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Catholic Church 'dumped' abusive priests onto tribal communities, database shows

St. Xavier Mission Church on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana is one of many Native missions in the West that suffered abusive Jesuit priests.
Jerrye and Roy Klotz MD
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Wikimedia Commons
St. Xavier Mission Church on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana is one of many Native missions in the West that suffered abusive Jesuit priests.

Editor's note: This story contains data related to sexual assault and misconduct toward minors and adults.

A new database reveals many Jesuit priests accused of sexual abuse worked in tribal communities, including dozens in the Mountain West.

Over the past 70 years, 96 priests of the Jesuits West Province of the Society of Jesus have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. Nearly half of them – 47 priests – spent time on tribal lands.

That’s according to a database called “Desolate Country: Mapping Catholic Sex Abuse in Native America,” which a pair of researchers built from the Catholic Church’s own list of “credible claims of sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult” by priests and brothers across much of the West dating back to 1950.

Kathleen Holscher, an associate professor of religious studies and American studies at the University of New Mexico, is one of the researchers who worked on the project. The other is Jack Downey, an associate professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York.

Holscher says the data supports claims that known abusive priests were often sent to tribal communities.

“Native missions were places where the Catholic Church dumped priests that they knew were trouble,” Holscher said. “Because they knew that if they put them on a Native mission, nobody would complain, or if people did complain, nobody would listen to them.”

In Idaho, for example, there have been five Jesuit priests accused of sexual misconduct on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation (Sacred Heart Mission) and another on the Nez Perce Reservation (Sacred Heart Church), the database shows.

In Montana, four different reservations have suffered abusive Jesuit priests, including six on the Flathead Indian Reservation (St. Ignatius Mission), three on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation (St. Paul’s Mission), and one on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (St. Anne’s Church). On the Crow Indian Reservation, abuse claims were made against priests at three different institutions, including two at St. Xavier Mission and one each at St. Charles Mission and St. Joseph’s Church.

Some of these sexual abuse claims were part of the Northwest Jesuits' $166 million settlement with victims in 2011.

The database allows users to track how priests moved within the church – before, during and after accusations of abuse.

Holscher and Downey also found examples of priests who were never accused of abuse while working in white communities but were accused of taking advantage of Native children.

In describing the database on its website, the two researchers cautioned that it was provided by a biased Catholic institution.

“With this in mind, we present ‘Desolate Country’ as both a tool for tracking abuse, and an artifact of problems inherent in all institutional Catholic archives related to abuse,” they wrote.

The data did not include Colorado, New Mexico or Wyoming.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright 2022 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Kaleb Roedel