Father Joseph Obersinner, an ordained priest with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena who served at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Missoula from 1989 to 1991, is one of more than 80 people employed by the church who allegedly sexually abused children under his care.
Due to a statute of limitations, Obersinner was never charged with a crime and has denied all accusations. He was described in a 2007 church article as leading a life of “quiet integrity.”
Now in his 80s, he resides in a Jesuit retirement community in Spokane, where he is reportedly being monitored by church officials to make sure he has no contact with children.
Obersinner’s alleged crimes have until now been relatively anonymous, but his name will remain posted on the Helena Diocese website for the next decade along with the other priests, Ursuline Sisters and church employees who have been accused of abusing a child or multiple children.
On Wednesday, the church posted the list of names as part of a settlement with 362 victims who have come forward.
Dan Bartleson, a spokesman for the diocese, said that the list was a painful but necessary part of the healing process.
“It’s a difficult step for the church, in that these parish priests and personnel were part of the communities that many people grew up in,” he said. “But at the same time, we know that keeping the victim-centered approach means that difficult steps have to be taken. We know through the settlement that the victims have had to deal with a lot of pain and suffering, and whatever we can do to contribute to any possible healing or closure is required of us morally.”
The list includes many priests who served in Missoula, including Fathers Louis Geis and Joseph Balfe, who both served at St. Francis Xavier in Missoula; Father Leonard Spraycar, who served at St. Patrick Hospital from 1980 to 1984; and Father Wilson Smart, who served at St. Anthony Parish from 1960 to 1963.
Of the 417 priests ordained for the Diocese of Helena, 20 have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor, and one has been acquitted. Nearly 30 women, most serving as Ursuline Sisters or Mothers, were also accused of sexual abuse of children.
Most on the list died a long time ago. Many of the women who are alleged to have committed crimes are known only by their first names, and little else is known about them. Some on the list, like Obersinner, are alive but have faded into obscurity until now.
A 2007 newsletter profile of Obersinner by the Society of Jesus Oregon Province describes him as having led an “extraordinary life.”
“Generations of young Native People looked up to him as a father and teacher,” the article reads. “The quiet integrity of his life, the total commitment of himself to the well-being of the young people entrusted to his care at the Mission, gave him a place in the (Native Americans’) hearts that remains till today.”
The original article has since been deleted from the nwjesuits.org website.
Obersinner was co-pastor at St. Ignatius Mission from 1972 to 1980. The article says that he took a position as the assistant to the director of the Rocky Mountain Missions at the Regis Community in Spokane in 1998.
“I can’t discuss that,” Bartleson said when asked about Obersinner’s whereabouts. “There is some confidentiality there that I can’t breach. The same goes for the victims who may have made this claim.”
In Montana, a statute of limitations (Montana Code Annotated 45-1-205) prevents a person from being charged with sexual assault against a minor 10 years after the victim turns 18, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. For sexual intercourse without consent or sexual assault, the limit is 10 years after the crime was alleged to have occurred.
Two separate groups of victims sued the Helena diocese in 2011 as accounts of abuse began to surface and more victims came forward. The majority of abuse was alleged to have occurred at the hands of Jesuit priests and Ursuline Sisters at the St. Ignatius Mission and the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignatius.
The abuses ranged from rape to inappropriate touching and photographing of children, and most of the alleged crimes took place between the 1940s and 1970s.
In March, a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved a $20 million payment plan to settle the hundreds of abuse claims. The settlement also included some non-financial stipulations, including the listing of alleged abusers’ names.
The list includes 12 priests who served in western Montana and 21 Ursuline Sisters who served at St. Ignatius Mission. Several, like Father Emmet Lowney, Father John Kerrigan and Father Dusan Okorn, worked in the Bitterroot Valley.
Bryan Smith, an attorney with Tamaki Law Offices in Washington, represented 95 of the 362 victims. He said the list of names was just as important as the payments.
“It’s one of the most important terms of the settlement,” he explained. “With every settlement against a religious order or diocese, there are monetary terms and non-monetary terms, which are the most difficult to negotiate, but they are some of the most important terms for the abuse survivors. They are important because they are an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and acknowledgement of the fact that these people who were entrusted with the care of children, betrayed that trust. The list is an acknowledgement of accountability in the eyes of survivors. It goes a long way in the healing process and we insist on it whenever we settle a case against a religious entity.”
Smith said that none of the alleged perpetrators were ever charged with a crime due to the statute of limitations.
