Fifteen years ago, the Catholic sex abuse scandal broke wide open when the Boston Globe covered the widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church had been circulating for decades, and since that time hundreds — if not thousands — of lawsuits have been filed, and the church has paid billions of dollars in settlements to the abuse victims and their families.
As if the sexual abuse wasn’t horrible enough, new lawsuits and court documents show a pattern and practice of reassigning abusive priests to vulnerable communities. According to the Great Falls Tribune, a pending lawsuit against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese accuses the Catholic church and the Jesuit Order of using First Nations reservations as “dumping grounds” for the worst predatory priests accused of sexually abusing children throughout the past century.
Apparently, because the reservations are in remote and rural locations, the church used them as hideouts for predatory priests to stay under the radar. What’s worse, court documents in the pending lawsuit as well as previously settled lawsuits show that, because the church was viewed as an “anchor” for these communities, the victims had their hands tied and suffered in silence for years, and sometimes decades.
“Those who had problems in respect to abusing kids, it’s easy to hide in the reservations,” said Attorney Vito de la Cruz, whose law firm is representing victims from Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana. “People won’t complain much, it’s isolated there, and there are massively disproportionate balances of power.”
The lawsuit pending against the Great Falls-Billings Diocese isn’t the first time the church has been accused of shuffling predatory priests to Indian reservations. In 2011, a Jesuit order of priests agreed to pay $166.1 million — one of the largest settlements in the Catholic church’s sex scandal — to hundreds of Native Americans and Alaska Natives who were abused at the order’s schools in the Northwestern U.S.
Like these predatory priests, however, information about the extent of the Catholic sex scandal seems to be flying under the radar. Quite frankly, the fact that there isn’t widespread outrage about this is astounding and infuriating, to say the least.
California attorney John Manly, who represented some of the victims in the 2011 settlement, said the Jesuits knowingly put abusers in positions with easy access to children. At the time of the settlement, Manly believed there were more victims who hadn’t yet come forward and that the pattern of abuse was continuing.
“It wasn’t an accident,” Manly said. “The evidence showed they did it on purpose, and it was rape.”
According to therapists and lawyers who have spoken to the victims, as well as court documents in pending and settled litigation, the abuse was brutal and violent. The details will make your stomach turn, bring tears to your eyes, and fill you with rage. Victims said the 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. And some say what happened at the Montana reservations is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Montana is just a microcosm in terms of the entire world of the Catholic Church,” said Molly Howard, a Missoula attorney, who represents about 40 victims in the Great Falls-Billings Diocese lawsuit.
Abuse by the church also extends beyond sexual abuse allegations. The Catholic church frequently separated Indian children from their parents and sent them to boarding schools operated by the church. Although Pope Francis has been praised for promoting accountability within the church and among its priests, in February 2017, however, the Associated Press reported Francis has quietly scaled back sanctions on some sex abusers from the church.
“What the hell is a church if it’s going to allow this to happen?” Fort Belknap Tribal President Mark Azure said.
We should all be outraged. This is deplorable.
Thankfully, there are people working to seek justice for the victims. There are lawyers and therapists representing and treating victims. There are victims’ advocates and nonprofits working to pass stricter laws. And there are people like Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two retired women who took it upon themselves to investigate a 50-year cold case involving the murder of a nun who worked at a Catholic high school. Many believe the nun was killed because she was about to expose alleged sexual abuse at the Baltimore Catholic school where she taught. Hoskins and Schaub’s discoveries led to the making of the Netflix documentary The Keepers, which they are hoping will bring justice, even if it is several decades too late.
These kinds of atrocities cannot continue to be brushed under the rug. It isn’t enough to pray (or weep) for the victims. If you’re a decent person — whether Catholic or not, a believer or atheist — speak out against this abuse, starting now. We need to hold the abusers, and the enablers, accountable. We need to stop condoning excuses and victim blaming, and second-guessing the brave folks who come forward. We need to keep fighting for justice.
“I’m not going away,” Hoskins told ABC News. “I’m not going to sit down, shut up, and go away.”
Thank God for that.