Lawsuit raises questions about St. Catherine’s sexual abuse

By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Gallup Independent correspondent
April 6, 2019

GALLUP — With a third clergy sex abuse lawsuit filed against the religious orders that operated the now shuttered St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, Native American alumni of the boarding school are left with important but unanswered questions.

For example, how many sex abusers worked at the Catholic school during its century-long history? And how many Native American students were molested by those abusers?

According to Brad D. Hall and Levi A. Monagle, the Albuquerque attorneys who filed all three lawsuits, there is at least one Catholic entity that knows the answer to the first question – the Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“We have been provided a list of credibly accused priests from the St. John the Baptist Province of Franciscan Friars but we are prohibited by Court order from disclosing that list,” the law firm said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

“Our three lawsuits against the St. John the Baptist Province Friars have each sought immediate disclosure of the identity of their credibly accused priests and brothers as well as their personnel files. We obtained the lists and personnel files only after length (sic) court battles and were required to destroy the documents after each case. Clearly, the Franciscan Friars are less concerned about children safety and the healing of victims of sexual abuse by members of their Order then they are protecting their reputation.”

Publicly accused abusers

Hall and Monagle filed this latest lawsuit on behalf of a former St. Catherine student, identified as “John Doe 123,” on March 27, alleging sexual abuse by former Franciscan priest Christopher Kerr between 1983 and 1985. Their two previous lawsuits, which have since been settled, named Dennis Huff, a former Franciscan brother, and Jose Trujillo, a former night watchman at the school, as alleged abusers.

Defendants named in the lawsuits include the Franciscan province and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious order from Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Although it was the Catholic sisters who founded and operated St. Catherine’s, the Ohio Franciscan friars also worked at the school as chaplains, teachers, counselors and other staff.

The Catholic Sisters also founded St. Michael Indian School in the Diocese of Gallup. In recent years, at least two Navajo women filed and settled clergy sex abuse complaints against the Sisters and the Franciscan Province, alleging sexual abuse by Brother Mark Schornack, a friar who worked as a school bus driver at St. Michael’s.

With this latest lawsuit, the list of publicly accused abusers affiliated with St. Catherine’s Indian School has grown to include six men. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, however, only includes two of them on its list of credibly accused abusers. Kerr and Huff were named in a 1997 Santa Fe police report. Huff was named in the 2014 lawsuit, and Trujillo was named in the 2016 lawsuit. Clarence Schoeppner, a former chancellor for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, was a chaplain at St. Catherine’s. Although Dennis Fountain was the subject of a grand jury indictment and numerous news stories in 1987, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has yet to include his name on its credibly accused list.

Curiously, however, the Gallup and Las Cruces dioceses do identify Fountain as a credibly accused abuser, with Gallup citing the Las Cruces list and Las Cruces citing Fountain as being an abuser from Santa Fe.

Public relations

Both the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist were asked how many clergy sex abuse lawsuits and complaints they have settled regarding alleged abuse at St. Catherine’s Indian School. Both were also asked the names of the alleged abusers.

Neither religious order answered either question. Instead, both offered statements by public relations professionals, with the Franciscan spokesman asking not to be identified.

“The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament remain true to their mission of serving black and Indian peoples,” Chicago-based spokeswoman Sheila King, of Sheila King Marketing and Public Relations, said in an email April 3. “Members of this religious order have served some of the most marginalized people in our society. Today, the Sisters continue to strive to support them with education and their other ministries.”

“The Province cannot comment on the active Santa Fe litigation, which was just filed and is under investigation,” the Franciscan statement said. “No decisions have yet been made regarding a course of action. SJB deplores misconduct of any kind and takes all complaints seriously – whether they involve active, inactive or deceased friars, and whether they occurred decades ago. SJB has policies in place to protect the safety of children and vulnerable adults – protocols that include commissioning independent investigations of abuse complaints. The Province’s policies are reviewed by an independent monitor to ensure transparency and accountability.”

The Franciscan province also did not respond to a question about when the province would publicly release its list of credibly accused sex abusers. In contrast, many Catholic dioceses and other religious orders are currently releasing such lists.

Public disclosure

With this latest lawsuit, Hall and Monagle are once again requesting the court require public disclosure of all documents identified in the litigation. The legal complaint includes references to two letters written by Catholic priests to their church superiors reporting allegations against fellow clergy at St. Catherine’s Indian School.

One reference is to a letter written by the Rev. Sean Murnan, a Franciscan priest assigned to Laguna Pueblo in the early 1980s: “Defendant Friars were on notice that Fr. Fountain sexually abused boys after the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Laguna, New Mexico, Fr. Murnan, wrote that Fr. Fountain was in the sacristy with the door closed with an altar boy for over an hour in a context that suggested sexual abuse. As evidence of the Friars’view of abuse allegations at the time, Fr. Fountain was thereafter assigned to St. Catherine’s Indian School, and put in charge of the boys’ dormitory.”

The lawsuit also referenced a second letter written by an unidentified priest in the 1980s, which reported that up to 70 boys had been abused at St. Catherine’s.

“We obtained the letter in the Archdiocese’s files and are prohibited by Court Order from making the letter public,” Hall and Monagle said in a statement. “In the Bankruptcy case, the Archdiocese continues to refuse to release documents such as this to the public and is insisting in the Bankruptcy case that additional priest personnel files be subject to the same confidentiality order as was entered in the State Court case. We are fighting for public disclosure of all personnel files and other categories of documents which chronicle this tragedy in New Mexico and what the Archdiocese failed to do to protect children while it was going on.”

Any Native American abuse survivor who was sexually abused at St. Catherine’s Indian School can file a claim in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s bankruptcy case because the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the Franciscans operated St. Catherine’s under the permission and authority of the Santa Fe Archbishop.

The deadline to file such claims is June 17, and claim forms can be downloaded from the archdiocese’s website.




Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.