“Unfortunately, the statute of limitations has expired,” he explained. “The most prolific perpetrator monster could be out there, but if the statute has expired nothing can be done criminally. It blows your mind. It really is up to the church to protect the community from these abusers now.”
In the case of Obersinner, Smith is unaware if he is specifically monitored.
“There is a group of Jesuit priests who are being monitored 24 hours a day at a retirement facility in Spokane,” he said. “I don’t know what supervision they have in place, but I know that one of his colleagues that he served with is under 24-hour supervision. That is one example of how the diocese can take steps to keep them in their ranks.”
Smith took Obersinner’s deposition at one point.
“He must be in his 80s, but he was still as sharp as a tack,” he said. “He denies (the allegations).”
Smith said that the list of names is long overdue, but his clients aren’t ready to celebrate yet.
“I wouldn’t say they are happy,” he said. “My clients and the abuse survivors I have talked to feel that is a necessary step to hold the church as accountable as possible. There has to be scrutiny as to how much accountability is being imposed. They are getting away with settlement amounts that are lower than expected with the type of harm they caused.”
The settlement also calls for Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Helena Diocese to send a written letter of apology to the victims.
“The church has reached out throughout the process and communicated to the victims that they are respected by (Thomas) and the Diocese and they are believed,” Bartleson said.
The church was driven into bankruptcy by the lawsuit, and Bartleson said it is just now beginning a “very slow road to recovery.”
A toll-free phone number set up for victims to call if they need to report abuse, and there is a comments section on the diocese website that victims can write in. Bishop Thomas will also preside over reconciliation liturgies this fall.
A lawsuit against the Diocese of Great Falls, which involves roughly 60 plaintiffs, is in the discovery phase.
“This is an imperfect system to be sure,” Smith said. “But it’s the best that we have within the limitations of criminal and civil penalties.”
Diocese of Helena list
Note that of the 417 priests ordained for the Diocese of Helena, 20 (4.8 percent) have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor and one has been acquitted.
James Barry – Ordained: 1951; Assignments: St. Mary Parish, Butte: 1951-56; Cathedral Parish, Helena: 1956-57; Holy Rosary Parish, Bozeman: 1957-58; US Air Force Chaplain: 1958-62; St. John Parish, Fairfield: 1962-66; St. Philip Parish, Philipsburg: 1966-80; Died September 8, 1980
John Bauer – Ordained: 1963; Assignments: St. Paul Parish, Anaconda: 1963-64; Sacred Heart Parish, Butte: 1964; Graduate Studies, St. Louis University: 1964-66; Director of Catholic Charities, Helena: 1966-1970; Sacred Heart Mission, Wolf Creek: 1968-1970; Leave of absence: September 1, 1970; Died: October 26, 1992
Harry Butori – Ordained: 1952; Assignments: Graduate studies, Rome: 1952-3; St. Michael Parish, Conrad: summer 1953; Carroll College: 1953-56; St. Peter Parish, Anaconda: 1956-57; St. Richard Parish, Columbia Falls: summer 1957; St. Matthew Parish, Kalispell: 1957-59; Cathedral Parish and Chancery, Helena: 1959-66; Girls Central High School, Butte: 1966-68; St. William Parish, Dutton: 1968-72; St Teresa of Avila Parish, Whitehall: 1972-80; St. Joseph Parish, Choteau: 1980-86; St. James Hospital, Butte: 1986-1990; Catholic Community North, Butte: 1990-1999; retired (residence at St. Patrick rectory, Butte): September 1, 1999; Died: March 14, 2005
