A law firm based in Yakima, Washington, has filed a 12-page legal complaint in Montana’s Eighth Judicial District Court on behalf of a Northern Cheyenne tribal member who is seeking justice for years of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a priest. This tribal member, now in her 60s, claims the abuse occurred from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s at St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana.
This in itself might not be exceptionally newsworthy in an era where headlines frequently blare abuse allegations against priests, teachers, employers and sports coaches. But this case is different; the accused priest, Fr. Emmett Hoffmann, is a legendary figure on the 444,000-acre Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, located in remote southeastern Montana.
Fr. Hoffmann arrived at St. Labre in 1954 and spent the next three decades serving the Northern Cheyenne community. In 1961, he was made an honorary chief of the Northern Cheyenne Council of 44. He was made the subject of a book, “Renegade Priest of the Northern Cheyenne.” And since 1977, the Fr. Emmett Hoffmann Scholarship awards have been available to St. Labre students pursuing post-secondary education or training.
According to attorney Vito de la Cruz of Tamaki Law, the abuse started when the victim was very young and lasted into her teens. What began as disciplinary spanking evolved into digital penetration and, eventually, into rape of a minor.
“She would try to run away from school and get into trouble each time, but she wasn’t articulating why,” de la Cruz said. “Then her father died; she blamed herself, in a twisted way. She recalls the priest telling her if she spoke about this, bad things would happen to her and her family.
“Tribal children molested in remote areas had nowhere to turn,” he explained. “When a perpetrator threatens a child with death or the death of a family member if they tell, as Hoffmann did, the secrets remain buried for years.”
Fast-forward to the present day. The victim began working on the reservation near the St. Labre School, and de la Cruz said she started to hear the name of Fr. Hoffmann, who resides near the mission school in a retirement home.
“She started having memories,” he said. “Then she ran into him and had a physical reaction to it. That started opening the floodgates even more.
“You have to look at cases like this in context,” he continued. “These things are locked up where you don’t think about them. People usually don’t do anything unless something — internally or externally — happens that unlocks the events and memories that did so much harm.”
The victim approached Tamaki Law a year ago, and the firm finally filed the legal complaint on December 28.
According to de la Cruz, not only is it difficult for sexual abuse victims to come forward in the first place, this victim comes from an isolated rural community of less than 5,000 residents. For her, it’s even more complicated.
“There definitely are layers of inhibition involving her cultural background,” he said. “In this case, the priest is such a big figure, and this is such a small, closed community. She’s very fearful. She’s very aware of the shadow Fr. Hoffmann throws, so we’re proceeding cautiously. We’ve filed the lawsuit as Jane Doe.”
Yet, despite her fear, Jane Doe did find the courage to act, thanks in part to the many similar allegations that have been publicized on a national scale.
“She gathered incredible amounts of strength by reading other accounts — the Jesuit (Catholic Church) case, for example,” de la Cruz said. “Those accounts were eye-openers. She thought, ‘If they did it, I can come forward too.’ I think it helped encourage many victims to come forward after the clergy sexual assault scandal erupted out of Boston.
“Sexual assault happens more often than you’d think,” he explained. “And when something occurs — like the scandals within the Catholic Church and the recent situation at Penn State — the victim gains the courage and the ability to come forward. The more a victim is made to feel isolated, she feels even more flawed. And she suffers in silence.”
When asked what Jane Doe hopes to gain from the legal proceedings, de la Cruz said she’s hoping for a measure of justice for herself and for others who may have suffered.
“I’ve spoken at length with her, at her own home, on her own terms,” he said. “She wants to say, ‘It’s OK to talk about this, to confront my abuser.’ And she wants to make it easier for others to come forward. She wants to show younger people that they don’t have to put up with this.”
The legal complaint states that Hoffmann was employed by the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin (OFM/CAP), the St. Labre Mission School and the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls/Billings. All are named defendants.
“We haven’t named Father Hoffmann as of yet, but we still might,” de la Cruz noted. “For now, we’re focusing on the Diocese of Great Falls/Billings and the Bishop, the entity in charge over who’s practicing in the entire geographical area of the diocese, (and ) the Capuchins, the order he belonged to.
“Contrary to popular myth, these types of incidents occur when priests are moved around when they become problems with minors,” he explained.
The complaint also demands that the Bishop and OFM/CAP publicly acknowledge the pain and suffering that the victim continues to suffer. Such a demand, according to de la Cruz, “will ensure a safer future for children entrusted to the Bishop and OFM/CAP in Montana and elsewhere.”