Priest Abusers Outed—Time Running Out to Bring More Claims

By Stephanie Woodard
Indian Country Today Media Network
July 13, 2015

Attorney Jeff Anderson and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal member and advocate Lonna Hunter announce the first Native child-sexual-abuse lawsuit to be brought under Minnesota's Child Victims Act.

Law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates has released the names of seven priests and brothers whom a Catholic religious order agreed had been “credibly accused” of child sexual abuse. The disclosure results from a 2014 lawsuit brought in Minnesota against the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

The seven named are Michael Charland, Vincent Fitzgerald, Paul Kabat, Orville Lawrence Munie, Thomas Meyer, Robert Reitmeier and Emil Twardochleb. Some served in Native communities, including White Earth and Leech Lake, in Minnesota, and the Pine Ridge and Lake Traverse (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) reservations, in South Dakota. The law firm’s website details the men’s work histories and includes a map of their movements, as they were shuttled among parishes.

The suit was made possible by Minnesota’s Child Victims Act. Passed in May 2013, the law gave childhood-sexual-abuse survivors older than 24, the previous age limit, a three-year window during which to bring civil claims. That opportunity for most new claimants ends on May 25, 2016. In addition to those abused in Minnesota, Anderson associate Mike Finnegan said he believed Natives abused in other states by members of religious orders operating in Minnesota could also sue.

There’s a second, tighter time limit for survivors of abuse that took place within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. That’s because the archdiocese has filed for bankruptcy, and the court has set a deadline of August 3, 2015, for claims against it.

Successful claimants will obtain validation of their suffering and share in eventual compensation, according to Anderson. “You will be believed,” he said, noting that plaintiffs may remain anonymous or disclose their names. In all, Anderson has brought over 200 claims under the Child Victims Act, resulting in the exposure of 100 new offenders, he said.

The Oblates have apologized and will turn over files relating to the abuse. The law firm will release the documents after removing victims’ identifying information. Litigation is pending against additional defendants, the Diocese of Duluth and Diocese of New Ulm, which were not part of the settlement.

The first Native childhood-sexual-abuse claim under the new Minnesota law was filed in November 2013 for abuse that took place on White Earth. On that occasion, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal member and Anderson consultant Lonna Hunter said, “This has been going on so long across Indian country. But we can stop it today.”

The Catholic Church on reservations was the largest offender in the state, according to Anderson: “That’s because they had so many missionaries in Native communities, and because the Church moved offenders around to hide the abuse. As a result, the abusive practices were also more dangerous.”

The Child Victims Act has meant a sea change in treatment of abuse claims in Minnesota. Dioceses throughout the state have broken with the Church’s long-standing policy of silencing victims and protecting offenders. Each Minnesota diocesan websites features information for survivors, including directions for anyone wishing to report abuse to contact law enforcement immediately.

This could not be more unlike the situation in neighboring South Dakota. In 2010, its legislature passed a law limiting the ability of adult victims to sue. Enacted in the wake of more than 100 Natives suing for childhood sexual abuse, the measure was written by a Catholic Church lawyer who accused Natives of attempting to “grab the brass ring…thinking that’s your ticket out of squalor.”

The law helped the courts throw out most of the cases. “When I saw what happened in South Dakota, I was heartbroken,” said Anderson.



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