John Delane – Ordained: 1919; Assignments: St. Lawrence Parish, Walkerville: summer 1919; Mt St. Charles (Carroll) College: 1919-20; Chaplain, Montana State Prison, and State Hospitals at Galen and Warm Springs: 1920-26; St. Paul Parish, Anaconda: 1926-27; Immaculate Conception Parish, Butte: 1927-28; St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, Laurin: 1928-39; St. Philip Parish, Philipsburg: 39-42; St. Mary Parish, Helena: 1942-56; Chaplain St. Joseph Hospital, Deer Lodge: 1956-63; residence at Carroll College: 1963-71; Died: January 30, 1971
Harry Delaney – Ordained: 1925; Assignments: St. Paul Parish, Anaconda: summer/fall 1925; St. Joseph Parish, Butte: 1925-34; St. Joseph Hospital, Deer Lodge: 1934-36; Our Lady of Mercy Parish, Eureka: 1936-54; General Hospital, Kalispell: 1954-57; Died: March 11, 1957
George Ferguson – Ordained: 1956; Assignments: Anaconda: summer 1956; Sacred Heart Parish, Butte: 1956-57; Immaculate Conception Parish, Butte: 1957-59; Newman Chaplain/Christ the King Parish, Missoula: 1959-71; St. Catherine Parish, Bigfork: 1971-75; Mission in Guatemala: 1975-77; St. Anthony Parish, Missoula: 1977-78; St. William Parish, Thompson Falls: 1978-80; Sick leave, residence in Mexico: 1980-86; Died: June 12, 1986
Joseph Finnegan – Ordained: May 22, 1965; Note that criminal accusations were taken to court, resulting in acquittal; Assignments: Immaculate Conception Parish, Butte: 1965-72; Catholic Charities, Helena: 1972-73; Butte Youth Service Center: 1973-82; Leave: 1982-89; Special Assignment: 1989-93 and 1994-2002; St. Teresa Parish, Whitehall: 1993-94; Retired: July 1, 2002
A.M.D. Gillen – ordained May 29, 1926 (in Canada); Assignments in Diocese of Helena: St. Richard, Columbia Falls: 1950-51; St. Teresa of the Little Flower, Browning: 1951-1965; Left Diocese: September 1, 1965; Died: July 30, 1987
Daniel Harrington – Ordained: 1932; Assignments: Graduate Studies, Rome: 1932-33; St. Mary Parish, Butte: 1933-36; St. Patrick Parish, Butte: 1936-37; Immaculate Conception Parish, Butte: 1937-39; St. Peter Parish, Anaconda: 1939-42; Sacred Heart Parish, Ronan: 1942-1949; North American College, Rome: 1949-1952; Director of Catholic Charities, Helena: 1953-59; St. Joseph Home and St. John Hospital, Helena: 1958-59; Chaplain, Warm Springs: 1959-65; St. Joseph Parish, Butte: 1965-71; Holy Savior Parish, Butte: 1971-72; Retired (residence in Butte): November 10, 1972; Died: November 23, 1997
Robert Hartman – Ordained: 1947; Assignments: St. Patrick Parish, Butte: summer 1949; Cathedral Parish, Helena: 1949-56; Good Shepherd Home, Helena: 1956-65; St. Richard Parish, Columbia Falls: 1965-73; St. Mary Parish, Helena: 1973-77; St. Catherine Parish, Boulder: 1977-79; Holy Cross Parish, Townsend: 1979-85; St. Catherine Parish, Bigfork: 1985-94; Retired: March 1, 1994; Died: August 12, 1996
Daniel Hillen – Ordained: 1969; Assignments: St. Patrick Parish, Butte: 1970-71; St. Ann Parish, Butte: 1971-74; Graduate studies: 1974 and 1977-79; Carroll College: 1974-2002; leave to begin art studio: 2002; Died: July 19, 2003
John Kerrigan – Ordained: 1954; Assignments: St. Patrick Parish, Butte: 1954-55; St. Francis Parish, Hamilton: 1955-56; St. Mary Parish, Butte: 1956-59; St. Lawrence Parish, Walkerville: 1959-62; St. Rose Parish, Dillon: 1962-64; St. Ann Parish, Butte: 1964-65; Little Flower Parish, Browning: summer 1965; Holy Rosary Parish, Bozeman: 1965-66; St. Michael Parish, Drummond: 1966-72; St. Bartholomew Parish, White Sulphur Springs: 1972-77; St. Joseph Parish, Choteau: 1977-1980; St. James Parish, Plains: 1980-84; Sacred Heart Parish, Ronan: 1984; Died: July 21, 1984
