On Tuesday, September 27, Tamaki Law of Yakima, Washington, and Morales Law Office of Missoula, Montana, filed a complaint against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena (Montana) and the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province. The two law firms did so on behalf of 45 Salish, Kootenai, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Cree and Gros Ventre adults who suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse as children at Catholic-run schools in Montana. For the most part, the Native students attended St. Ignatius Mission and the Ursuline Academy, both in the town of St. Ignatius, during the 1940s through the 1970s.
The plaintiffs are demanding monetary compensation, public acknowledgment of the abuse and the creation of policies to protect children and parishioners going forward. The focus of the plaintiffs is not money, though, said attorney Blaine Tamaki: “The universal concern is exposure of the abuse.”
The case, filed in Lewis and Clark County’s Superior Court, is historic in terms of the number of plaintiffs—22—who claim abuse by nuns, as opposed to priests and other male clerics. “Until now, there have been few lawsuits concerning nun abuse,” said Tamaki, whose firm was a leader in the $166-million settlement recently reached with the Jesuits on behalf on Native people in the Northwest and Alaska. “Apparently, nuns are considered less sexually motivated than priests. There may also be a double standard at work when it’s alleged that women abuse boys, in particular. Somehow this form of abuse is taken less seriously and can therefore be more difficult for victims to bring forward.”
The 31-page complaint is a litany of claims of rape, sodomy, forced oral sex and fondling that occurred throughout the schools in question—in nuns’ and priests’ bedrooms and children’s dormitories, as well as in bell towers, choir lofts and other parts of churches, including in a confessional. Victims describe enduring multiple assaults, in some cases beginning when they were as young as five and continuing for years. Complaints by families over the decades appear to have been ignored.
In general, the youngest children seem to have been most commonly selected for abuse. “This may be a result of both the proclivities of the pedophiles in question or because younger children are easier to manipulate, both physically and psychologically,” said Judy Reel, Montana spokesperson for the national advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Reel also commended the alleged victims, saying, “I hope this lawsuit will give even more people—Native and otherwise—the courage to come forward. It’s horrendous to cope with the effects of these experiences throughout your life and very intimidating to accuse a powerful organization that had such a huge influence over you as a young person. I’m sure there are more Montanans in this situation who will be inspired to speak up.”
About a dozen alleged perpetrators are named, with a few figuring repeatedly, including Mother Loyola, mother superior of the Ursuline Academy, and Brother Rene Gallant, AKA Brother Charley, of St. Ignatius Mission School. Chances are, most or all of the perpetrators are deceased, said Vito De La Cruz, Yaqui, an attorney with Tamaki Law. However, he added, his firm can call to the stand individuals within the Ursuline and Helena Diocese organizations: “Those who are familiar with the records and existing complaints against the alleged abusers can be asked to testify.”
Diocese of Helena spokesperson Renée St. Martin Wizeman said that diocesan records were likely to be requested and those familiar with them likely to be deposed. However, she said, as far as she knew at this time, the alleged abusers were not under the supervision of the diocese, but rather the religious orders to which they belonged, so not the responsibility of Helena Diocese.
St. Martin Wizeman added that Helena Diocese has had a sexual-abuse-prevention program since 1993. It includes training for all employees and children, as well as annual audits to ensure this is taking place. Those efforts have been in line with protocols created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 “in response to the sexual abuse crisis,” she said.
Calls to the national and western-area spokespeople for the Ursuline order, now called Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union, United States Province, were not returned.
People who were supposed to be teaching children about the love of God were instead abusing them, said Reed. “By their actions, they told their Native American students, ‘As a person, you are nothing.’ Did no one in the Church at the time think this was wrong? Is Church contrite nowadays, or is it just sorry it got caught?”
Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.