15 Victims of Jesuit Priest Abuse Found on State’s Reservations As Search Continues

By Michael Moore
September 3, 2009

[bankruptcy case details]

For more than 30 years, Judy Reel kept quiet about the Catholic priest who sexually abused her in Helena in 1969.

Then, in 2002, when abuse by priests became a national disgrace, Reel started sharing her story, quietly and unseen by the public. She told friends, she told police and finally she told the church.

"I've been to Helena twice to talk to church officials," Reel said. "I haven't spoken to the bishop yet, but they know my story. They know what happened to me."

On Thursday, Reel spoke publicly about the abuse, about the shame it caused, about the debilitating damage it served on her life daily.

"This was 40 years ago, but even now, talking about it is very difficult," she said. "Just talking about it, well, I still just go to pieces."

Reel spoke as part of a news conference held on the sidewalk outside St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in downtown Missoula.

The event was organized by a Chicago-based group called SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"In part, we're here today to stand up for those who are no longer here to stand up for themselves," said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP. "But we're also here to ask people who were abused or who may have seen abuse in Jesuit churches to step forward."

The urgency is founded in a court order issued in February, when the regional order of Jesuits, called the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, filed for bankruptcy.

That province covers Jesuit churches in Montana. Since 2001, Jesuits have paid out more than $25 million to sex-abuse victims.

The bankruptcy order requires the Jesuits to seek out possible victims, but Clohessy and attorneys already representing other victims are also trying to serve notice.

"We don't have that much confidence in the church when it comes to victims," Clohessy said. "We urge the church to do that job, to let the court know about possible abuse, but we also want people to know that they can come forward on their own."

The urgency in terms of Montana comes on the heels of the discovery that two now-dead Jesuit priests - Augustine Feretti and Bernard Harris - who'd already been sued for abuse in other states spent part of their careers in Montana.

"We've already found about 15 people on the reservations here in Montana who were abused by Father Feretti," said Spokane attorney John Allison, who along with Seattle attorney Tim Kosnoff and others represent victims in the Jesuit case. "It's very difficult to find these people, and in many cases, they have no idea there's a case going on that could affect them."

Feretti, ordained in 1942 and known as Father Freddie, served in both Idaho and Washington. But he spent much of the 1950s and '60s in Montana, including time on the Flathead and Rocky Boy's Indian reservations.

"The damage done to Indian people by the church is profound," said Kosnoff, who said a meeting for victims on the Flathead will be held early in the fall. "And yet, so many people in the Indian community don't believe that anything will happen to the church. We're trying to make sure those people's voices are heard in this case."

Kosnoff and Allison said Feretti, who died in 1982, and Harris, who worked at St. Francis Xavier during an unspecified period of years, fit a pattern for abusive Jesuit priests. Harris, who was sued for alleged abuse of four Oregon siblings from 1968-1972, died in 1999.

"Often, these guys were just moved around the region, which gave them a chance to abuse other kids," Kosnoff said.

Those children were unlikely to report abuse.

"They'd been taught that priests were the voice of God," Allison said. "They weren't going to speak up about what those men did to them."

Clohessy said far too many victims never come forward, with many taking their secrets to the grave.

Reel felt that way for decades. Because no one else took responsibility for what happened to her, she shouldered the blame herself.

"I just decided this was something that was my fault and I was just ashamed," she said. "It really took others coming forward for me to see where the blame rests. But it's sad. If perpetrators and the church won't take responsibility, then victims do. And that's wrong."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at


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