Montana reservations reportedly ‘dumping grounds’ for predatory priests. Part 3.
CLAIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE BY CATHOLIC CHURCH WORKERS HAVE EMERGED FROM ALL OVER THE STATE
Seaborn Larson. Great Falls Tribune.
THEY FEEL LET DOWN BY GOD
One person who did speak with several victims of predatory priests was Great Falls therapist Colleen Stivers.
Stivers, who is now retired, told the Tribune her docket of patients included children abused by parents, people dying of AIDS and people who had survived unsuccessful murder attempts. Stivers said she saw people abused by church officials “for decades,” from both on and off the reservation, although sessions with Natives were less frequent due to long driving distances.
At Stivers’ office, many victims were telling their stories in whole for the first time.
“When they try to hide the abuse from family, public or church members, they don’t get well,” Stivers said. “They continue to avoid going to church, which is often extremely important for them prior to abuse.
“They feel let down by God,” Stivers said.
In her experience, those abused by clergy were not confined to children of broken homes and impoverished status. There were also adults, including single women and even men seeking the priesthood. One of her patients, a 35-year-old man studying to be ordained, was molested by a 35-year-old male priest. But no matter the details of their background, on or off the reservation, it was typically deeply entrenched in church life, making the abuse that much harder to bear.
Over the course of reporting this story, several people raised the question as to why victims had not spoken out about their abuse earlier. Stivers said victims of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder conceal their experience for several reasons, but most often shame is what holds a victim back from sharing with their families or friends.
“The oldest patient I ever treated was 70 years old and she had been abused when she was 5,” Stivers said. “She did not seek treatment for 65 years and kept the secret all that time, because of shame.”
When victims would tell a friend or family member, they sometimes told the victim to not put the church in jeopardy. The priests or nuns would tell the victim no one would believe them anyway, Cruz said.
“What’s a child who’s eight years old going to do?” Cruz said.
The details of the abuse were brutal and violent. In limited descriptions found in court documents, victims allege their abuse included “forced fondling of breasts and genitals, anal rape, forced fellatio, digital, penile and anal penetration, vaginal penetration, sexually motivated ‘washing’ and ‘spanking’ and forced masturbation,” by priests, brothers and nuns.
Molly Howard, a Missoula attorney, has also spoken with dozens of victims, and today represents about 40 of them in the Great Falls-Billings Diocese case. Howard said she’s disturbed by the details that have come to light in the case and what’s more, she’s become intimately aware of how widespread the history of sexual abuse by church officials really is.
“Montana is just a microcosm in terms of the entire world of the Catholic Church,” Howard said. “We look at Helena and Great Falls… then you read about Ireland and England. It’s happening everywhere.”
Howard was raised Catholic, which sharpened her surprise when the widespread sexual abuse hit news outlets in the early 2000s. It also fortified her resolve to seek justice for those abused by church officials. Her firm, Datsopoulous, MacDonald and Lind, also represented victims in the Helena Diocese case, and Howard launched her own investigation in speaking with victims group, pouring through documents at Catholic colleges and records from the church itself to trace the whereabouts of accused priests during the years of alleged abuse. She was then able to corroborate this information with the stories told by survivors sitting in her office.
Howard’s footwork paired well with Cruz’s legal team, which includes canonical scholars who have traced Catholic doctrines addressing the issue of celibacy and sexual abuse of minors. These acknowledgments extend back hundreds of years, Cruz said.
What Howard found is essentially contained in the civil suit: predatory priests would either remain in small towns for years without consequence or be shuttled out after an accusation that could lead to the community’s larger understanding of the systematically-enabled abuse.
When they did depart, church officials entered official designations into the Catholic directory such as “sabbatical leave,” while Howard said oftentimes they would instead be sent to treatment facilities. Priests and brothers in Montana were sent to the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, a treatment facility in New Mexico for issues with alcoholism, substance abuse or pedophilia. Another outlet for these predatory priests was Michigan alcohol treatment center known simply as the “Guest House.”
After spending time at the treatment centers, priests would return to parishes in Montana, but this time in more rural and remote areas than before, but sometimes back to the communities they had just preyed upon, Howard said.
“I think the idea is that if they moved to a less populated area that they would have less exposure to children,” Howard said. “But I think the priest’s stature in the community is elevated in the smaller town. They come to basketball games and community events and you notice them around, so I think it had the opposite effect.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in April that the Great Falls-Billings Diocese will be the 17th U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy in the face of sexual-abuse allegations. The Diocese of Helena in 2015 listed Robinson’s name as a priest alleged of sexual abuse as part of its non-monetary terms for resolving the civil suit concluded that year. In monetary terms, the Helena Diocese settled for $20 million in the case in which 362 victims claimed sexual abuse by more than 80 church employees, including Robinson.
The lawsuits have hit several tiers of the Catholic Church. Tamaki Law, Cruz’s firm, also helped secure a $166 million settlement fund from the Oregon Province of Jesuits in a case where nearly 500 people alleged sexual abuse by priests, in Oregon, Washington and Alaska, where the church was first accused of using reservations as its dumping sites.
Many of the priests accused of abuse were shipped to Montana from the Oregon Province of Jesuits, which had histories of predatory habits on record. Cruz said the Jesuits would have been responsible for dumping their recidivist priests, like Robinson, back into Montana time and time again. The Great Falls-Billings Diocese would have been responsible for shuffling them around and sending them to treatment centers.
The Great Falls-Billings Diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late March, setting the process in motion to begin funding a settlement for victims of abuse by clergy. On the same day, Bishop Michael Warfel offered his apology to “anyone who was abused by a priest, a sister or a lay Church worker” and said those who had been “credibly accused” were no longer alive or active in the church.
Great Falls-Billings Diocese attorney Greg Hatley said the church is not legally admitting officials facilitated the abuse by settling with victims. He said by approaching each claim with intent to help the healing process, the church is taking responsibility and avoiding lengthy litigation.
“It’s acknowledgment by the diocese that certainly there are victims of sexual abuse that need to be addressed,” Hatley said. “The bishop is coming forward, has chosen this pastoral approach to focus on these individuals who otherwise would have been exposed to decades of litigation with a number of outcomes. We didn’t think that was fair to them or the diocese.”
Attorneys representing victims have all noted Warfel’s compassion for the victims during the court process. Warfel said he, like anyone else who wasn’t a victim, can’t fully understand their afflictions. It’s difficult to even quantify the pain and collateral damage, he said.
“Events take place in peoples’ life and sometimes they carry those through ’til the day they die,” Warfel said. “The scars are there and they’re always there, even after they’re healed.”