Forgive You, Father
By Jimmy Tobias
March 27, 2014
Decades of abuse by the Catholic Church resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements and the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Helena, but it will take more than money to make things right for survivors.
On a wall in the St. Ignatius Mission, amid periwinkle panels and gold-colored trim, a large mural depicts a pit of fire packed to the brim with agonized faces paying for their sins. Many of those faces are Native American, their brown complexion framed by black braids, surrounded by fire and brimstone.
"When we were bad, the nuns would bring us to that picture and say, 'This is where you are going to go.' And for me, I would just have nightmares. I believed it," says SuSan Lefthand Dowdall, a member of the Kootenai tribe who attended boarding school at the St. Ignatius Mission for a year and a half as a small child. "So when the incident happened at the powwow grounds, I knew that—I hurt so bad that—you know, my starting to be in hell was starting that day."
Dowdall's hell began one early summer morning in 1963 when school was out and Arlee's annual Fourth of July powwow was about to begin. She was a petite 5-year-old with chubby cheeks and a wide smile. Her parents left her and a little sister at their grandparent's home while they partied at the powwow's beer garden. The next morning, realizing that her mom and dad had not returned, Dowdall and her sister headed to the gathering.
"Sure enough we saw our car parked right there near the beer garden, and there were a few people passed out on the ground," Dowdall says. "When we got closer, we saw our mom was passed out on this side, and my dad was on that side, and Father Robinson was on the left side of him."
Dowdall says she rustled around in her mother's purse until she found the car keys. She gave her sister some money and sent her toward the concession stands to get a snack and play stick games with the other kids. In the meantime, she says Father Edmund Robinson, a priest at St. Ignatius Mission, woke up and walked toward the beer garden to use the bathroom.
"When he got through he kind of turned and started walking and he called me. So I ran over there. I wasn't afraid of him," Dowdall says. "And he just patted my hair, told me what a nice little girl I was, a pretty girl. The next thing, he picked me up and pulled my pants and panties down, and, um, he started inserting me from behind with his fingers—like this."
Dowdall makes a rough thrusting motion with her fingers. "And the next thing, um, he just unbuttoned his pants, unzipped them, and kept me like that, and he raped me."
Dowdall's eyes turn glassy as she speaks. She is sitting in the Kwataqnuk Casino in Polson as she tells her story, pausing for the loud groups of tourists who occasionally pass through the hallway. She is whispering.
"I kept trying to get away, and I was trying to holler, and he just kept shushing me, and finally when he was done he just set me down and he told me 'pull your pants back up,'" Dowdall says, her hands stacked on top of each other, her feet crossed. "And I was running towards my mom and dad and I was pulling them up and I was so scared."
She tells how her stomach swelled up from inflammation after the rape, how bad it hurt. She says she's never been able to carry a full term pregnancy and she's had multiple miscarriages in the years since Father Robinson violated her.
After the rape, she locked herself in her parents' car. She says the priest stood outside, in plain view.
"I looked over there and he was licking his fingers and smelling his fingers," she says. "And I just laid down, and I just kept thinking, you know, am I going to get a spanking for this? What did I do? And I just knew that I was going to go to hell."
Dowdall, now 56 and married with an adopted son, was raped more than half a century ago. Silence was her go-to strategy for many years. She thought no one would believe her because the rapist was a priest. She suffered through abusive relationships and says she attempted suicide on more than one occasion.
But in 2011, Dowdall finally found the courage to come forward. With the support of her sister, who was also preyed upon by Catholic clergy, SuSan joined a class-action lawsuit against the Diocese of Helena. Earlier that year sex abuse survivors had won a massive lawsuit against the Oregon Province of Jesuits and plaintiffs attorneys were preparing to file suit against the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province as well.
These three organizations—an order of nuns, an order of priests and the local Catholic governing body—are responsible for the searing history of child rape, molestation, beating and verbal abuse that took place at the St. Ignatius Mission on the Flathead Indian Reservation for much of the 20th century.
|Photo By Cathrine L. Walters|
What happened at St. Ignatius was no anomaly. It was one stop on a twisted circuit of Catholic churches and schools across the Northwest that harbored pedophiles and enabled systematic sexual abuse of Native American children. In churches off the reservations, non-Native children were raped as well.
