‘Desolate Country’: Abusive priests clustered at mission schools

Indian Country Today [Phoenix, AZ]

October 20, 2022

By Mary Annette Pember

Nearly half the Jesuit priests or brothers found to be credibly accused of sexual abuse in a 10-state region in the western United States spent time working in Indian schools and missions, according to a new database drawn from Catholic data on abuse.

The new database allows users to track how priests moved within the church and supports allegations that the church used rural tribal communities as dumping grounds for “problem priests,” according to researchers Kathleen Holscher and Jack Downey, who compiled the data.

“It helps us visualize these clusters of abuse,” said Holscher, an associate professor of religious studies and American studies at the University of New Mexico. “We created a database that let us track how each priest moved over the course of his career.”

The database, ”Desolate Country: Mapping Catholic Sex Abuse in Native America,” provides public access to records dating back to 1950 of priests and brothers in the Jesuits West Province, which includes Arizona, Alaska, California, Hawai’i, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Holscher teamed up with Downey, associate professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York, to map and analyze data that was released by the Jesuits West Province of the Society of Jesus after tens of millions of dollars were paid to more than 500 survivors of abuse. Many survivors are Indigenous.

Of the 97 priests accused of sexual misconduct who could be tracked through the system, 47 had allegations originating in Native missions, the researchers found. The 97 were among 112 Jesuit priests and brothers included on the list, but not all could be tracked.

“We realized that nearly half of the men on the list had accusations coming from reservation missions,” Holscher said.

The analysis shows that abusive priests clustered at St. Mary’s Catholic Mission School on Confederated Tribes lands in Omak, Washington. Sixteen men were included on the Jesuits’ list who worked at St. Mary’s, and at least 12 had accusations that corresponded with their time at St. Mary’s, Holscher said.

The Jesuits West Province was formed after the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus joined with the California Province in 2017. The merger came after the Oregon Province filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and settled abuse claims in 2011.

The new database, released in July after two years of work, provides a more comprehensive accounting than other databases, according to Downey and Holscher.

The Jesuit data provided an important link allowing the priests to be tracked by providing locations for each priest from ordination to death, unlike similar listings such as the ones on the Bishop Accountability.org website released for the entire U.S.

The researchers found anecdotal evidence that priests who never offended in White communities saw opportunities at Native missions.

“Some priests may have taken advantage of stereotypes about Native children as being more sexually available, as well as the lack of consequences at mission schools,” Holscher said.

Downey described a racist notion among some priests that Indigenous children were inherently sinful and promiscuous. Indeed, Downey makes reference to a Catholic movement called Jansenism, which frames certain people as incapable of receiving God’s grace.

Kate Sanchez, citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribes and former student at St. Mary’s, told ICT in an earlier interview that she noticed abusive priests targeted Native students who were placed at the mission by child welfare authorities.

“They picked on the ones whose parents weren’t involved at the school,” Sanchez said. “I think they figured that those of us in foster care were lost anyway. They seemed to know our families wouldn’t say anything.”

Sanchez, who took part in the class-action lawsuit against the Oregon Province, was placed at St. Mary’s through the 1960s and 1970s by child welfare authorities. She was abused by one of the priests on the Jesuit West list and witnessed other priests abusing classmates.

Child abuse experts say perpetrators often target children from single-family or broken homes. Children without either parent present are 10 times more likely to be abused than children who live with their biological parents, according to the Children’s Assessment Center of Houston.

The rates of child sexual abuse among Native people is hard to come by, but some researchers estimate that it could be as high on one in every two children, according to a report by Tucson Weekly.

And the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that Native people are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes than other groups.

Holscher and Downey hope to include other data sets of abusive priests in the database but have been frustrated by the lack of records among other Catholic orders. In most cases, researchers aren’t allowed to see the personnel files of priests until 50 years after they have died.

“There is an almost complete lack of records from the last decade, which is when most of the accusations from the 1960s and 1970s came out,” Holscher said.

Downey acknowledges that the database includes only a small amount of data available about sexually abusive priests, but she notes that it presents an important example of how mapping data can provide useful information for survivors, Native communities and the general public.

“This could present a means to get a sense of the scope of what happened at a particular place,” Holsher said.

The researchers hope to secure funding and expand the project. Leaders at the Jesuit West Conference did not respond to emails from ICT requesting comment.