Paul Kirchen – Ordained: 1929; Assignment: Carroll College 1929-1980; retired, residence at Carroll College: July 1, 1980; Died: April 19, 1989
Emmett Lowney – Ordained: 1949; Assignments: St. Paul Parish, Anaconda: 1949-51; St. Peter Parish, Anaconda: 1951-54; Chancery and Sacred Heart Mission, Wolf Creek: 1954-56; St. John Parish, Butte: 1956-57; St. Catherine Parish, Boulder: 1957-64; St. Michael Parish, Drummond: 1964-67; Retreat House, Deer Lodge: 1967-68; St. Mary Mission Parish, Stevensville: 1968-69; leave to Michigan: 1969; Died: July 31, 1975
Bernard McCarthy – Ordained: 1947; Assignments: Cathedral, Helena: 1947-49; St. Patrick, Butte: 1949-52 & 1971-78; Sacred Heart, Ronan: 1957-68; St. Lawrence, Walkerville: 1968-71; St. Michael, Conrad: 1979-86; Risen Christ, Kalispell: 1986-89; Catholic Community North, Butte: 1989-90; St. James Community Hospital, Butte: 1990-92; Retired: 1992; Died: September 16, 2003
James McCormick – Ordained: 1924; Assignments: Carroll College: 1924-26 and 1927-51; St. Lawrence Parish, Walkerville: 1926-27 and 1951-56; Immaculate Conception Parish, Butte: 1956-67; Died: June 14, 1967
Dusan Okorn – Ordained: 1947; Arrived in Diocese of Helena: December 1949; Assignments: St. Joseph Home, Helena: 1950-52; St. Peter Parish, Anaconda: 1952-53; St. Joseph Parish, Butte: 1953-55; St. Michael Parish, Conrad: 1955-58; St. Richard Parish, Columbia Falls: 1958-63; St. Catherine Parish, Bigfork: 1963-71; St. Mary Mission Parish, Stevensville: 1971-78; Sycamore Center, Living Water Mission, Seeley Lake, Our Lady of the Swan Valley Mission, Condon: 1978-2006; Retired: 2006; Died: January 10, 2010
Robert O’Donnell – Ordained: 1966; Assignments: St. John Parish and Girls Central High School, Butte: 1966-68; Central High School, Helena: 1968-1969; Central High School, Butte: 1969-1972; Cathedral Parish, Helena: 1972-1979; Chancery: 1979-85; St. Mary Parish, Helena: 1983-85; Sabbatical: 1985-86; Diocese of Honolulu: 1987; Incardinated into Diocese of Honolulu: July 17, 1990; Died: July 29, 1995
Wilson Smart – Ordained: 1957; Assignments: St. Peter Parish, Anaconda: 1957-59; St. Ann Parish, Butte: 1959-60 and 1966-69; St. Anthony Parish, Missoula: 1960-63; Cathedral Parish, Helena: 1963-65; St. Mary Parish, Butte: 1965-66; St. Richard Parish, Columbia Falls: 1969-74; Our Lady of Mercy Parish, Eureka: 1974-80; St. Bartholomew Parish, White Sulphur Springs: 1980-82; St. Joseph Parish, Harlowton: 1980-90; Leave of absence: 1990; Laicized: July 9, 2003; Died: November 10, 2006
Leonard Spraycar – Ordained: 1947; Assignments: St. Peter Parish, Anaconda: 1947-48 and 1954-55; St. Ann Parish, Butte: 1948-51; Chancery, Legendary Lodge & Sacred Heart Mission, Wolf Creek: 1951-54; St. Joseph Parish, Butte: 1955-59; St. Thomas Parish, Helmville: 1959-64; St. Philip Parish, Philipsburg: 1964-66; St. John Parish, Fairfield: 1966-68; St. Joseph Parish, Anaconda: 1968-73; St. Richard Parish, Columbia Falls: 1973-78; St. William Parish, Dutton: 1978-80; St. Patrick Hospital, Missoula: 1980-84; Died: March 31, 1984
Patrick Stimatz – Ordained: 1946; Assignments: Holy Rosary Parish, Bozeman: 1946-50; St. John Parish, Butte: 1950-59; St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, Laurin: 1959-65; Little Flower Parish, Browning: 1965-72; Chaplain, Montana State Prison: 1972-86; Died: May 4, 1986
Jesuit priests or brothers, principally from Oregon Province, Society of Jesus:
Names provided by the plaintiffs; assignment information from the National Catholic Directory; other information is from the Oregon Province, Society of Jesus.