"We've tracked these pedophile priests and they were at St. Mary's, at Sacred Heart, at St. Paul's, at St. Ignatius and more," says Ken Bear Chief, a paralegal who helps organize Native American survivors of clergy sex abuse. "Priests like Father Ferretti, Father Duffy, Father Brown, Father Balfe, and I could name more, they were circulated around and so whenever they went to these various reservation mission schools they abused children where they were. Then they would send them to the next place and they would do the same thing again."
Bear Chief, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe, sees the network of reservation mission schools as a not-so-secret dumping ground for problem priests and child predators. The schools were rural and isolated. The Native American children were voiceless and their parents were powerless in the face of the almighty Church. He says the priests and nuns liked to target kids who came from big, broken families.
"What we see is that church officials tend to put predators into situations where they are less likely to be caught and prosecuted, where children have fewer resources, less access to law enforcement, fewer people watching," says Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "So we do see a pattern. ... Ultimately it is a great situation for a predator."
No one knows how many Kootenai and Salish children were raped at St. Ignatius. By the time the survivors of clergy sex abuse in these cases came forward, the criminal statute of limitations had long passed and many of the perpetrators were already dead. None of the Catholic clergy have been charged with a criminal offense, but all credibly accused Jesuit priests have been publicly named on the order's website. The Diocese of Helena has agreed to post a similar list and Bishop George Leo Thomas stated, "I give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser."
Though hundreds of survivors across the Northwest have come forward to take part in the lawsuits against the Jesuits, the Ursulines and the Diocese of Helena, there are many more who stay silent. The men and women who have spoken out say they only do so after a long internal struggle.
Outside Ronan, a bright white FEMA trailer blends into the thick snow that came down the previous evening. Inside, Garry "Bear" Salois and Francis "Franny" Burke Sr. sit together reminiscing, reflecting and comforting each other as they've done for decades. In slow speech, interrupted by sobs, laughs and angry outbursts, they describe their own private hell. In the 1950s and '60s they were both students at the Ursuline Academy, the boarding school at the St. Ignatius Mission.
The shame and anger, the bad dreams and lost innocence are difficult to handle, says Salois, a member of the Salish tribe. Coping mechanisms are crucial. "If you can't kind of make some sick humor to yourself you would go nuts," he says, and then he turns with a big grin to Burke. "Hello you old nun muncher!" For a moment, everyone laughs.
|SuSan Lefthand Dowdall displays a piece of her Ursuline Academy uniform as evidence of how small she was when she was raped by a priest in 1963.|
Salois is a big man with a long white beard who at 62 years old relies on a walker to get around. He says the abuse started two weeks after he arrived at school as a "cute, skinny, redheaded" 5-year-old in 1956. His tormentors were many, but Mother Loyola, a large and violent German nun who ran the boys' dorm, was one of the worst. The kids thought she was a Nazi war criminal on the lam. At night, she would come into the boys' sleeping quarters and, like a monster out of a horror flick, pluck children from their beds.
"When she would come out of her room at night, I would say this prayer: 'Oh please God, don't let it be me. Please don't let it be me.' And sure enough God never answered me one goddamn time," Salois says, his eyes closed and his lips contorted in an angry grimace.
As Salois describes what Mother Loyola made him do to her with his hands, Burke weeps quietly from the adjacent couch. "Guys got little hands, boy ...," Salois says, holding up a hand now tattooed across the knuckles with the word "LOVE." "And I'd go back to bed and pee my bed and hope to God ... You'd pray to God every time she'd open your door, 'please don't let it be me.'"
Salois' other hand is inked with the word "HATE."
Burke has a harder time describing what happened at the mission school. Though he has been one of the most outspoken plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the Catholic Church, he struggles to discuss the details of the two years he spent at the school in the late 1950s.
"It started, for me, it started with the priests over at the church. We'd have to get up at six o'clock in the morning to serve mass, you know, and we would have to go over to the big church every Sunday and it happened over there," Burke says. "People want to know the details now and that is really hard to talk about. You know, it's, I just don't feel ..."
Burke says the boys were forced to strip down naked before donning their altar boy attire, and the priest, with his pants down and an erection in plain view, would watch.
Salois describes the actions of a particularly notorious perpetrator.
"Brother Charlie was a sneaky son of a bitch. He would call you over there and he would tell you ghost stories, and he would start smoking a cigar and give you a smoke. And then that old cassock would come up and your pants would go down and old Brother Charlie would sit there ..." Salois says, making a repeated thrusting motion with his pelvis.
