Forgive you, Father

Decades of abuse by the Catholic Church resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements and the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Helena, but it will take more than money to make things right for survivors.



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No one knows how many Kootenai and Salish children were raped at St. Ignatius. By the time the survivors of clergy sex abuse in these cases came forward, the criminal statute of limitations had long passed and many of the perpetrators were already dead. None of the Catholic clergy have been charged with a criminal offense, but all credibly accused Jesuit priests have been publicly named on the order's website. The Diocese of Helena has agreed to post a similar list and Bishop George Leo Thomas stated, "I give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser."

Though hundreds of survivors across the Northwest have come forward to take part in the lawsuits against the Jesuits, the Ursulines and the Diocese of Helena, there are many more who stay silent. The men and women who have spoken out say they only do so after a long internal struggle.

Outside Ronan, a bright white FEMA trailer blends into the thick snow that came down the previous evening. Inside, Garry "Bear" Salois and Francis "Franny" Burke Sr. sit together reminiscing, reflecting and comforting each other as they've done for decades. In slow speech, interrupted by sobs, laughs and angry outbursts, they describe their own private hell. In the 1950s and '60s they were both students at the Ursuline Academy, the boarding school at the St. Ignatius Mission.

The shame and anger, the bad dreams and lost innocence are difficult to handle, says Salois, a member of the Salish tribe. Coping mechanisms are crucial. "If you can't kind of make some sick humor to yourself you would go nuts," he says, and then he turns with a big grin to Burke. "Hello you old nun muncher!" For a moment, everyone laughs.

SuSan Lefthand Dowdall displays a piece of her Ursuline Academy uniform as evidence of how small she was when she was raped by a priest in 1963. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • SuSan Lefthand Dowdall displays a piece of her Ursuline Academy uniform as evidence of how small she was when she was raped by a priest in 1963.

Salois is a big man with a long white beard who at 62 years old relies on a walker to get around. He says the abuse started two weeks after he arrived at school as a "cute, skinny, redheaded" 5-year-old in 1956. His tormentors were many, but Mother Loyola, a large and violent nun who ran the boys' dorm, was one of the worst. The kids thought she was a Nazi war criminal on the lam. At night, she would come into the boys' sleeping quarters and, like a monster out of a horror flick, pluck children from their beds.

"When she would come out of her room at night, I would say this prayer: 'Oh please God, don't let it be me. Please don't let it be me.' And sure enough God never answered me one goddamn time," Salois says, his eyes closed and his lips contorted in an angry grimace.

As Salois describes what Mother Loyola made him do to her with his hands, Burke weeps quietly from the adjacent couch. "Guys got little hands, boy ...," Salois says, holding up a hand now tattooed across the knuckles with the word "LOVE." "And I'd go back to bed and pee my bed and hope to God ... You'd pray to God every time she'd open your door, 'please don't let it be me.'"

Salois' other hand is inked with the word "HATE."

Burke has a harder time describing what happened at the mission school. Though he has been one of the most outspoken plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the Catholic Church, he struggles to discuss the details of the two years he spent at the school in the late 1950s.

"It started, for me, it started with the priests over at the church. We'd have to get up at six o'clock in the morning to serve mass, you know, and we would have to go over to the big church every Sunday and it happened over there," Burke says. "People want to know the details now and that is really hard to talk about. You know, it's, I just don't feel ..."

Burke says the boys were forced to strip down naked before donning their altar boy attire, and the priest, with his pants down and an erection in plain view, would watch.

Salois describes the actions of a particularly notorious perpetrator.

"Brother Charlie was a sneaky son of a bitch. He would call you over there and he would tell you ghost stories, and he would start smoking a cigar and give you a smoke. And then that old cassock would come up and your pants would go down and old Brother Charlie would sit there ..." Salois says, making a repeated thrusting motion with his pelvis.

Burke lights a cigarette and looks at the floor.

"They were raping us and using us for their sexual, like, their playthings...," Burke says. "When you got raped, you'd think to yourself: 'Oh Jesus, this is so embarrassing, humiliating, man. It was just, I dunno, man. Suicide would come into your head and everything else, just to get out of there, you know? What could you do, you know? There was nothing you could do.'"

When Salois and Burke first opened up about their experiences with other people in the 1980s, they learned they were hardly alone. Generations of Native Americans say they were molested at St. Ignatius, and there were often multiple victims within the same family. Salois says his younger brother was raped by priests and nuns there. Burke's older sister says she was molested at the mission. Both Dowdall and her younger sister were raped. Many of Salois and Burke's closest friends and even some older relatives say they were abused. Perpetrators like Mother Loyola and Brother Rene "Charlie" Gallant served at the school for decades. It was multi-generational abuse and it went beyond sex.

Beatings, bullying and exotic punishments were standard fare. Upon arrival at the school, the first thing the nuns would do is cut off the traditional long hair of Native children. Dowdall describes being put into a tub and scrubbed down.

Garry “Bear” Salois, Ken Bear Chief and Francis “Franny” Burke Sr., left to right, are old friends and for decades have helped each other survive the impacts of sexual abuse. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Garry “Bear” Salois, Ken Bear Chief and Francis “Franny” Burke Sr., left to right, are old friends and for decades have helped each other survive the impacts of sexual abuse.

"When you got done, they got you out, they dried you up a little bit ...and they threw this white powder and it burnt, it burnt your skin when it touched you," she says. "It was lye."

Burke likens St. Ignatius to a concentration camp.

"They just nicked up your hair, man," he says, using his fingers to imitate a haphazard haircut. "You looked like one of those Holocaust victims you see in old movies."

If the kids spoke their native languages they were called horrible names or took a brutal beating.

"Once you stepped out of line or you tried to talk your language and stuff they would just tell you that you're, they'd call you names ..." says Burke. "You guys are pigs, they'd say to us."

Salois offers another example: "Oh you dirty little savages, let us put God into you!"

Dowdall describes being stripped down naked at 5 years old and forced to stand in the rain until she was curled up shivering in a ball. She remembers being told to stand on her tiptoes with her nose against a chalkboard until she collapsed. The nuns told her she was ugly again and again and again.

Salois recalls being slapped so hard by Sister Henrietta that he fell off his chair, broke his eardrum and started bleeding.

Burke says he was whipped with the thick black beads of Mother Loyola's rosary on a regular basis.


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