Joseph Balfe, SJ – Ordained: 1927; Assignments in Diocese of Helena: St. Ignatius Mission Parish: 1931-35; 1945-53; St. Francis Xavier Parish, Missoula: 1936 & 44; Left Diocese: 1953; Died: September 29, 1969
Victor Charlo – Jesuit Seminarian; not assigned in Montana
Thomas Connolly, SJ – not assigned in Montana
M.A. Dimier, SJ – (Ordination Date unavailable); Assignment in Diocese: St. Ignatius Mission Parish, St. Ignatius: 1930-50; Died: June 14, 1950
A.J. Ferretti, SJ (“Fr. Freddy”) – Ordained: 1941; Assignments in Diocese: St. Ignatius Mission Parish, St. Ignatius: 1953; 1964-69; Left Diocese: 1969; Died: June 28, 1982
Rene Gallant (“Brother Charlie”), SJ – no record of assignments; Died: July 23, 1975 at St. Ignatius
Louis Geis, SJ – Ordained: 1939; Assignments in Diocese: St. Ignatius Mission Parish, St. Ignatius 1959-62; St. Francis Xavier Parish, Missoula: 1949-56 & 1963-92; Left Diocese 1992; Died: July 8, 1994
Bernard Harris, SJ – Ordained: 1945; Assignment in Diocese: St. Francis Xavier Parish, Missoula: 1954-69 and 72; Died: September 7, 1972
Egon Mallman, SJ – Ordained: 1929; Assignments in Diocese: St. Anne Parish, Heart Butte: 1934-1976; Left Diocese: 1976; Died: August 20, 1980
Gabriel Menager, SJ – [Ordination date unavailable]; Assignments in Diocese: St. Ignatius Mission Parish, St. Ignatius: 1940-45; Left Diocese: 1945; Died: July 28 1966
Joseph Obersinner, SJ – Ordained: 1957; Assignments in Diocese: St. Ignatius Mission Parish, St. Ignatius: 1972-80; St. Francis Xavier Parish, Missoula: 1989-91; Left Diocese: 1991
Edmund Robinson (“Father Eddy”), SJ – Ordained: 1955; Assignments in Diocese: St. Ignatius Mission Parish, St. Ignatius: 1963-64; 1969-81; Left Diocese in 1981; Died: May 22, 2014
Br. John Sorisio, SJ – Worked at St. Ignatius from 1915 until his death on July 20, 1957
Louis Taelman, SJ – Ordained: 1898; Assignments in Diocese: St. Ignatius Mission Parish, St. Ignatius: 1930-40 and 1953-58; Left Diocese: 1958; Died: December 24, 1961
Norbertine Priests: while serving in the Diocese of Helena
John Kohnke, O Praem – ordained: March 22, 1937; Assignments in Diocese of Helena: St. Thomas Parish, Sunburst: 1955; St. William Parish, Shelby: 1960-64; Left diocese: August 19, 1964; Died: September 2, 1987
Martin Philipsen, O Praem – ordained: June 18, 1942; Assignments in Diocese of Helena: St. William Parish, Shelby: 1971-78; Left diocese: 1978; Died: August 21, 1988
Peter Pritzl, O Praem – ordained: April 25, 1929; Assignments in Diocese of Helena: St. Margaret Parish, Cut Bank: 1962-63; St. William Parish, Shelby: 1963-71; St. Thomas Parish, Sunburst: 1971-74; Left diocese: 1974; Died: October 3, 1993
Diocese cannot verify the following individuals identified in claims as priests:
Burke (first name unknown)
Byrnes or Burns (first name unknown), SJ
Callan (first name unknown)
Estes (first name unknown)
Gannon (first name unknown), SJ
Gilmore (first name unknown)
John (last name unknown), SJ
Larson (first name unknown), SJ
James O’Brien, SJ
Sullivan (first name unknown)
Lay persons at St. Ignatius:
Dave (last name unknown)
Ursuline Sisters serving at St. Ignatius between 1940 and 1975:
Names provided by plaintiffs.
Mother Bernadette, OSU
Sister Camilla, OSU
Sister Catherine, OSU
Mother Cecelia, OSU (Frances Seymor)
Mother Clement Marie, OSU
Sister Daniels, OSU
Mother Finbarr, OSU
Sister Frances, OSU
Mother Grace, OSU
Sister Henrietta, OSU
Sister John, OSU
Mother Loyola, OSU (Rufina Karges)
Sister Mackey, OSU
Mother Marianne, OSU
Sister Mary Laurence, OSU
Sister Margaret, OSU
Sister Marion, OSU
Sister Martin, OSU
Sister Monica, OSU
Sister Rita, OSU
Sister Teresa, OSU
Sisters from other communities, while serving in the Diocese of Helena:
Mother Catherine, RGS – Good Shepherd Home, Helena
Sister Glenniatoss – (religious community uncertain)
Sister Mary Agnes Rose, BVM – Immaculate Conception School, Butte
Sister Mary Victor, SCL – St. Helena School, Helena
Sister Monica, OP – St. Margaret School, Cut Bank
Sister Richildus, OP – St. Margaret School, Cut Bank
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