Montana reservations reportedly ‘dumping grounds’ for predatory priests. Part 4.
CLAIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE BY CATHOLIC CHURCH WORKERS HAVE EMERGED FROM ALL OVER THE STATE
Seaborn Larson. Great Falls Tribune.
DIVINE TRUST, A QUIET EXIT
Through the 1960s, Robinson bounced between reservations in eastern and western Montana, operating under two different dioceses, meanwhile allegedly molesting four different people.
After another two rounds in and out of the Flathead reservation in the ‘70s, Robinson spent three years at the Sacred Heart parish, another Indian mission on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. After a year in Oregon, Robinson then returned to Montana in 1986, located at the St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Harlem, about three miles from the Fort Belknap reservation.
In Harlem, population approximately 800, the current congregation averages 15 people. In the church basement, Robinson’s picture hangs along with every priest who’s served the parish. Near Robinson’s picture hangs a portrait of Father Sylvester Penna, another alleged predator.
“They would trust that person as a teacher, as a priest, a spiritual leader,” Ralph Schneider, parish treasurer and bookkeeper, said. “The priest of a small community has a lot of power.
“I mean, this is a place of God; there’s an automatic trust.”
Several people who attended Harlem’s church during Robinson’s two-year tenure there from 1986 to 1988 told the Tribune they did not remember him. One woman, however, did recall Robinson’s kindness.
Karolee Cronk, 78, said her husband was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease in the years Robinson was a priest in Harlem. Cronk said she didn’t have any other distinct memories of Robinson but a simple gesture he extended to the parishioner’s sick husband.
“I was sitting in the hospital with my husband, and he just came in and was so caring and kind,” she said. “My husband wasn’t even Catholic. I just appreciated that he cared enough to come, you know, in our time of need.”
She said the news of the allegations against Robinson and Penna made her “sad.” She never heard about nor suspected either of them as sexual predators.
“Truly, I never thought anything that would make me suspect there was something wrong,” she said.
During this time Robinson would not have served the Fort Belknap parishes. He instead traveled to parishes west of Harlem and away from the reservation. No accusations against Robinson have been made from this area.
Knowing of the abuse Robinson allegedly inflicted, Schneider said he’s not inclined to take Robinson’s portrait down from the wall in the church basement where parishioners sip coffee and catch up.
Sad as that is that they did that, that’s more of a historic record of the administrators of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church,” Schneider said.
Forty-some miles south, Robinson’s portrait does not hang in the St. Paul Mission Church in Hays. Today, the mission is somewhat more distinctive than most: a stained glass window depicts a Native American carrying a baby in a blanket and near the front door, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian saint, is memorialized in a painting. In the painting, she is standing above Snake Butte Mountain, a prominent landmark on the Fort Belknap reservation. And hanging from either side of the crucifix, banners read the “Our Father” prayer in Gros Ventre, the local tribe’s native language. An anonymous donor sent the banners to the church a few years ago and Kenn Cramer, the parish’s pastoral administrator, had a tribal elder verify the translation.
He said there is still anger at the Catholic Church for the sexual abuse that was known about but not often talked about. He calls it “righteous anger.”
Cramer is a former counselor, and sounds like one when he talks about the potentially spiritual wounds left after being sexually abused by a priest.
“Two of the strongest forces of spirituality is faith, which makes you feel connected to your community, and sexuality, which allows you to feel safety, acceptance, transcendence with your spouse,” he said. “You take these two powerful things and you use those as a weapon: it’s so damaging… I find it hard to find a wound that could be any deeper.”
Probably because they come from two different studies, Cramer’s understanding of how Catholicism spread through Indian communities differs from Azure’s. The Jesuits, who were venturing out and establishing Catholic missions in Indian Country, were hoping to spread the word of Christ, but later looked to assimilate them to avoid impending genocide by the U.S. government, Cramer said. The Catholics were then the non-dominate denomination in the United States, behind Protestants. The Jesuits petitioned for establishing reservations and Catholicism was established early in the newly formed Indian Country. And it was eventually the Jesuits, he said, echoing Cruz, who chose to relocate the worst of their predatory priests to the reservations.
Still, Cramer said in his tenure, he has seen a lot of respect for sacredness in and out of the church. He never locks the church doors, and nothing ever goes missing. The priest before him, Father Joseph Retzel, was well liked and grew close to the community in his 21 years there. Retzel was the last of the Jesuits to serve the St. Paul mission, and he left it on good terms, making the church today a safe and stable place for those who need it.
“People have come to me while they’re drunk or high and they want to pray — and I believe them,” he said. “I think that’s special.”
Cramer and his family left Hays in mid-July, after about two years at St. Paul. He accepted a teaching job in Phoenix, which begins this fall. He and his wife miss the strong sense of community of a bigger town. It’s ironic, because the perceived lack of community that spurred Cramer back to the city may have been the exact reason Robinson returned again and again.
In his counseling days in Denver, Cramer actually ran a Catholic psychotherapy clinic and counseled clergy members. He said the most sexually deviant priests in his office were addicted to pornography; none had sexually abused anyone. Perhaps they might have, he said, if church hadn’t begun rigorously trying to address issues early on.
“Their first response is ‘Let’s get this priest some psychological help or have him talking to someone,’” Cramer said.
Today, prevention efforts installed on and off the reservations are reviewed on an annual basis and updated every five years, Bishop Warfel said. Since the Charter for the Protection of Children was implemented following a 2002 conference in Dallas, Warfel said the Great-Falls Billings Diocese has passed every audit of the measures now in place. Much of the training and policies, such as not being allowed in a room alone with a child, mirror policies and training implemented in schools or daycares. All church employees, including the bishop, undergoes the training.
An independent review board made up of active Catholic Church members review church policy after complaints are handled. Warfel believes the board’s connection to the church doesn’t hinder its ability to be independent from the church; while attorneys in the case, including Cruz, believed a board severed from the church would add legitimacy.
On a global scale, Pope Francis has garnered praise from some, including Cruz, for pushing for more accountability among church ranks. In February, however, the Associated Press reported Francis has quietly trimmed sanctions on some sex abusers from the church at the same time.
Across the diocese, the bishop has also held healing services for victims of sexual abuse, to coax along the healing process at a community level. Warfel said he has personally spoken with victims, and believes doing so is a way to directly help on an individual level.
“I think they’ve been very positive,” Warfel said of his meetings with alleged victims. “I think that, in many ways, it’s a part of the healing process to be able to share the story with the bishop.”
But in Hays, when Cramer tried to engage in conversation about abuse by priests, it’s pushed off to the side. He said sexual abuse is a present-day issue no one seems to want to talk about, like Azure mentioned. Unlike Azure, though, Cramer had never heard of Robinson, and to him that spoke volumes about Robinson’s remembrance in the Catholic community.
In 1988, at 64 years old, Robinson left Montana reservations behind and lived in Lewiston, Idaho as a chaplain at the local hospital and served as the assistant pastor to the parish and the Catholic school. In 1993 he moved to the Regis Jesuit Community in Spokane, where several priests retired after an alleged life of abusing children, according to records collected and published online by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Robinson died on May 22, 2014 at 90 years old in the Jesuit infirmary at Gonzaga University, according to his obituary. In it, there is no mention of memories, family or his past.