BILLINGS — A Northern Cheyenne woman has filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, contending she was sexually abused as a young girl by a popular priest at the St. Labre Mission School in Ashland between 1955 and 1962.
The lawsuit seeking unspecified damages was filed Friday in Cascade County District Court in Great Falls. It also names as defendants the Order of Friars Minor, the Capuchin Order and the school.
Rev. Emmett Hoffmann is not named as a defendant but is identified as the reason for the lawsuit. The 85-year-old Hoffmann retired in 1993 and lives in Ashland.
Hoffman did not return a call Saturday from The Associated Press, and a message left at the retirement home where he lives was not returned. A message left at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings was also not returned.
The Billings Gazette reports that Hoffmann was sent in 1954 to close the mission, but instead revived it. It had a $50 million endowment when he retired. He is one of only two white men ever to have been made an honorary chief of the Northern Cheyenne.
He is also the subject of a book by Billings author Renee Sansom Flood titled “Renegade Priest of the Northern Cheyenne.”
Attorney Vito de la Cruz, who filed the lawsuit, said in news release that Hoffmann’s stature “certainly makes it more difficult for victims to muster the courage to come forward.”
De la Cruz said the statute of limitations prevents his client from pressing criminal charges. He said Hoffman is not named in the lawsuit because the diocese and the order placed him at the mission. He also said, based on his past experience in dealing with similar lawsuits, it’s better to go after those who should have acted.
“If you find a rattlesnake in the backyard, you don’t just throw it over the fence into the neighbors’ yard so somebody else gets hurt,” he told the newspaper. “You do something about it.”
The lawsuit also seeks the diocese and the Capuchin Order to publicly acknowledge the alleged wrongdoing.
The lawsuit describes an escalating pattern of abuse that began when she was a preteen and ended before she turned 18.
De La Cruz said the woman, now in her 60s, is not being named because of concern for her safety. In the lawsuit she is identified as Jane Doe.
“Tribal children molested in remote areas had nowhere to turn,” de la Cruz said in the news release. “When a perpetrator threatens a child with death or the death of a family member if they tell, as Hoffman did, the secrets remain buried for years.”
The newspaper published a profile of Hoffman in 2004 after Flood’s book came out. Hoffman freely acknowledged his struggle with alcoholism, the newspaper reported, and also said he struggled in the mid-1960s when his superiors ordered him to dismiss a young female volunteer who worked as his secretary.
The profile also said that in Flood’s book, “Hoffmann freely talks of being in love with the woman, but says there was no physical relationship.”