Forgive you, Father 

Decades of abuse by the Catholic Church resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements and the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Helena, but it will take more than money to make things right for survivors.

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When she finally got sober in 1990, she says she cried for months as all the memories came pouring out.

Both Burke and Salois struggled with drug addiction. It started with glue and gas huffing and ended with intravenous drug use and booze.

"By 8 or 9 years old I was a little morphine addict," Salois says. "If you take drugs then you don't think about the stuff that you don't want to. Even though it is bad for you, it gives you some kind of inner happiness."

Dowdall battled low self-esteem and spent years in violently dysfunctional relationships. In 1985, she says she tried to kill herself by drinking Pine-Sol, taking pills and drinking beer. She spent weeks in the ICU at St. Patrick Hospital, but survived.

click to enlarge In this mural, Michael the Archangel pins down and prepares to spear a demon as the condemned look on from hell. Ken Bear Chief says the Jesuits added Native American faces to this picture to convince the tribes that they needed Christ’s salvation. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • In this mural, Michael the Archangel pins down and prepares to spear a demon as the condemned look on from hell. Ken Bear Chief says the Jesuits added Native American faces to this picture to convince the tribes that they needed Christ’s salvation.

And then there's the nightmares.

"I am a big guy now, but in my nightmares Mother Loyola still owns me," Salois says.

And then there's the anger.

"I would probably be locked up right now if I ever got a hold of one of those people," says Burke. "I wouldn't hold nothing back. I would probably try to kill them."

Salois leans back in his chair and offers his own scenario.

"As long as they leave me alone I won't do anything to them," he says. "But a priest could come into my house today, and the first thing I'd do is smash his head through the wall. Same with a nun."

Dowdall dreams of revenge too.

"If Father Robinson came up to me today and asked me for forgiveness, I would probably kick him in the balls."

The pain, they say, carries no price.

"There's not enough money in this world," Burke says, "to pay for what they done to us."

Still, the Catholic Church has tried to pay its way out of the problem. Most of the perpetrators are dead, and the statute of limitations has long passed, but sex abuse survivors have brought numerous successful high-profile civil lawsuits against the Church in recent years. On Jan. 21, the Diocese of Helena filed for bankruptcy as it prepared to reach a $15 million settlement with more than 360 survivors of sex abuse. It has pledged to set aside another $2.5 million for survivors who come forward in the future. In 2011, the Oregon Province of Jesuits reached a $166 million settlement with more than 500 sex abuse victims across the Pacific Northwest. Of the three Catholic entities responsible for the abuses at St. Ignatius, only the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province have refused to settle with the plaintiffs. A court date is set for July in the case, though the Ursulines are trying to postpone proceedings.

Burke and Salois were both part of the Jesuit settlement and they are plaintiffs in the cases against the Diocese of Helena and the Ursulines. Though settlement amounts are confidential, Ken Bear Chief says those who suffered the most intense abuses settled with the Church "in the $400,000 range."

SuSan Dowdall, on the other hand, did not come forward early enough to take part in the Jesuit suit, though she is currently seeking damages from a $4 million fund the Jesuits set aside for future claimants. She is also participating in the suit against the diocese.

Despite the bankruptcies and the settlements, or perhaps because of them, Bear Chief believes the Church as a whole has acted callously in the course of the lawsuits.

"When you look at the way they are dealing with the survivors, there is no compassion, there is no pastoral viewpoint from the bishop and the others," he says. "It is all about dollars and cents, it is all about protecting their assets and their asses, so to speak. To me, that is merciless."

As an example, Bear Chief says that when a representative of the Jesuit order offered an apology to victims after the 2011 settlement, he traveled to Missoula rather than Polson, where many of the survivors live.

Burke and Salois both say they never received the apology letters they were promised by the Jesuit order. Burke's sister Clarissa did receive a letter, but it made her so angry she threw it away.

"After all these years and everything, after we are all damaged, after our lives are all ruined, then they send a letter?" she asks.

click to enlarge The St. Ignatius Mission is set against the dramatic backdrop of the Mission Mountains. Some survivors of the Catholic Church’s abuse want to see the historic building torn down. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The St. Ignatius Mission is set against the dramatic backdrop of the Mission Mountains. Some survivors of the Catholic Church’s abuse want to see the historic building torn down.

Bear Chief says he would like to see the Catholic Church fund third-party counseling and behavioral health services on reservations affected by widespread abuse. He sees an obvious connection between decades-long sex abuse and the rampant addiction, alcoholism and sexual violence on reservations today.

"These are the multi-generational cycles of abuse that have been going on since these missions were established," he says. "I can tell you quite honestly that this was not who we were as Indian people before these contacts, before these conditions existed."

Dan Bartleson, a spokesman for the Diocese of Helena, could not say whether the Church would finance counseling services in the future. Nor could he confirm whether George Thomas, the bishop of the Helena Diocese, had plans to visit with sex abuse survivors on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

"As far as the settlement, if somebody wanted to seek that in the settlement, although I am unaware of that [happening], they could pursue it," he says.

Solace has come in other forms, however.

Traditional practices like sweat lodges, dances and prayer have helped Burke, Dowdall and Salois overcome some of their pain. They use their heritage to heal. Not one of them remains a Catholic.

As for the St. Ignatius Mission, that old brick building with a placard advertising its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the survivors want to see it disappear. They say promoting the St. Ignatius Mission as a historical hotspot without mentioning the sex abuse is like flaunting Auschwitz as a tourist destination without mentioning the Holocaust. They say its presence is an offense to those who survived the twisted clergy predators who lurked there.

Salois says if someone wanted to tear down the mission he'd volunteer his help for a week. Burke, who has to drive by the building nearly every day on his way to work as a supervisor in the tribal maintenance department, says he'd "buy a box of dynamite for 'em and help them blow it up."

But even if the mission disappeared, even if the bishop begged on his knees for forgiveness, even if the Catholic Church hightailed it out of town, the search for healing would not stop.

"I just can't get past it, you know ..." Burke says. "They ruined our lives, man."

Like the memory of that violent, fire-and-brimstone mural on the mission's wall, the impact of abuse is not so easily erased.

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