Burke lights a cigarette and looks at the floor.
"They were raping us and using us for their sexual, like, their playthings...," Burke says. "When you got raped, you'd think to yourself: 'Oh Jesus, this is so embarrassing, humiliating, man. It was just, I dunno, man. Suicide would come into your head and everything else, just to get out of there, you know? What could you do, you know? There was nothing you could do.'"
When Salois and Burke first opened up about their experiences with other people in the 1980s, they learned they were hardly alone. Generations of Native Americans say they were molested at St. Ignatius, and there were often multiple victims within the same family. Salois says his younger brother was raped by priests and nuns there. Burke's older sister says she was molested at the mission. Both Dowdall and her younger sister were raped. Many of Salois and Burke's closest friends and even some older relatives say they were abused. Perpetrators like Mother Loyola and Brother Rene "Charlie" Gallant served at the school for decades. It was multi-generational abuse and it went beyond sex.
Beatings, bullying and exotic punishments were standard fare. Upon arrival at the school, the first thing the nuns would do is cut off the traditional long hair of Native children. Dowdall describes being put into a tub and scrubbed down.
|Garry “Bear” Salois, Ken Bear Chief and Francis “Franny” Burke Sr., left to right, are old friends and for decades have helped each other survive the impacts of sexual abuse.|
"When you got done, they got you out, they dried you up a little bit ...and they threw this white powder and it burnt, it burnt your skin when it touched you," she says. "It was lye."
Burke likens St. Ignatius to a concentration camp.
"They just nicked up your hair, man," he says, using his fingers to imitate a haphazard haircut. "You looked like one of those Holocaust victims you see in old movies."
If the kids spoke their native languages they were called horrible names or took a brutal beating.
"Once you stepped out of line or you tried to talk your language and stuff they would just tell you that you're, they'd call you names ..." says Burke. "You guys are pigs, they'd say to us."
Salois offers another example: "Oh you dirty little savages, let us put God into you!"
Dowdall describes being stripped down naked at 5 years old and forced to stand in the rain until she was curled up shivering in a ball. She remembers being told to stand on her tiptoes with her nose against a chalkboard until she collapsed. The nuns told her she was ugly again and again and again.
Salois recalls being slapped so hard by Sister Henrietta that he fell off his chair, broke his eardrum and started bleeding.
Burke says he was whipped with the thick black beads of Mother Loyola's rosary on a regular basis.
If a child wet his bed, he was forced to stand with his arms straight out to the side like Christ on the cross while the urine-drenched sheets were draped on his shoulders to air dry.
"You got beat and then you got raped," Salois says.
Ken Bear Chief, the paralegal who has helped organize Native American abuse victims across the West, says he sees terrible intentions in the systematic abuse that happened at St. Ignatius.
"With pedophiles, it's not about sex or satisfaction," he says. "It's about power and control."
That desire for control meshed well with the broader role of the Catholic mission schools in Indian Country. Bear Chief believes the Church was part and parcel of the national effort to eradicate the heritage of western tribes that began with forced relocation and the killing of the bison in the 19th century. He says the sexual, physical and spiritual violence at St. Ignatius and other reservation schools was part of a genocide.
"Any time that you deprive any society, any race of people of their language, of their religion, of their culture and traditions, that is genocide," says Bear Chief. "The policy of the day was 'kill the Indian and save the man.' And these mission schools, they embraced this philosophy."
|Clarissa Nichols, a member of the Kootenai tribe, went to years of counseling to try to overcome her experience with sexual, physical and verbal abuse at the St. Ignatius Mission.|
In his deep-voiced, deliberate speech, Burke makes a poignant remark that perfectly captures Bear Chief's point:
"They used us for their playthings and stole our culture and everything, you know," he says. "I don't even consider myself an Indian or a white man. I have to live in this world now because ... I don't know my heritage."
The role of the Catholic mission schools in assimilating Native American children to the dominant European-American culture is well known. The U.S. government, in its zeal to conquer the West, often relied on the infrastructure of the Catholic missions to accomplish its goals.
"[The Catholic missions] are tacitly part of this broader government policy," says Aaron Hyams, a doctoral student in history at Marquette University who studies the Flathead Indian Reservation. "The government had to tolerate their presence because Catholics got out to the tribes so quickly and had such a vast infrastructure in the 19th century, especially in the case of a reservation like the Flathead."
