On a wall in the St. Ignatius Mission, amid periwinkle panels and gold-colored trim, a large mural depicts a pit of fire packed to the brim with agonized faces paying for their sins. Many of those faces are Native American, their brown complexion framed by black braids, surrounded by fire and brimstone.
"When we were bad, the nuns would bring us to that picture and say, 'This is where you are going to go.' And for me, I would just have nightmares. I believed it," says SuSan Lefthand Dowdall, a member of the Kootenai tribe who attended boarding school at the St. Ignatius Mission for a year and a half as a small child. "So when the incident happened at the powwow grounds, I knew that—I hurt so bad that—you know, my starting to be in hell was starting that day."
Dowdall's hell began one early summer morning in 1963 when school was out and Arlee's annual Fourth of July powwow was about to begin. She was a petite 5-year-old with chubby cheeks and a wide smile. Her parents left her and a little sister at their grandparent's home while they partied at the powwow's beer garden. The next morning, realizing that her mom and dad had not returned, Dowdall and her sister headed to the gathering.
"Sure enough we saw our car parked right there near the beer garden, and there were a few people passed out on the ground," Dowdall says. "When we got closer, we saw our mom was passed out on this side, and my dad was on that side, and Father Robinson was on the left side of him."
Dowdall says she rustled around in her mother's purse until she found the car keys. She gave her sister some money and sent her toward the concession stands to get a snack and play stick games with the other kids. In the meantime, she says Father Edmund Robinson, a priest at St. Ignatius Mission, woke up and walked toward the beer garden to use the bathroom.
"When he got through he kind of turned and started walking and he called me. So I ran over there. I wasn't afraid of him," Dowdall says. "And he just patted my hair, told me what a nice little girl I was, a pretty girl. The next thing, he picked me up and pulled my pants and panties down, and, um, he started inserting me from behind with his fingers—like this."
Dowdall makes a rough thrusting motion with her fingers. "And the next thing, um, he just unbuttoned his pants, unzipped them, and kept me like that, and he raped me."
Dowdall's eyes turn glassy as she speaks. She is sitting in the Kwataqnuk Casino in Polson as she tells her story, pausing for the loud groups of tourists who occasionally pass through the hallway. She is whispering.
"I kept trying to get away, and I was trying to holler, and he just kept shushing me, and finally when he was done he just set me down and he told me 'pull your pants back up,'" Dowdall says, her hands stacked on top of each other, her feet crossed. "And I was running towards my mom and dad and I was pulling them up and I was so scared."
She tells how her stomach swelled up from inflammation after the rape, how bad it hurt. She says she's never been able to carry a full term pregnancy and she's had multiple miscarriages in the years since Father Robinson violated her.
After the rape, she locked herself in her parents' car. She says the priest stood outside, in plain view.
"I looked over there and he was licking his fingers and smelling his fingers," she says. "And I just laid down, and I just kept thinking, you know, am I going to get a spanking for this? What did I do? And I just knew that I was going to go to hell."
Dowdall, now 56 and married with an adopted son, was raped more than half a century ago. Silence was her go-to strategy for many years. She thought no one would believe her because the rapist was a priest. She suffered through abusive relationships and says she attempted suicide on more than one occasion.
But in 2011, Dowdall finally found the courage to come forward. With the support of her sister, who was also preyed upon by Catholic clergy, SuSan joined a class-action lawsuit against the Diocese of Helena. Earlier that year sex abuse survivors had won a massive lawsuit against the Oregon Province of Jesuits and plaintiffs attorneys were preparing to file suit against the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province as well.
These three organizations—an order of nuns, an order of priests and the local Catholic governing body—are responsible for the searing history of child rape, molestation, beating and verbal abuse that took place at the St. Ignatius Mission on the Flathead Indian Reservation for much of the 20th century.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
What happened at St. Ignatius was no anomaly. It was one stop on a twisted circuit of Catholic churches and schools across the Northwest that harbored pedophiles and enabled systematic sexual abuse of Native American children. In churches off the reservations, non-Native children were raped as well.
"We've tracked these pedophile priests and they were at St. Mary's, at Sacred Heart, at St. Paul's, at St. Ignatius and more," says Ken Bear Chief, a paralegal who helps organize Native American survivors of clergy sex abuse. "Priests like Father Ferretti, Father Duffy, Father Brown, Father Balfe, and I could name more, they were circulated around and so whenever they went to these various reservation mission schools they abused children where they were. Then they would send them to the next place and they would do the same thing again."
Bear Chief, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe, sees the network of reservation mission schools as a not-so-secret dumping ground for problem priests and child predators. The schools were rural and isolated. The Native American children were voiceless and their parents were powerless in the face of the almighty Church. He says the priests and nuns liked to target kids who came from big, broken families.
"What we see is that church officials tend to put predators into situations where they are less likely to be caught and prosecuted, where children have fewer resources, less access to law enforcement, fewer people watching," says Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "So we do see a pattern. ... Ultimately it is a great situation for a predator."