NESPELEM – The Colville Confederated Tribes are preparing to sue the federal government over abuse suffered by Indian children at St. Mary’s Mission School.
The Colville Business Council has approved an effort to reach out to tribal members victimized by sexual, physical or emotional abuse at the former Jesuit school as part of its investigation into claims against the federal government.
“The federal government supported the establishment and operation of boarding schools where these abuses occurred, failing in its responsibility to assure the health, safety and education of Indian children,” said attorney Leander James. “The government must be held accountable for its role in this tragedy.”
“The business council has retained the nationally known firm of James, Vernon and Weeks to begin preparations for litigation against responsible federal agencies for childhood trauma and abuse suffered by our members as children at the Mission School,” said council Chairman Rodney Cawston. “Leander James, a partner in the firm, has successfully represented hundreds of tribal members victimized by abuse, and we are confident that we ultimately will prevail in this righteous cause.”
Cawston said tribal members over that age of 40 will receive a letter from the council asking that they call the law firm’s confidential hotline if they wish to provide information for the litigation effort.
The firm also will establish a special Facebook page, where messages can be sent.
James previously represented Colville and other tribal members in suits against the Northwest Jesuits and Catholic Dioceses for damages caused by abuse in a number of Catholic schools in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently representing tribal members throughout the country in similar suits, said the tribe.
“The abuse at St. Mary’s and other mission schools was horrific and its damage generational,” James said. “We have good scientific evidence that this abuse results in profound psychological and physical damage to the victims, their families and tribal communities.
“Decades of historic trauma have destroyed the stability of families and entire communities.”
Cawston urged tribal members who wish to provide information to call the hotline number at 888-667-0683 and ask for the “Colville Tribal Justice Team.”
“We have known for decades that our relatives were horribly mistreated as very young children in these schools, and we have seen the widespread negative impacts on individuals, their families, their children and grandchildren,” Cawston said. “The Colville tribes intends to do everything in its power to stop the multi-generational trauma that has done so much harm to our members, and to the tribes as a whole.”
In 2011, the Oregon Province Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – agreed to a $166 million settlement over abuse at church and other facilities at several Northwest and Alaskan Jesuit-run Indian schools, including St. Mary’s Mission near Omak.
At the time of the settlement, Ken Bear Chief, an investigator and victim liaison with Tamaki Law, Yakima, said priests and other clergy entrusted with Indian children’s spiritual and general education abused many of their wards physically, sexually and psychologically.
“Under the guise of religion, they abused their authority and their trust,” he said during a March 25, 2011, gathering with a handful of victims at the Omak Longhouse, just yards from St. Mary’s Mission Church. “It happened frequently and over decades.”
Many victims kept their abuse secret. Some left the church. Others recoil at the sight of a priest. A few committed suicide.
An Omak woman said she was abused by Father Augustine J. Feretti, now deceased, while at a Jesuit boarding school in DeSmet, Idaho. She ran away, was caught and told police, who refused to believe her and then told her abuser and other school officials.
She said she and her family were threatened.
She later went to St. Mary’s and was mortified when Feretti showed up there. She got involved in the suit against the Jesuits out of concern for her grandchildren, she said in 2011.
Another victim, a Yakama tribal member, said she was sent to St. Mary’s by a state foster worker.
She said Father John Morse “started abusing me immediately, right when I arrived at St. Mary’s Mission.
“I kept the sexual molestation hidden in the dark, in my soul, for years and years. Finally, when I came forward and saw that others did, too, it was as if the blanket that had hidden our secret was pulled off and we could move into the light.”
Bear Chief said victims described special TV nights, when youngsters would be invited to a priest’s private quarters. At other times, students who took food to a priest or tidied up a room became victims.
Those most likely to be victims were boarding students without regular family contact, he said.
Sixty-six of the claims involve Morse, who now lives in a Jesuit-financed retirement facility operated by Gonzaga
The Colville Confederated Tribes took over the school, now known as Paschal Sherman Indian School, in the early 1970s.