The Catholics were in western Montana early. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and Father Adrian Hoecken established the St. Ignatius mission at its current location in 1854. De Smet came to Montana after the Salish tribe sent envoys to St. Louis in the 1830s to request the presence of "black robes" in the Bitterroot Valley.
The first school at St. Ignatius opened in 1856 and eventually evolved into the Ursuline Academy, the on-site boarding school for Salish and Kootenai boys and girls that was the site of many of the worst abuses.
In the beginning, the federal government financed the national network of mission schools, says Hyams. By the turn of the 20th century, however, federal funds dried up and mission schools like St. Ignatius turned to private donations and tribal funds in order to continue to operate.
In the end, tribes were using federal annuities to pay for the eradication of their own culture and the sexual abuse of their children at Catholic mission schools. But they didn't really have a choice.
When Burke, Dowdall and Salois were at school in St. Ignatius, a new wave of assimilationist fervor had gripped the nation. The federal government's "termination" policy sought to break up the tribes as sovereign legal entities during the 1950s and '60s.
"How [this policy] manifested itself in the schools, especially in the government schools, was a return to some of the older pushes for assimilation that took place in the early 20th century and the late 19th century," Hyams says.
One particularly prominent outcome of the termination policy was the passage of Public Law 280 in many of the states that contained Indian tribes. The law placed Indian reservations under the jurisdiction of state law and forced tribes to adhere to the mandatory schooling policies of state governments. Local Catholic mission schools were often the only, if not the best, choice for financially strained Native American families.
|Photo By Cathrine L. Walters|
"The United States was virtually requiring Indian families to send their children to these schools. It was a mandatory education process," says Blaine Tamaki, one of the lead attorneys in the case against the Ursulines and the Diocese of Helena. "These residential schools were created to 'tame the wild beasts' as the racists used to say."
Burke and Salois both recall a Kootenai-speaking truancy officer who roamed the Flathead reservation picking up kids who ran away from St. Ignatius. If parents refused to send their kids back, they faced jail time and other penalties.
"I would run away, and drag my brother along with me, and we would walk home and sit around with my grandpa and uncle and try to tell them what happened to us," Salois says. "They either didn't believe or they didn't care. I would try to tell them but it didn't work and I'd get sent back."
Salois' grandfather finally believed him and broke him out of school for good in 1958.
"When the cops and parole officers came he told them to get the hell off our property," he says. "We weren't going back."
For the survivors, the violence at St. Ignatius has had ripple effects that are impossible to quantify. Clarissa Nichols, Burke's older sister, attended the Ursuline Academy from 1957 to 1962. She says the abuse made her mean. She spent her youth fending off priests in the school's dark halls and her adulthood fending off the world with drink and distrust.
"I was afraid of people behind me. I was always watching my back, always afraid," she says. "It's like post traumatic stress disorder ... it never leaves you."
When she finally got sober in 1990, she says she cried for months as all the memories came pouring out.
Both Burke and Salois struggled with drug addiction. It started with glue and gas huffing and ended with intravenous drug use and booze.
"By 8 or 9 years old I was a little morphine addict," Salois says. "If you take drugs then you don't think about the stuff that you don't want to. Even though it is bad for you, it gives you some kind of inner happiness."
Dowdall battled low self-esteem and spent years in violently dysfunctional relationships. In 1985, she says she tried to kill herself by drinking Pine-Sol, taking pills and drinking beer. She spent weeks in the ICU at St. Patrick Hospital, but survived.
|In this mural, Michael the Archangel pins down and prepares to spear a demon as the condemned look on from hell. Ken Bear Chief says the Jesuits added Native American faces to this picture to convince the tribes that they needed Christ’s salvation.|
And then there's the nightmares.
"I am a big guy now, but in my nightmares Mother Loyola still owns me," Salois says.
And then there's the anger.
"I would probably be locked up right now if I ever got a hold of one of those people," says Burke. "I wouldn't hold nothing back. I would probably try to kill them."
Salois leans back in his chair and offers his own scenario.
"As long as they leave me alone I won't do anything to them," he says. "But a priest could come into my house today, and the first thing I'd do is smash his head through the wall. Same with a nun."
