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Washington State Agency Accused of Placing Native Foster Children with Pedophile Priests

On November 22, eight members of the Yakima and Colville tribes filed a lawsuit against Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). They allege physical, sexual and emotional abuse during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when DSHS placed them as foster children at Jesuit-run St. Mary’s School in Omak, Washington. While there, they say, they were abused by their guardian, Father John Morse, an approved DSHS foster parent, as well as by other clerics employed by the school.

Tamaki Law Firm, of Yakima, Washington, filed the civil complaint in the state’s Superior Court. Attorney Blaine Tamaki called DSHS negligent, saying, “They chose not to protect some of our state’s most vulnerable children.” The agency is the target of one additional St. Mary’s-related abuse suit.

John Wiley, DSHS spokesperson, said the department had not yet seen the complaint. “We do not normally comment on pending litigation,” he said. “When we do file a response, it will be in court.”

Morse now lives under 24-hour supervision in Jesuit House, on the campus of the Jesuits’ Gonzaga University, in Spokane, Washington. Tamaki Law investigator Ken Bear Chief, Gros Ventre/Nez Perce/Nooksak, called Morse one of the worst child abusers he’s come across in years of handling such cases and noted the priest was accused in 75-plus of the 500 cases the Jesuits recently settled for $166 million—one of the Catholic Church’s largest-ever abuse settlements.

In the complaint, the eight former students describe years of sexual assaults and punishments by Morse and others. “To this day, I live in fear of Father Morse,” said claimant Theresa Bessette.

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The mission school’s remote location—down a dirt road in a canyon surrounded by basalt cliffs—meant few restrictions on perpetrators, said Bear Chief: “The children were so isolated, and parents were either not around or discouraged from visiting.”

“The students were wards of the state, and it should have protected them,” said Bryan Smith, a Tamaki Law attorney, who added that one claimant tried multiple times to tell a social worker about the abuse. The former students charge the state did not investigate this actual notice or so-called “constructive” notice, when a simple, commonplace question by a social worker (“do you feel safe here?”) would have revealed what was happening, according to Smith.

The lawsuit is in the initial discovery stage, and Morse, who has denied all charges, will be deposed in January, along with a potential 100-plus additional people—victims, perpetrators and witnesses—according to Smith.

“Anyone who had anything to do with the school, including DSHS workers, may be called,” said Bear Chief.

Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.