Montana's reservations were 'dumping grounds' for predatory priests, suit alleges

By Seaborn Larson
Great Falls Tribune
August 16, 2017

Hundreds of victims have come forward with stories of abuse from Catholic clergy. Estimates of others victimized may remain faceless and unaccounted following the settlement of the lawsuit.

Father Edmund Robinson's portrait adorns a basement wall in the St. Thomas Catholic Church in Harlem.

St. Paul's Mission Church in Hays, Montana, July 17, 2017.

Mark Azure, President of the Fort Belknap Indian Community recounts his father's boarding school experience, July 12, 2017.

Father Edmund Robinson also served as the basketball coach at St. Paul's Mission School in Hays, Montana.

Father Edmund Robinson taught ethics classes at St. Paul's Mission School in Hays, Montana.

[with video]

HAYS – For decades, even lifetimes, the Catholic Church refused to turn in priests with known pasts of sexually abusing children, women and men. The story is known in as many corners of the world as the Catholic Church exists, including Montana's two dioceses.

In the Pacific Northwest, however, the Catholic Church and the Jesuit Order have been accused of using Indian Reservations as their “dumping grounds” for the worst recidivist priests accused of sexually abusing children throughout the 1900s. Here, church officials reportedly determined predatory priests could remain undetected. Here, the church that acted as an anchor for the communities, and the victims lived with the abuse in silence.

Attorney Vito de la Cruz said Montana reservations were no different: They were the church's rural and remote sites for hiding predatory priests. Cruz’s Seattle law firm has represented victims from Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Montana, and he said the systematic issue is told from church documents revealed in cases already settled, and the active one against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese.

"I think the evidence points to that," Cruz told the Tribune. "Those who had problems in respect to abusing kids, it's easy to hide in the reservations; people won't complain much, it's isolated there, and there are massively disproportionate balances of power."

In the case against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese, a majority of those who have come forward with names and locations were allegedly abused on the remote Indian reservations. Off the reservations, victims who have come forward came largely from the former Catholic orphanage in Great Falls, two parishes in Billings and far flung communities in eastern Montana.

In many instances, the church has boosted conditions in reservation towns, but with the past practice of splitting Indian children from their parents to boarding schools often operated by the church, the history of Catholicism on the Montana reservations is complicated at best. Fort Belknap Tribal President Mark Azure previously knew about the abuse by priests, but was furious to learn of the church’s designs to continuously funnel bad priests to the reservation during the 1900s, a recently added layer to a complicated history.

“What the hell is a church if it’s going to allow this to happen?” he asked, then thought of the victims. “For me to hear it is a shock. And for their ability to keep it within themselves for as long as they have leads us to their alcoholism, whatever abuses they were — did they become abusers themselves? This could be the very reason why.”

"One of the biggest criticisms of the church has been that they would do this kind of shuffling routinely until they reached the rope's end," Cruz said. "It was proved definitively that the dioceses were moving these folks around with no regard to the community... Then we had the reservations where we had people who were probably not the brightest stars in the whole church structure who were sent there."

Rev. Edmund Robinson worked primarily on reservations during his career of 37 years, 25 of which were spent in Montana, according to Catholic directory records and information collected by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Twenty-one of those years were spent on Indian reservations, primarily the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northcentral Montana and the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.

During his time as a priest on Montana Indian reservations in the 1950s and '60s, Robinson served the St. Paul Mission in Hays as the rural school’s basketball coach, algebra teacher, superintendent and, of all things, an ethics instructor. Some called him “Father Eddy,” others simply called him “Father," but in 2012 Edmund Robinson’s full name appeared on a list of about 13 clergy accused of molesting young Indian boys and girls on the Fort Belknap reservation from 1947 to 1980.

The church is now in settlement negotiations with victims from its jurisdiction. Robinson’s story helps provide context to the history preceding that case, and illustrates the rampant abuse committed on reservations under the guise of salvation.


Robinson was born in the Seattle area in 1924 and attended the Blessed Sacrament Grade School. According to obituaries, Robinson came from a deeply Catholic family. His brother, an attorney living in Seattle, was highly active in the church and a leader in the area’s 12-step self-help movement before he died in 2003. Robinson’s nephew also became a priest.