Dowdall dreams of revenge too.
"If Father Robinson came up to me today and asked me for forgiveness, I would probably kick him in the balls."
The pain, they say, carries no price.
"There's not enough money in this world," Burke says, "to pay for what they done to us."
Still, the Catholic Church has tried to pay its way out of the problem. Most of the perpetrators are dead, and the statute of limitations has long passed, but sex abuse survivors have brought numerous successful high-profile civil lawsuits against the Church in recent years. On Jan. 21, the Diocese of Helena filed for bankruptcy as it prepared to reach a $15 million settlement with more than 360 survivors of sex abuse. It has pledged to set aside another $2.5 million for survivors who come forward in the future. In 2011, the Oregon Province of Jesuits reached a $166 million settlement with more than 500 sex abuse victims across the Pacific Northwest. Of the three Catholic entities responsible for the abuses at St. Ignatius, only the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province have refused to settle with the plaintiffs. A court date is set for July in the case, though the Ursulines are trying to postpone proceedings.
Burke and Salois were both part of the Jesuit settlement and they are plaintiffs in the cases against the Diocese of Helena and the Ursulines. Though settlement amounts are confidential, Ken Bear Chief says those who suffered the most intense abuses settled with the Church "in the $400,000 range."
SuSan Dowdall, on the other hand, did not come forward early enough to take part in the Jesuit suit, though she is currently seeking damages from a $4 million fund the Jesuits set aside for future claimants. She is also participating in the suit against the diocese.
Despite the bankruptcies and the settlements, or perhaps because of them, Bear Chief believes the Church as a whole has acted callously in the course of the lawsuits.
"When you look at the way they are dealing with the survivors, there is no compassion, there is no pastoral viewpoint from the bishop and the others," he says. "It is all about dollars and cents, it is all about protecting their assets and their asses, so to speak. To me, that is merciless."
As an example, Bear Chief says that when a representative of the Jesuit order offered an apology to victims after the 2011 settlement, he traveled to Missoula rather than Polson, where many of the survivors live.
Burke and Salois both say they never received the apology letters they were promised by the Jesuit order. Burke's sister Clarissa did receive a letter, but it made her so angry she threw it away.
"After all these years and everything, after we are all damaged, after our lives are all ruined, then they send a letter?" she asks.
|The St. Ignatius Mission is set against the dramatic backdrop of the Mission Mountains. Some survivors of the Catholic Church’s abuse want to see the historic building torn down.|
Bear Chief says he would like to see the Catholic Church fund third-party counseling and behavioral health services on reservations affected by widespread abuse. He sees an obvious connection between decades-long sex abuse and the rampant addiction, alcoholism and sexual violence on reservations today.
"These are the multi-generational cycles of abuse that have been going on since these missions were established," he says. "I can tell you quite honestly that this was not who we were as Indian people before these contacts, before these conditions existed."
Dan Bartleson, a spokesman for the Diocese of Helena, could not say whether the Church would finance counseling services in the future. Nor could he confirm whether George Thomas, the bishop of the Helena Diocese, had plans to visit with sex abuse survivors on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
"As far as the settlement, if somebody wanted to seek that in the settlement, although I am unaware of that [happening], they could pursue it," he says.
Solace has come in other forms, however.
Traditional practices like sweat lodges, dances and prayer have helped Burke, Dowdall and Salois overcome some of their pain. They use their heritage to heal. Not one of them remains a Catholic.
As for the St. Ignatius Mission, that old brick building with a placard advertising its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the survivors want to see it disappear. They say promoting the St. Ignatius Mission as a historical hotspot without mentioning the sex abuse is like flaunting Auschwitz as a tourist destination without mentioning the Holocaust. They say its presence is an offense to those who survived the twisted clergy predators who lurked there.
Salois says if someone wanted to tear down the mission he'd volunteer his help for a week. Burke, who has to drive by the building nearly every day on his way to work as a supervisor in the tribal maintenance department, says he'd "buy a box of dynamite for 'em and help them blow it up."
But even if the mission disappeared, even if the bishop begged on his knees for forgiveness, even if the Catholic Church hightailed it out of town, the search for healing would not stop.
"I just can't get past it, you know ..." Burke says. "They ruined our lives, man."
Like the memory of that violent, fire-and-brimstone mural on the mission's wall, the impact of abuse is not so easily erased.