Montana Catholic Church, Washington State agency face charges

These two articles were published in Indian Country Today in 2011. They were part of a project funded by the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Missoula, Montana — 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 and the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province (figures from the Helena cathedral shown here and below) . 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 acknowledgement of the abuse, the creation of policies to protect children and parishioners going forward. The focus of the plaintiffs is not money, though, said 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 attorney Blaine Tamaki, whose firm was a leaders 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 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, Yacqui, 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 RenĂ©e St. Martin Wizeman said the diocesan records were likely to be requested and those familiar with them likely to be deposed. She added that the Helena Diocese has had a sexual-abuse-prevention program in place since 1993. Its training and annual audits are intended to respond to “the sexual abuse crisis,” she said. 

Calls to the national and western-area spokepeople 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?”

Yakima, Washington — On November 22, eight members of the Yakima and Colville tribes filed a lawsuit against Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services. They allege physical, sexual and emotional abuse during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when DSHS placed them as foster children at Jesuit-run St. Mary’s School in Omak, Washington. While there, they say, they were abused by their guardian, Father John Morse, an approved DSHS foster parent, as well as by other clerics employed by the school.

Tamaki Law Firm, of Yakima, Washington, filed the civil complaint in the state’s Superior Court. Attorney Blaine Tamaki called DSHS negligent, saying, “They chose not to protect some of our state’s most vulnerable children.” The agency is the target of one additional St. Mary’s-related abuse suit.

John Wiley, DSHS spokesperson, said the department had not yet seen the complaint. “We do not normally comment on pending litigation,” he said. “When we do file a response, it will be in court.”

Morse now lives under 24-hour supervision in Jesuit House, on the campus of the Jesuits’ Gonzaga University, in Spokane. Tamaki Law investigator Ken Bear Chief, Gros Ventre/Nez Perce/Nooksak, called Morse one of the worst child abusers he’s come across in years of handling such cases and noted the priest was accused in 75-plus of the 500 cases the Jesuits recently settled for $166 million—one of the Catholic Church’s largest-ever abuse settlements.

            In the complaint, the eight former students describe years of sexual assaults and punishments by Morse and others. “To this day, I live in fear of Father Morse,” said claimant Theresa Bessette.

The mission school’s remote location—down a dirt road in a canyon surrounded by basalt cliffs—meant few restrictions on perpetrators, said Bear Chief: “The children were so isolated, and parents were either not around or discouraged from visiting.”

            “The students were wards of the state, and it should have protected them,” said Bryan Smith, a Tamaki Law attorney, who added that one claimant tried multiple times to tell a social worker about the abuse. The former students charge the state did not investigate this actual notice or so-called “constructive” notice, when a simple, commonplace question by a social worker (“do you feel safe here?”) would have revealed what was happening, according to Smith.

            The lawsuit is in the initial discovery stage, and Morse, who has denied all charges, will be deposed in January, along with a potential 100-plus additional people—victims, perpetrators and witnesses—said Smith. “Anyone who had anything to do with the school, including DSHS workers, may be called,” said Bear Chief. 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

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