Helena Diocese names perpetrators of sexual abuse; many at western Montana parishes

By David Erickson
April 30, 2015

Father Joseph Obersinner, an ordained priest with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena who served at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Missoula from 1989 to 1991, is one of more than 80 people employed by the church who allegedly sexually abused children under his care. 

Due to a statute of limitations, Obersinner was never charged with a crime and has denied all accusations. He was described in a 2007 church article as leading a life of “quiet integrity.”

Now in his 80s, he resides in a Jesuit retirement community in Spokane, where he is reportedly being monitored by church officials to make sure he has no contact with children.

Obersinner’s alleged crimes have until now been relatively anonymous, but his name will remain posted on the Helena Diocese website for the next decade along with the other priests, Ursuline Sisters and church employees who have been accused of abusing a child or multiple children.

On Wednesday, the church posted the list of names as part of a settlement with 362 victims who have come forward.

Dan Bartleson, a spokesman for the diocese, said that the list was a painful but necessary part of the healing process.

“It’s a difficult step for the church, in that these parish priests and personnel were part of the communities that many people grew up in,” he said. “But at the same time, we know that keeping the victim-centered approach means that difficult steps have to be taken. We know through the settlement that the victims have had to deal with a lot of pain and suffering, and whatever we can do to contribute to any possible healing or closure is required of us morally.”

The list includes many priests who served in Missoula, including Fathers Louis Geis and Joseph Balfe, who both served at St. Francis Xavier in Missoula; Father Leonard Spraycar, who served at St. Patrick Hospital from 1980 to 1984; and Father Wilson Smart, who served at St. Anthony Parish from 1960 to 1963. 

Of the 417 priests ordained for the Diocese of Helena, 20 have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor, and one has been acquitted. Nearly 30 women, most serving as Ursuline Sisters or Mothers, were also accused of sexual abuse of children.


Most on the list died a long time ago. Many of the women who are alleged to have committed crimes are known only by their first names, and little else is known about them. Some on the list, like Obersinner, are alive but have faded into obscurity until now.

A 2007 newsletter profile of Obersinner by the Society of Jesus Oregon Province describes him as having led an “extraordinary life.”

“Generations of young Native People looked up to him as a father and teacher,” the article reads. “The quiet integrity of his life, the total commitment of himself to the well-being of the young people entrusted to his care at the Mission, gave him a place in the (Native Americans') hearts that remains till today.”

The original article has since been deleted from the nwjesuits.orgwebsite, but was cached in 2011.

Obersinner was co-pastor at St. Ignatius Mission from 1972 to 1980. The article says that he took a position as the assistant to the director of the Rocky Mountain Missions at the Regis Community in Spokane in 1998.

“I can’t discuss that,” Bartleson said when asked about Obersinner's whereabouts. “There is some confidentiality there that I can’t breach. The same goes for the victims who may have made this claim.”

In Montana, a statute of limitations (Montana Code Annotated 45-1-205) prevents a person from being charged with sexual assault against a minor 10 years after the victim turns 18, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. For sexual intercourse without consent or sexual assault, the limit is 10 years after the crime was alleged to have occurred.


Two separate groups of victims sued the Helena diocese in 2011 as accounts of abuse began to surface and more victims came forward. The majority of abuse was alleged to have occurred at the hands of Jesuit priests and Ursuline Sisters at the St. Ignatius Mission and the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignatius.

The abuses ranged from rape to inappropriate touching and photographing of children, and most of the alleged crimes took place between the 1940s and 1970s.

In March, a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved a $20 million payment plan to settle the hundreds of abuse claims. The settlement also included some non-financial stipulations, including the listing of alleged abusers' names.

The list includes 12 priests who served in western Montana and 21 Ursuline Sisters who served at St. Ignatius Mission. Several, like Father Emmet Lowney, Father John Kerrigan and Father Dusan Okorn, worked in the Bitterroot Valley.

Bryan Smith, an attorney with Tamaki Law Offices in Washington, represented 95 of the 362 victims. He said the list of names was just as important as the payments.

“It’s one of the most important terms of the settlement,” he explained. “With every settlement against a religious order or diocese, there are monetary terms and non-monetary terms, which are the most difficult to negotiate, but they are some of the most important terms for the abuse survivors. They are important because they are an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and acknowledgement of the fact that these people who were entrusted with the care of children, betrayed that trust. The list is an acknowledgement of accountability in the eyes of survivors. It goes a long way in the healing process and we insist on it whenever we settle a case against a religious entity.”

Smith said that none of the alleged perpetrators were ever charged with a crime due to the statute of limitations.

“Unfortunately, the statute of limitations has expired,” he explained. “The most prolific perpetrator monster could be out there, but if the statute has expired nothing can be done criminally. It blows your mind. It really is up to the church to protect the community from these abusers now.”

In the case of Obersinner, Smith is unaware if he is specifically monitored.

“There is a group of Jesuit priests who are being monitored 24 hours a day at a retirement facility in Spokane,” he said. “I don’t know what supervision they have in place, but I know that one of his colleagues that he served with is under 24-hour supervision. That is one example of how the diocese can take steps to keep them in their ranks.”

Smith took Obersinner’s deposition at one point.

“He must be in his 80s, but he was still as sharp as a tack,” he said. “He denies (the allegations).”

Smith said that the list of names is long overdue, but his clients aren’t ready to celebrate yet.

“I wouldn’t say they are happy,” he said. “My clients and the abuse survivors I have talked to feel that is a necessary step to hold the church as accountable as possible. There has to be scrutiny as to how much accountability is being imposed. They are getting away with settlement amounts that are lower than expected with the type of harm they caused.”

The settlement also calls for Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Helena Diocese to send a written letter of apology to the victims.

"The church has reached out throughout the process and communicated to the victims that they are respected by (Thomas) and the Diocese and they are believed," Bartleson said.

The church was driven into bankruptcy by the lawsuit, and Bartleson said it is just now beginning a "very slow road to recovery."

A toll-free phone number set up for victims to call if they need to report abuse, and there is a comments section on the diocese website that victims can write in. Bishop Thomas will also preside over reconciliation liturgies this fall.

A lawsuit against the Diocese of Great Falls, which involves roughly 60 plaintiffs, is in the discovery phase.

“This is an imperfect system to be sure,” Smith said. “But it’s the best that we have within the limitations of criminal and civil penalties.”










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