Montana reservations reportedly ‘dumping grounds’ for predatory priests. Part 2.
CLAIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE BY CATHOLIC CHURCH WORKERS HAVE EMERGED FROM ALL OVER THE STATE
Seaborn Larson. Great Falls Tribune.
TO SAVE US FROM OURSELVES
Robinson was born in the Seattle area in 1924 and attended the Blessed Sacrament Grade School. According to obituaries, Robinson came from a deeply Catholic family. His brother, an attorney living in Seattle, was highly active in the church and a leader in the area’s 12-step self-help movement before he died in 2003. Robinson’s nephew also became a priest.
In his 20s, Robinson began his Jesuit studies in Oregon. He later graduated from Alma College in Los Gatos, California, where he was ordained. Robinson’s first assignment was an assistant pastor at the St. Paul Indian Mission in Hays, where he also was an assistant in the halls, classes and back rooms at the mission school. It would be the first of three stints he would live on the Fort Belknap Reservation, serving churches in Hays, Lodge Pole and Zortman. A profile published on a Jesuit website notes his love for reading was established either in the early days of his Jesuit studies or during the long, cold Montana winters.
Hays is a small town at the feet of the Little Rockies mountain range, an island of buttes dotting the vast expanse of the eastern Montana plains. Today, blighted homes line a single road winding through the town of about 840. The church, built by stone masons near the eastern edge of town about 80 years ago, is the tallest building in sight.
The St. Paul Mission School, populated by young Gros Ventre and Assiniboine children, had 53 boys and 48 girls enrolled when Robinson arrived in 1955. A victim included in the lawsuit said Robinson molested her the same year.
Three years later, Robinson was relocated to Port Townsend, Washington. He spent one year there at a training college for Jesuit priests, and returned to Hays in 1959. A now-adult man alleges in the lawsuit that Robinson raped him in the year he returned to the mission, while a Hays woman said he verbally, physically and sexually abused her in 1960. Robinson was again relocated, this time to the Flathead Indian Reservation 400 miles west in 1962. He is accused of raping a 5-year-old girl there in 1963.
The Great Falls-Billings Diocese lawsuit currently includes 72 victims of sexual abuse by clergy members. Of those who provided locations and dates of the alleged abuse, 40 said it happened to them on a reservation, and 21 of those say they were abused at the St. Paul mission in Hays.
Of the 21 alleged victims from St. Paul, eight men and women who have come forward said they were molested by Robinson, and often times several other church officials in the same time frame. Robinson is accused of molesting nine children across the state during his career. There could be more, as there may be other victims of any clergy who chose not to come forward.
Others accused of repeated abuse at St. Paul include Father Fred Simoneau, whose five victims claim abuse from 1955 to 1974; Brother Ryan, whose alleged abuse spans from 1955 to 1966; and Brother Clarence Moreau, who is accused of sexually molesting four children from 1959 to 1971.
Only one person has come forward to claim abuse in Wolf Point, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation further northeast. But in southeastern Montana, eleven people have claimed they were sexually abused at the St. Labre Indian Mission on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, while seven have made similar allegations from the St. Xavier Indian Mission on the Crow Indian Reservation.
Father Emmett Hoffmann is accused of molesting students at the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, but his relationship with the reservation was different than Robinson’s. Hoffmann served Northern Cheyenne reservation all through his career and was highly revered after the suit was filed against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese and after his death less than a year later.
A book commemorating Hoffmann as a powerful advocate for the Northern Cheyenne also describes his struggles with alcoholism. A Cheyenne family told the Billings Gazette they saw past his problems, though, considering his community support and substantial fundraising, which was instrumental in building a factory, dozens of homes and three churches, according to his obituary. In 1961, Hoffmann was named honorary chief of the Northern Cheyenne Council.
“Father Emmett’s humanitarian achievements on behalf of the Cheyenne stand unequaled in the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century American West,” his obituary reads.
But about 50 years after being named honorary chief, five victims who were students at the St. Labre Indian School came forward and accused Hoffmann of molesting them from 1955 to 1984.
“This is the presence of the priests in the communities,” Cruz said. “How do you stack up your chances of complaining of abuse to the same people who are sheltering abusers? How do you go against the community structures when those structures might be influenced by the Catholic Church?”
In fact, the Catholic Church was here before the reservations were established. Less than 100 years before Robinson arrived, Catholic missionaries first made their way into eastern Montana in their western route to spread the word of salvation. The mission was established in the Fort Belknap area in 1886. The U.S. government established the reservation there two years later.
Azure said the history of Catholicism on the reservation may deviate as some have passed it down orally from generation to generation, but the prevailing sentiment is that Catholics came to “help” the plains Indians find a religion congruent with the expanding white world.
“From what I know, they came to help us from ourselves,” Azure said. “I think it was another attempt to, in the church’s view, civilize a race that they viewed as uncivilized.”
They opened churches, gained membership and eventually sent children to be assimilated at boarding schools where physical and sexual abuse was reported. At a boarding school in South Dakota, Azure’s own father said he was sexually abused by priests who would give children “medicine,” that made them drowsy. Once subdued by the mixture — whether it was cough syrup or whiskey, Azure never knew — priests allegedly brought them to a basement room and sexually abused children like Azure’s father.
Azure didn’t grow up in the church, and is not religious.
“It took me probably 50 years before he said anything to me about it,” Azure said. “That’s why I think back in the day, whether it was in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, we were running away from those places.”
Robinson intermittently appeared in the St. Paul mission school three times: 1955 to 1958, 1959 to 1962 and 1966 to 1968. He is seen in school yearbooks drawing on the chalkboard in algebra class, and standing with the high school boys’ basketball team with a proud smile. In ethics class, he stands below a cross as he reads from a book at the front of the classroom. In the picture, dated 1961, a group of students sit back in their chairs, like a high school class you would see anywhere else. It’s possible — based on the timeline of claims made by victims — that one or two of the students are looking at their rapist. The next year, Robinson was relocated.
“I heard about this gentlemen, this individual,” Azure said. “There are people out here that remember. Do people know why he got moved out when he did? Not everybody did.
The people who had spoken about Robinson to Azure are older than him, and Azure believed it was unlikely anyone would speak of the abuse on the record. It’s unclear if Robinson’s alleged abuse was a shared topic between students at the school. No residents of Hays with memories of Robinson agreed to speak with the Tribune for this story.