In his 20s, Robinson began his Jesuit studies in Oregon. He later graduated from Alma College in Los Gatos, California, where he was ordained. Robinson’s first assignment was an assistant pastor at the St. Paul Indian Mission in Hays, where he also was an assistant in the halls, classes and back rooms at the mission school. It would be the first of three stints he would live on the Fort Belknap Reservation, serving churches in Hays, Lodge Pole and Zortman. A profile published on a Jesuit website notes his love for reading was established either in the early days of his Jesuit studies or during the long, cold Montana winters.

Hays is a small town at the feet of the Little Rockies mountain range, an island of buttes dotting the vast expanse of the eastern Montana plains. Today, blighted homes line a single road winding through the town of about 840 at the last census. The church, built by stone masons near the eastern edge of town about 80 years ago, is the tallest building in sight.

The St. Paul Mission School, populated by young Gros Ventre and Assiniboine children, had 53 boys and 48 girls enrolled when Robinson arrived in 1955. A victim included in the lawsuit said Robinson molested her that the same year.

Three years later, Robinson was relocated to Port Townsend, Washington. He spent one year there at a training college for Jesuit priests, and returned to Hays in 1959. A now-adult man alleges in the lawsuit that Robinson raped him in the year he returned to the mission, while a Hays woman said he verbally, physically and sexually abused her in 1960. Robinson was again relocated, this time to the Flathead Indian Reservation 400 miles west in 1962. He is accused of raping a 5-year-old girl there in 1963.

The Great Falls-Billings Diocese lawsuit currently includes 72 victims of sexual abuse by clergy members. Of those who provided locations and dates of the alleged abuse, 40 said it happened to them on a reservation, and 21 of those say they were abused at the St. Paul mission in Hays.

Of the 21 alleged victims from St. Paul, eight men and women who have come forward said they were molested by Robinson, and often times several other church officials in the same time frame. Robinson is accused of molesting nine children across the state during his career. There could be more, as there may be other victims of any clergy who chose not to come forward.

Others accused of repeated abuse at St. Paul include Father Fred Simoneau, whose five victims claim abuse from 1955 to 1974; Brother Ryan, whose alleged abuse spans from 1955 to 1966; and Brother Clarence Moreau, who is accused of sexually molesting four children from 1959 to 1971.

Only one person has come forward to claim abuse in Wolf Point, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation further northeast. But in southeastern Montana, eleven people have claimed they were sexually abused at the St. Labre Indian Mission on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, while seven have made similar allegations from the St. Xavier Indian Mission on the Crow Indian Reservation.

Father Emmett Hoffmann is accused of molesting students at the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, but his relationship with the reservation was different than Robinson’s. Hoffmann served Northern Cheyenne reservation all through his career and was highly revered after the suit was filed against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese and after his death less than a year later.

A book commemorating Hoffmann as a powerful advocate for the Northern Cheyenne also describes his struggles with alcoholism. A Cheyenne family told the Billings Gazette they saw past his problems, though, considering his community support and substantial fundraising, which was instrumental in building a factory, dozens of homes and three churches, according to his obituary. In 1961, Hoffmann was named honorary chief of the Northern Cheyenne Council.

"Father Emmett's humanitarian achievements on behalf of the Cheyenne stand unequaled in the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century American West," his obituary reads.

But about 50 years after being named honorary chief, five victims who were students at the St. Labre Indian School came forward and accused Hoffmann of molesting them from 1955 to 1984.

"This is the presence of the priests in the communities," Cruz said. "How do you stack up your chances of complaining of abuse to the same people who are sheltering abusers? How do you go against the community structures when those structures might be influenced by the Catholic Church?"

In fact, the Catholic Church was here before the reservations were established. Less than 100 years before Robinson arrived, Catholic missionaries first made their way into eastern Montana in their western route to spread the word of salvation. The mission was established in the Fort Belknap area in 1886. The U.S. government established the reservation there two years later.

