Nuns who taught decades ago at the St. Ignatius Mission’s Ursuline Academy on the Flathead Indian Reservation came under fire for sexually abusing the children under their care in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the Catholic Diocese of Helena.
The suit, filed on behalf of 45 people who were pupils at the mission’s boarding and day school in the 1940s through the early 1970s, also names six Roman Catholic priests and one brother, and includes allegations of abuse at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Helena.
The suit comes just a week after a separate legal action was filed on behalf of 32 people who accuse the Helena Diocese of covering up for pedophiles in its midst.
What sets the suit filed Tuesday apart from the landslide of cases in the United States and Europe alleging decades of sexual abuse by priests is the fact that at least four nuns also are accused, said Blaine Tamaki of the Tamaki Law Offices of Yakima, Wash.
“The individual perpetrators of sexual abuse who preyed upon plaintiffs were pedophiles and child predators,” the suit reads. “The Helena Diocese and the Ursuline Sisters knew or should have known that the individual perpetrators were committing acts of sexual abuse against plaintiffs.”
About 10 of the people identified in the suit as John Doe or Jane Doe joined Tamaki and other attorneys Tuesday morning in front of the Missoula County Courthouse at a news conference announcing the suit.
The abuse “is always going to be in the back of my mind. But getting it public makes it feel like something is being done and it’s not being forgotten,” said Francis “Franny” Burke, one of those who agreed to speak publicly. Burke, now in his 50s, attended the St. Ignatius Mission’s boarding school for two years, starting when he was 6.
“What makes this intolerable,” Tamaki said, “was that these were some of the most vulnerable children, Native Americans, who were trapped at these residential schools.”
Burke and some of the others involved in the suit filed against the Diocese and the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province also were among some 500 people – nearly all of them Native American or Alaskan Native – who prevailed in March in a $166.1 million bankruptcy reorganization against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, better known as Jesuits.
But Tamaki said that action never held the Ursulines, who were supervised by the Jesuits, accountable.
Helena Diocese spokeswoman Renee St. Martin Wizeman told the Associated Press that the alleged abusers in both lawsuits were not diocesan priests and nuns, but belonged to the Ursuline and Jesuit orders.
The suit details the allegations by each of the plaintiffs, who tell of being fondled, abused and raped in the school, dormitory and even the church’s bell tower.
“Instead of being taught how to read and write, these children were taught distrust and betrayal,” Tamaki said.
The suit names Mother Superior Loyola, Mother Cecelia, Sister John, Sister Marion “and other unknown Ursuline nuns and sisters.” It also names Father Bernard Harris (Father Harry); Father William Burke, Father A.J. Ferretti (Father Freddy), Father Joseph Balfe, Father Delaney and Father Sullivan, along with Brother Rene Gallant (Brother Charlie).
The suit seeks damages and attorney’s fees and “relief that will ensure that the diocese and the Ursuline Sisters publicly acknowledge the sexual abuse that the plaintiffs suffered, the pain and suffering that they continue to suffer,” and policies to ensure the “physical, spiritual and emotional” safety of people in their care.
“How do you change conduct unless you hold the perpetrators accountable? … In our society, money changes conduct,” Tamaki said.
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, firstname.lastname@example.org, or CopsAndCourts.com