Montana victims recall Jesuit priests' abuse

Great Falls Tribune, Montana/April 28, 2011

Of more than 500 Native Americans who claimed to be abused between the 1950s and the 1980s by Jesuit clergy members across the Northwest, some 140 of them came from Montana.

Now, a little more than a month after the Portland-based order of Catholic Jesuit priests agreed to pay a $166.1 million settlement, many of those Montana victims are in Great Falls this week as the sweeping agreement gets hashed out.

In 2009, a large group of law firms from across the Northwest accused the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus of using remote reservations and villages in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska as a dumping ground for problem priests. Hundreds of people, mostly Native American and Alaska Native, since have come forward claiming they were abused by clergy at schools run by Jesuits in those states.

The settlement also includes nonmonetary agreements from the Province, including a promise to publish the names of the abusers, issue a written apology to the victims and establish new policies to aid whistleblowers and educate children about abuse.

Boise, Idaho, attorney Andrew Chasan said that the settlement money will not just be averaged out equally among the more than 500 claimants, but each individual will receive a part of the settlement money based on the severity of the abuse and other factors. That will be decided during a lengthy interview process across the Northwest with court-appointed reviewers, who will have to talk with each claimant one by one.

"It'll take about 10 weeks to complete it all," said Chasan, whose firm, along with three others, represented 141 victims, including about 40 from Montana. Chasan will be in Great Falls through the week with clients from northcentral Montana. Other interviews already have taken place in Missoula and Polson, and a second Missoula interview session also could be scheduled.

"It's hard," Chasan said. "These are very difficult stories. ... This may be only the second or third time they've told this story in their lives."

Most of the time, Chasan was the first person who the victims ever told, he said.

The court-appointed reviewers also will have to determine if a claim is valid, which Chasan said can be determined despite the staggering number claiming abuse.

"It's very rare to find a fraudulent claim," he said.

Because of the nature of the case, very few of the claimants have spoken to anyone else about their abuse, yet Chasan said that important details, such as the abusers' methods and the time-frame in which they were abused, almost always line up from story to story.

"The number 500 is just the tip of the iceberg," Chasan said. "But the shame of it all keeps (other victims) from coming forward."

Richard King, 61, spent almost 50 years of his life keeping his abuse a secret. King claims that in 1959 and 1960, while he was a student at the St. Paul Mission School in Hays on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, he was abused by a Jesuit clergy member when he was 10 and 11.

"It's affected my entire life," he said. "I still suffer from the effects today. ... It's only been the last two to three years that I've been dealing with it."

King's troubles with alcohol began shortly after the abuse. He said that he began drinking heavily at around age 10 and couldn't stop for some 20 years.

King now has been sober for more than three decades and works as an addiction counselor for the Fort Belknap reservation.

After two years at the Jesuit-run school, King began attending public school.

"I left because I didn't want to be found out," King said. "I felt that I was the only one."

He found that he was far from alone when he got involved in the settlement "by accident" in 2009. A friend of his called wondering if he knew anyone who was abused as a child because an attorney wanted to speak to abuse victims in the area. King said that he later called the attorney himself.

"I told him I had a victim for him," he said.

King told his story to the attorney and then decided to go public, giving interviews to the Fort Belknap News and other media outlets in the region. King said he wanted to talk about it for his own healing process and to be able to help others who were also victims.

"That's what it's about for me - helping other human beings," he said. "And as far as the money part of it, that is irrelevant to me."

King said that he spent more than 20 years away from the Catholic Church, but he has since returned and now considers himself a faithful Catholic.

"I realized that ... the perpetrators didn't represent the church," he said.

King served as the executive director of the Great Falls-based Tekakwitha Conference, a national Catholic organization for Native Americans.

Chasan said the settlement represents justice for the hundreds of victims whose abusers, many of whom are now dead, escaped it until the end of their lives. After more than two years of representing some of those victims, Chasan said it is gratifying to see them overcome their trauma through this settlement.

"It's been one of the greatest experiences of my life," he said. "To see people who have gone through such trauma and sadness in their life and rise above it ... you don't often get this kind of chance in your career."

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