Suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse. A plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Diocese of Helena (Montana) and the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province ticked off the long-term effects of the sexual, physical and emotional abuse by nuns and priests that he and other plaintiffs suffered as children. “The memories keep coming back,” said the plaintiff, who asked to be referred to as John Doe. “It’s daily. You withdraw.” The problems have devastated individuals and entire communities, he said.
A proposed settlement in the lawsuit has just been accepted by all sides. The 362 plaintiffs are mostly Native Americans, who were abused from the 1930s through the 1970s. The defendants are the Diocese, which oversaw western Montana and will pay the plaintiffs $15 million via bankruptcy reorganization and insurance proceeds, and the Ursulines, who ran a boarding and day school in St. Ignatius, Montana, where much of the abuse took place. The Ursulines will pay $4.45 million, largely from sale of assets, according to Tamaki Law Offices, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs.
Court documents say nuns, priests and lay employees also raped, sodomized, fondled and beat children at other western Montana schools and parishes. The Ursulines ran their school with the help of Jesuits, who are also named as abusers.
The situation is remarkable for the accusations against nuns. Court documents point to the Ursulines’ Mother Loyola, Mother Cecelia, Sister John and more as serial abusers. Horrific descriptions of their actions were reported by ICTMN in 2011, when the suit was filed. “Abuse by nuns is not as rare as you would think, unfortunately,” said Tamaki Law attorney Bryan Smith. He called it “rampant” at St. Ignatius.
Several factors make nun abuse hard for victims to bring forward, Blaine Tamaki has told ICTMN. These include the belief that nuns are less sexually active than priests and the feeling that abuse of boys by women isn’t that serious, which Tamaki called a “double standard.” (Tamaki Law was also part of obtaining a $168 million settlement from the Jesuits on behalf on Native people in the Northwest and Alaska.)
Next, the proposed settlement goes to U.S. Bankruptcy Court for authorization, presumably on March 4, 2015. “Since we’re all in agreement, we have high hopes it’ll be approved,” said Smith.
George Leo Thomas, Bishop of Helena, apologized in 2014, writing on the Diocese’s website, “I express my profound sorrow and sincere apologies to anyone who was abused by a priest, a sister or a lay Church worker.” He assured the public that the credibly accused were inactive or dead. The settlement, when finalized, will require that the Diocese publish their names and set up a fund for future claims that meet certain legal requirements.
The Diocese must also offer counseling to survivors, though they need not accept. John Doe scoffed at the idea. “It’s absurd. So they’re going to get all the rapists and abusers together and put them in charge?”
Doe said trust was one of the first victims of the assaults. “We lost trust in the priests and nuns. Then, when we tried to tell family members, they didn’t believe us. How could they imagine religious people did such things? So, we lost trust in our families. We victims wander the earth alone, bearing heavy burdens, with no place to put them down.”
At least, Doe added, after lawsuits like this one, there's less chance of children being abused in the future.