In January, Indian Country Today Media Network reported that a Yakima, Washington–based law firm had filed a 12-page legal complaint on behalf of a Northern Cheyenne tribal member seeking justice for years of abuse she suffered as a child at Montana’s St. Labre Indian School in the 1950s and 1960s. The case is a significant one, as the accused is Father Emmett Hoffmann, a near-legendary figure on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
In recent weeks, the case has become even bigger. According to an amended, 19-page version of the legal complaint filed on June 6 in Montana’s Eighth Judicial District Court, priests and nuns misused their authority to “molest, exploit and abuse children” across eastern Montana. The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis are now named in the complaint, and 10 additional male and female victims have joined the original Jane Doe in filing suit against the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.
“At the beginning, I called this the tip of the iceberg,” says Blaine Tamaki, founder of Tamaki Law and a practicing trial lawyer for three decades, who is the lead attorney on this suit. “Now, we are beginning to see just how big that iceberg is.
“From the outset, our extensive experience suggested that pedophiles usually do not limit their victims to just one. They prey on vulnerable children. The more powerful the pedophile, the more access they have to children, and the more likely it is their victims will suffer in silence.”
Priests and nuns, he notes, are particularly powerful, since they are blessed and appointed by the church. And at mission boarding schools and orphanages, they had access to plenty of vulnerable children.
According to the complaint, the alleged abuses occurred at St. Labre Indian School, Cheyenne Home Orphanage, St. Paul’s Indian Mission, St. Xavier Mission and others, all owned and operated by the diocese. Allegations state that the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings sent known perpetrators to remote areas in Montana, including Indian mission boarding schools. This created an “unreasonable risk that vulnerable children…would be victimized by the priests, brothers and nuns” named in the complaint.
The complaint goes on to state that canon (Vatican) law requires bishops to maintain “secret archival files” of material that could be “injurious” to the diocese and the church.
“We know that, historically, such files were used to move perpetrators around to the most isolated areas, and that the resulting molestation and abuse created lifelong devastation to the children,” says Vito de la Cruz, Tamaki Law attorney. “In other words, it’s clear that sexual molestation and exploitive, abusive behavior were inflicted on poor, rural children sent to Montana missions, orphanages and parishes by perpetrators who were moved from place to place like pieces on a game board, to protect the Catholic Church.”
Tamaki hopes the legal complaint makes it clear that the victims were not under the control of their parents while living in those institutions; rather, they were under the control of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, which bears the ultimate responsibility. “We are alleging that the church knew or should have known, and turned a blind eye on priests and nuns who were sexually molesting children,” Tamaki says.
Instead of correcting the injustice, he notes, the diocese is now hiding behind what he calls a clever sound bite. “They need to address what happened on their watch when these adults attended the boarding schools as children,” he says. “The church’s announcement that ‘they are in compliance now’ is self-serving [and] unproven.… The Catholic Church is well known for its centuries-old traditions. This tradition of harboring pedophiles is another…which has been slow to change.”
As he points out, the first disclosure of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests came decades ago, yet the problem is still front-page news around the world as victims find the courage to come forward.
It’s particularly difficult for these victims in eastern Montana to speak out. When ICTMN spoke to Vito de la Cruz in January, he said of the first Jane Doe, “There definitely are layers of inhibition involving her cultural background. In this case, the priest is such a big figure, and this is such a small, closed community. She’s very fearful. She’s very aware of the shadow Father Hoffmann throws.”
Her fellow plaintiffs face similar barriers, according to Tamaki, because the Catholic Church is a major employer on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations. “This creates barriers to victims speaking out, for fear of being blackballed and foreclosed from work opportunities,” he explained. “Combined with the other obvious reasons why victims remain silent—shame, humiliation, being stigmatized—the challenge of educating and empowering victims is very difficult. We’ve interviewed many victims who will not come forward because of the church’s power as a major employer.”
Yet 10 plaintiffs did join the first Jane Doe, and Tamaki says they all came forward in the wake of ICTMN’s original article in January. “[The coverage] made other victims feel they were not alone,” he says. “In any abuse case, when the first victim has the courage to speak out, other victims feel empowered to also speak out to correct the injustice.”
It does take courage, and not only because of the employment issue. Many tribal communities, Tamaki says, have divided loyalties when child-abuse allegations arise. “Many Native Americans support victims’ rights, but Native American Catholics [often] feel they must remain loyal to the church,” he says.
This lawsuit is now entering its discovery phase, which means the legal teams are conducting a full investigation into each of the claims. According to Tamaki, the diocese has already raised Montana’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases as a defense. “In our opinion, there are exceptions…which should allow each of the cases to move forward,” he notes. “It will be up to the court to decide if justice is served.”