Trial date approaches for Ursuline sisters

A courtroom in Helena, Mont., could be the scene of a rare occurrence in the decades-long crisis of sex abuse in the Catholic church: Roman Catholic women religious as defendants.

If the case goes to trial as scheduled on Dec. 1, the Ursuline Sisters of the Western Province will defend themselves against allegations that 11 sisters who served at the St. Ignatius Mission church and school on the Flathead Indian Reservation from the 1940s to the early 1970s physically, sexually and emotionally abused boarding and day school students.

While about 5,000 priests and deacons in the United States have been accused of sexual abuse since 2003 in cases stretching back into the 1950s, the best estimates of U.S. women religious accused of abuse – not counting the 11 in this case – is around 88, according to Bishop-accountability.org, an online archive established by lay Catholics to track abuse claims.

Filed in 2011, the case in Lewis and Clark County, Mont., against the Ursuline Sisters, Western Province, lists 95 plaintiffs and includes placeholders for up to 105 more in case others come forward in the future.

“In terms of numbers of plaintiffs, I don’t know of [a case] of this magnitude,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Vito de la Cruz. “It affected a whole generation of Native American kids.”

The defense, however, notes that the accusations have yet to be proven.

“There are many claims,” said San Francisco attorney John P. Christian, who represents the Western Province, based in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Whether they are true or not is a different story.”

The case could increase the number of alleged victims of sexual abuse attributed to women religious in the United States from the approximately 400 known today to 600. Even if no other plaintiffs come forward, another 95 would be a significant increase.

Of those sisters listed in the Bishop-accountability.org database, Global Sisters Report could find only two that had been convicted of criminal charges. Two-thirds of those listed were named in civil suits, the rest were named in complaints to church officials or listed in diocesan disclosures. The database notes that those listed include all public accusations, even those that have not been proven.

At least one of the sisters accused in the Ursuline case is known to have died, as have some of the plaintiffs (the case was filed on behalf of their estates). The lawsuit was filed three years ago with 45 plaintiffs and also names the Diocese of Helena as a defendant. Additional plaintiffs were added as the case progressed.

A separate lawsuit against the diocese, filed about the same time, alleged the diocese covered-up abuse by its priests; that case led to the diocese declaring bankruptcy and it is in the final stages of settlement. The diocese agreed to $15 million in compensation, at least $2.5 million for future claims, a public apology and publication of the names of abusive clergy members.

Almost all of the plaintiffs represented by de la Cruz’ firm are Native American; many of them were also plaintiffs in a case against the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, the Missoulian newspaper reported, resulting in a $166 million settlement for about 500 plaintiffs. Almost all of the plaintiffs in that case were Native American or Alaskan Natives.

Settlement discussions in the Ursuline case went on for months – the trial at one point was set for July but was pushed back so negotiations could continue – but have not resulted in an agreement.

Christian, the attorney for the Ursulines, would only say discussions are ongoing.

De la Cruz said negotiations have been “somewhere stop and start,” but that negotiations are never smooth, and this case is especially difficult because it also involves the diocese.

“I think it has been an issue of trying to figure out what the middle grounds are,” de la Cruz said. “I do not believe it’s a fight to the last-person-standing kind of thing, it’s just a difference between our demands and their position. . . . . It has not been an easy thing to wade through.”

Dan Bartleson, spokesman for the Helena diocese, said the plaintiffs are part of the group of claimants the diocese already has an agreement with.

“We’re kind of waiting to see what the courts say about our involvement,” Bartleson said. “There is some kind of remorse that the Ursulines couldn’t have been participating [in the mediation] from the outset, as that would have provided a better closure to this. We spent months in mediation, where we worked so hard to achieve what’s best for everyone.”

De la Cruz said the mission school, which had both boarding and day students, was in an isolated area with little oversight, and was a situation ripe for abuse.

“One of our experts is going to present testimony that especially in this situation, when sisters were placed there, this was not a [desirable] place to go. It was not a place in high demand, and most [sisters] sent there probably had issues,” he said. “As isolated as they were, with only the diocesan priest around, I can easily understand the basis for our expert’s opinion.”

Christian said he could not comment on pending litigation.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, echoed de la Cruz’s thoughts.

“Think the best and brightest priests and nuns and brothers in many cases are not sent to the isolated areas, the problem clergy are,” he said. “Those situations, where you have an assignment no one wants, also makes it easier for a church supervisor to rationalize inappropriate behavior.”

The original complaint, which has since been amended to add plaintiffs but leave out the details of abuse, paints a horrifying picture of abuse occurring everywhere from the mother superior’s bedroom to bathrooms and locker rooms to the church confessional. It alleges sisters exposed themselves to children, fondled and molested them and forced them to commit sexual acts. The suit makes similar allegations against 18 priests and brothers, alleging all of the above, as well as rape and sodomy.

The suit often does not give the plaintiffs’ ages at the time the abuse is alleged to have occurred, but plaintiffs include both boys and girls, with some as young as 5 at the time of the alleged abuse.

The lawsuit says the Ursulines and the diocese knew or should have known about the alleged abuse and asks for unspecified damages. It alleges the Ursulines “engaged in a pattern and practice of sheltering, and protecting nuns, who it knew or should have known, were engaging in sexual abuse,” and transferred sisters in and out “to ensure that children did not complain of the abuse and/or that parents did not discover the abuse.”

Bartleson, the diocesan spokesman, said that even though the abuse happened so long ago that some of both the accused and accusers have died, it is important to try to make the situation right.

“We believe we’re trying to build a culture of responsibility. How can we make a good accounting of what’s happened, and feel like there’s a possible to live in the present, without this as a specter?” he said. “For us to be able to address it and address it in a healthy way, it really has been an amazing pastoral moment in the history of our diocese.”

Given the number of plaintiffs and the seriousness of the allegations – and the apparent inability to reach a settlement – a judgment could spell financial ruin for the Ursuline congregation.

Their attorney, Christian, would only say, “Pray for us.”

[Dan stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report.]

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled David Clohessy's name.

Celebrating Award-Winning Content: GSR recently earned seven awards for editorial excellence from the Associated Church Press.