. As information regarding memorial services become available I will share this with you."
Comeau said she was originally reluctant to include the second sentence but was convinced by school psychologist Joan Bohmann that being honest was an essential part of healing.
Students who wanted to go home for the afternoon were given passes. Others went to the school library, which by then was staffed by grief counselors from the School District.
"A lot of people were really upset about it," said junior Jamie Huffman. "I went to the library and there were a lot of students who were really upset and crying," as were several teachers, she said.
Huffman had worked in the office and said, as did several other students, she found Podvin a likable, personable man. "The office is in really bad shape right now," she said.
Junior Elisabeth Keller described Podvin as strict and businesslike but said he made the school a better place. "He was not really a buddy-buddy kind of guy, but he was always trying to do the best thing."
Podvin, who considered himself a Catholic, died at the start of the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday marks the time for Catholics to reflect upon sins and repent, and Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz had already declared the season a time for prayer and fasting for the victims of clergy abuse.
Now, as he was about to celebrate noon Mass at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus center, Schwietz was stunned by the news of Podvin's death. He said he left a message with Podvin's parents Wednesday, offering condolences and prayers.
"It's so tragic. I just feel numb," Schwietz said. "I can't imagine what the family is going through."
Podvin's death "brings home the point ever more how deeply people are hurt by the experience of abuse as a child," the archbishop said. "It must steel our resolve to work ever harder."
David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based national director of the Survivor's Networks of those Abused by Priests, said Wednesday that no matter how much support or therapy victims receive, they struggle with feelings of inadequacy and depression.
"Whenever a survivor takes his or her own life, it just is a reminder that all the paperwork and policies and procedures and press releases don't magically end the pain," he said.
Over the past two years, Clohessy said, he has heard of a victim suicide about every six to eight weeks.
Clohessy said he has never heard of a victim regretting going public with abuse, even though it is stressful. But they can feel hopeless in the aftermath because it's so difficult to see results.
"It's hard to see the direct link often," said Clohessy, who was abused by a priest in the 1960s and 1970s. "I've got plenty of people patting me on the back for what we've done, but nobody ever said, 'I would have been molested had it not been for you.' "
Podvin grew up in Anchorage with a brother and two sisters, attending East High and St. Patrick's Parrish, where Murphy was the popular and charismatic pastor. Even after Podvin complained to Hurley about Murphy abusing him on a trip to Girdwood, Hurley allowed him to remain unsupervised until 1985, when police began a formal investigation and a deacon discovered some of Murphy's collection of gay pornography.
Since Podvin's televised interview, four other men have come forward to say Murphy abused them as youngsters, including Podvin's older brother Kent, who now lives on the East Coast.
In an interview last year, Podvin said he never saw himself as a leader in the anti-abuse movement of the church. Once he made his statement, he said, he was at peace. "It's public enough now. Other people have the oversight," he said.
Murphy, who admitted abusing Podvin to Hurley in 1982 and again in an interview with the Daily News last year, didn't return a phone message left at his retirement ranch in New Mexico.
Hurley issued a statement Wednesday through the archdiocese in which he accepted responsibility for failing Podvin.
Hurley said that in talking with Podvin after the KTUU-TV interview, he learned that Podvin "had a feeling of rejection because I had never returned to him after he had privately reported (the abuse) to me 20 years ago. It is not easy for one in his position to identify a failing of one in my position. I immediately publicly confirmed the truth of Pat's story, expressed my sorrow and apologized to him and his family."
Later, he said, he put Podvin in contact with Murphy, who wrote Podvin and asked for forgiveness.
"Pat responded immediately and forgave him. What more powerful a gesture can one make than forgiveness from the victim?" said Hurley, who recently had been trying to arrange a meeting between the two.
"One can well understand my feeling of too little, too late, which was my thought this morning when I blessed Pat's body as he was being removed from his home."