Azure said the history of Catholicism on the reservation may deviate some as it was passed down orally from generation to generation, but the prevailing sentiment is that Catholics came to “help” the plains Indians find a religion congruent with the expanding white world.

“From what I know, they came to help us from ourselves,” Azure said. “I think it was another attempt to, in the church’s view, civilize a race that they viewed as uncivilized.”

They opened churches, gained membership and eventually sent children to be assimilated at boarding schools, where physical and sexual abuse was reported. At a boarding school in South Dakota, Azure’s own father said he was sexually abused by priests who would give children “medicine,” that made them drowsy. Once subdued by the mixture — whether it was cough syrup or whiskey, Azure never knew — priests allegedly brought them to a basement room and sexually abused children like Azure’s father.

Azure didn’t grow up in the church, and is not religious.

“It took me probably 50 years before he said anything to me about it,” Azure said. “That’s why I think back in the day, whether it was in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, we were running away from those places.”

Robinson intermittently appeared in the St. Paul mission school three times: 1955 to 1958, 1959 to 1962 and 1966 to 1968. He is seen in school yearbooks drawing on the chalkboard in algebra class, and standing with the high school boys’ basketball team with a proud smile. In ethics class, he stands below a cross as he reads from a book at the front of the classroom. In the picture, dated 1961, a group of students sit back in their chairs, like a high school class you would see anywhere else. It’s possible — based on the timeline of claims made by victims — that one or two of the students are looking at their rapist. The next year, Robinson was relocated.

“I heard about this gentlemen, this individual,” Azure said. “There are people out here that remember. Do people know why he got moved out when he did? Not everybody did.”

The people who had spoken about Robinson to Azure are older than him, and Azure believed it was unlikely anyone would speak of the abuse on the record. It’s unclear if Robinson’s alleged abuse was a shared topic between students at the school. No residents of Hays with memories of Robinson agreed to speak with the Tribune for this story.


One person who did speak with several victims of predatory priests was Great Falls therapist Colleen Stivers.

Stivers, who is now retired, told the Tribune her docket of patients included children abused by parents, people dying of AIDS and people who had survived unsuccessful murder attempts. Stivers said she saw people abused by church officials “for decades,” from both on and off the reservation, although sessions with Natives were less frequent due to long driving distances.

At Stivers’ office, many victims were telling their stories in whole for the first time.

“When they try to hide the abuse from family, public or church members, they don’t get well,” Stivers said. “They continue to avoid going to church, which is often extremely important for them prior to abuse.

“They feel let down by God,” Stivers said.

In her experience, those abused by clergy were not confined to children of broken homes and impoverished status. There were also adults, including single women and even men seeking the priesthood. One of her patients, a 35-year-old man studying to be ordained, was molested by a 35-year-old male priest. But no matter the details of their background, on or off the reservation, it was typically deeply entrenched in church life, making the abuse that much harder to bear.

Over the course of reporting this story, several people raised the question as to why victims had not spoken out about their abuse earlier. Stivers said victims of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder conceal their experience for several reasons, but most often shame is what holds a victim back from sharing with their families or friends.

“The oldest patient I ever treated was 70 years old and she had been abused when she was 5,” Stivers said. “She did not seek treatment for 65 years and kept the secret all that time, because of shame.”

When victims would tell a friend or family member, they sometimes told the victim to not put the church in jeopardy. The priests or nuns would tell the victim no one would believe them anyway, Cruz said.

“What’s a child who’s eight years old going to do?” Cruz said.

The details of the abuse were brutal and violent. In limited descriptions found in court documents, victims allege their abuse included “forced fondling of breasts and genitals, anal rape, forced fellatio, digital, penile and anal penetration, vaginal penetration, sexually motivated ‘washing’ and ‘spanking’ and forced masturbation,” by priests, brothers and nuns.

Molly Howard, a Missoula attorney with the Datsopoulous, MacDonald and Lind, has also spoken with dozens of victims, and today represents about 40 of them in the Great Falls-Billings Diocese case. Howard said she’s disturbed by the details that have come to light in the case and what’s more, she’s become intimately aware of how widespread the history of sexual abuse by church officials really is.

