New lawsuit accuses Montana nuns of abusing children

Associated Press/September 27, 2011

Helena, Montana -- A new sex abuse lawsuit filed Tuesday against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena is one of the first involving abuse by nuns toward Native American children, the plaintiffs' attorney said.

The latest suit, which also names the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province as a defendant, is the second in as many weeks that claims child rape and molestation at the hands of clergy decades ago in western Montana.

It alleges the mother superior and three nuns at the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignatius abused 22 of the plaintiffs from the 1940s to the 1970s. Another 21 plaintiffs were abused by priests who taught or were affiliated with the school, said plaintiffs' attorney Blaine Tamaki.

"They want accountability. The perpetrators have never been criminally prosecuted, they've never been punished," Tamaki said of the plaintiffs. "It's unfortunate that the only accountability that remains for the victims is through the civil system."

All 45 unnamed plaintiffs are American Indians, he said. Several of the alleged abusers are dead. Tamaki said he believes some are still alive, though the statute of limitations to pursue criminal charges has long passed.

Last week, 34 people filed a lawsuit the Helena diocese over similar clergy abuse allegations at Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Missoula, also dating from the 1940s to the 1970s. Tamaki said the plaintiffs are different in each case, though the two lawsuits have similarities, including some of the same schools and clergy members accused.

Both lawsuits claim the Helena diocese was negligent in allowing the abuse to happen and that it knew clergy members were abusing children and did nothing about it.

A spokeswoman for the Ursuline Sisters did not return a call for comment Tuesday. Diocese spokeswoman Renee St. Martin Wizeman said the alleged abusers in both lawsuits were nuns and priests who belonged to the Ursuline and Jesuit orders.

"It appears that these are not Diocese of Helena priests or nuns. We don't have any nuns that are diocesan nuns," St. Martin Wizeman said.

The diocese has not yet been served with either lawsuit, and she said she expects a more detailed response by the diocese by week's end.

Some of the plaintiffs in last week's lawsuit were also among the hundreds of Native Americans and Alaska Natives who brought claims against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, which earlier this year agreed to pay $166 million to drop the lawsuit alleging sex abuse in Catholic-run schools across the Northwest and Alaska.

Tamaki also represented plaintiffs in the Oregon lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit are also seeking unspecified monetary damages, though Tamaki said that is not what's driving them.

"I'm offended by that criticism of brave victims who have worked through a lifetime of dysfunctional issues to deal with something that should not have happened to them as children," he said. "They're exercising their rights, and I consider that a noble and good thing."

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