“Montana is just a microcosm in terms of the entire world of the Catholic Church,” Howard said. “We look at Helena and Great Falls… then you read about Ireland and England. It’s happening everywhere.”

Howard was raised Catholic, which sharpened her surprise when the widespread sexual abuse hit news outlets in the early 2000s. It also fortified her resolve to seek justice for those abused by church officials. Her firm also represented victims in the Helena Diocese case, and Howard launched her own investigation in speaking with victims group, pouring through documents at Catholic colleges and records from the church itself to trace the whereabouts of accused priests during the years of alleged abuse. She was then able to corroborate this information with the stories told by survivors sitting in her office.

Howard's footwork paired well with Cruz's legal team, which includes canonical scholars who have traced Catholic doctrines addressing the issue of celibacy and sexual abuse of minors. These acknowledgments extend back hundreds of years, Cruz said.

What Howard found is essentially contained in the civil suit: predatory priests would either remain in small towns for years without consequence or be shuttled out after an accusation that could lead to the community’s larger understanding of the systematically-enabled abuse.

When they did depart, church officials entered official designations into the Catholic directory such as “sabbatical leave,” while Howard said oftentimes they would instead be sent to treatment facilities. Priests and brothers in Montana were sent to the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, a treatment facility in New Mexico for issues with alcoholism, substance abuse or pedophilia. Another outlet for these predatory priests was Michigan alcohol treatment center known simply as the “Guest House.”

After spending time at the treatment centers, priests would return to parishes in Montana, but this time in more rural and remote areas than before, but sometimes back to the communities they had just preyed upon, Howard said.

“I think the idea is that if they moved to a less populated area that they would have less exposure to children,” Howard said. “But I think the priest’s stature in the community is elevated in the smaller town. They come to basketball games and community events and you notice them around, so I think it had the opposite effect.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in April the Great Falls-Billings Diocese will be the 17th U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy in the face of sexual-abuse allegations. The Diocese of Helena in 2015 listed Robinson’s name as a priest alleged of sexual abuse as part of its non-monetary terms for resolving the civil suit concluded that year. In monetary terms, the Helena Diocese settled for $20 million in the case in which 362 victims claimed sexual abuse by more than 80 church employees, including Robinson.

The lawsuits have hit several tiers of the Catholic Church. Tamaki Law, Cruz's firm, also helped secure a $166 million settlement fund from the Oregon Province of Jesuits in a case where nearly 500 people alleged sexual abuse by priests, in Oregon, Washington and Alaska, where the church was first accused of using reservations as its dumping sites.

Many of the priests accused of abuse were shipped to Montana from the Oregon Province of Jesuits, which had histories of predatory habits on record. Cruz said the Jesuits would have been responsible for dumping their recidivist priests, like Robinson, back into Montana time and time again. The Great Falls-Billings Diocese would have been responsible for shuffling them around and sending them to treatment centers.

The Great Falls-Billings Diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late March, setting the process in motion to begin funding a settlement for victims of abuse by clergy. On the same day, Bishop Michael Warfel offered his apology to "anyone who was abused by a priest, a sister or a lay Church worker" and said those who had been "credibly accused" were no longer alive or active in the church.

Great Falls-Billings Diocese attorney Greg Hatley said the church is not legally admitting officials facilitated the abuse by settling with victims. He said by approaching each claim with intent to help the healing process, the church is taking responsibility and avoiding lengthy litigation.

"It's acknowledgment by the diocese that certainly there are victims of sexual abuse that need to be addressed," Hatley said. "The bishop is coming forward, has chosen this pastoral approach to focus on these individuals who otherwise would have been exposed to decades of litigation with a number of outcomes. We didn't think that was fair to them or the diocese." 

Attorneys representing victims have all noted Warfel’s compassion for the victims during the court process. Warfel said he, like anyone else who wasn't a victim, can't fully understand their afflictions. It's difficult to even quantify the pain and collateral damage, he said.

"Events take place in peoples' life and sometimes they carry those through 'til the day they die," Warfel said. "The scars are there and they're always there, even after they're healed."


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 layperson priest, 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 became an 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 there, 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 day cares. 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.



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