Thursday, September 20, 2012

Same Thing Only Different

Fr Emmet Hoffman, an acclaimed hero on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is now an accused sexual predator. Although his story is about the Great Falls/Billings diocese, the Helena diocese is facing similar class action suits about boarding schools and the priests and nuns who ran them.

A point frequently made by fans of conservative Catholicism is that the media focuses on the Catholic priesthood to the exclusion of other sexual abusers.  Normally the comparison is made to the public school system, but the difference in sheer numbers and accounting for what constitutes abuse between the two institutions makes it very hard to compare the two in any meaningful sense. Native American tribes offer a different comparison.  One of the untold stories about the poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, and social upheaval on our reservations involves epidemic sexual abuse.  I have refrained from commenting on a story I know all too well until it was covered by a major media outlet.  Hence, I have decided to reprint in full a story from the New York Times.  This story describes one reservation, but it also describes the real life existence of children on many reservations.  This story is decades in the making.

A Tribe’s Epidemic of Child Sex Abuse, Minimized for Years

By - NY Times - Published: September 19, 2012
SPIRIT LAKE INDIAN RESERVATION, N.D. — The man who plays Santa Claus here is a registered child sex offender and a convicted rapist. One of the brothers of the tribal chairman raped a child, and a second brother sexually abused a 12-year-old girl. They are among a number of men convicted of sex crimes against children on this remote home of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe, which has among the highest proportion of sex offenders in the country.

Federal officials are now moving to take over the tribe’s social service programs, according to members of the tribe, government officials and documents. The action comes after years of failure by government and tribal law enforcement officials to conduct proper investigations of dozens of cases of child sexual abuse, including rape. (This is because families protect families, and to some extent, all tribal families are connected in ways whites don't understand. It also has to do with a concept of forgiveness that goes way beyond the typical Christian concept--at least as it's enacted publicly.)

While members of the tribe say that sexual violence against children on the reservation is common and barely concealed, the reasons for the abuse here are poorly understood, though poverty and alcohol are thought to be factors. The crimes are rarely prosecuted, few arrests are made, and people say that because of safety fears and law enforcement’s lack of interest, they no longer report even the most sadistic violence against children. In May 2011, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were killed on the reservation after being raped and sodomized. (Abuse of children by family members is never dealt with well in any society. That's one of the lessons Catholics are not getting about clerical abuse.  They don't want to understand the priesthood is the first family of most priests.)

“It bothers me that it is so accepted, that it is considered so normal. It’s lawless,” said Molly McDonald, who was a tribal judge until March, handling juvenile cases. (Catholics need to understand that this was also true within the priesthood, seminaries, and monasteries.)

The reservation has 38 registered sex offenders among its 6,200 residents, a rate of one offender for every 163 residents. By contrast, Grand Forks, N.D., about 85 miles away, has 13 sex offenders out of a population of 53,000 — a rate of about one in 4,000. In one home on the reservation, nine children are under the care of the father, an uncle and a grandfather, each a convicted sex offender, a federal official said. Two of the children, brothers who are 6 and 8, were recently observed engaging in public sex, residents said. (If the Roman Catholic priesthood had been subjected to the same criminal statutes, the numbers would actually be higher in the priestly reservation.)

“Those little boys are crying out for help,” said a neighbor, who called the Bureau of Indian Affairs Police but said that officers declined to take a report or notify child welfare officials.

Another member of the tribe said that police officers and social workers failed to act after a 9-year-old girl described giving oral sex to a man. (This is an important sentence. Once girls have been co opted, they too become sexual predators of younger males.)

Neither the tribe nor the federal government provided current figures on abuse, but in 2007 there were 26 confirmed cases of child sexual abuse and nearly 10 times as many allegations of abuse or neglect. Ms. McDonald said she presided over 20 to 30 cases of child sexual abuse each year. In 2011, fewer than a dozen cases of sex crimes against children were prosecuted by either the tribe or the federal government, which has jurisdiction, according to federal and tribal records. (This is not so far off from statistics about abuse in the priesthood.  There are way more accusations than prosecutions.)

Betty Jo Krenz, a former tribal social worker, said she oversaw 131 children — 100 more than the state’s average caseload. In some instances, members of the tribe say, there are generations of victims from the same family who have been preyed upon by generations of child rapists from other families. Others abuse their own children, including one tribal government employee who publicly complained that his young daughter had bitten his penis, according to a relative of the man and a federal official. (It is multi generational, and that too, is true of the priesthood. Only in the case of the priesthood it's about centuries.)

Federal agencies, however, have sought to minimize the extent of the problem, including disciplining employees who have spoken publicly about sexual abuse and questioning the competence of others, according to federal and tribal officials. (Ring any bells?)

Thomas F. Sullivan, a director of the federal Administration for Children and Families, who has emerged as a crucial whistle-blower, is among those who have been prevented from speaking to reporters, he said. Still, his periodic reports to his superiors in Washington have been blistering.

“If we fail in our role as leaders, we will deserve the same condemnation society so correctly applied to those leaders at Penn State and in the Catholic Church who, knowing of the abuse being inflicted on children by their colleagues, did nothing, failing in their basic obligation to protect children,” Mr. Sullivan wrote last month to his supervisors.
And weeks before the scheduled federal takeover on Oct. 1 of the reservation’s social service system, which is responsible for the care of the tribe’s sexually abused children, senior staff members at the Bureau of Indian Affairs continued to play down the issue.

Some Spirit Lake Sioux say that because few arrests are made, they do not report even the most sadistic crimes against children.

Hankie Ortiz, deputy bureau director of the Office of Indian Services, said the news media and whistle-blowers had exaggerated the problem. “Their social service program has made steady progress,” Ms. Ortiz said, adding that she was unable to discuss specific cases under privacy laws or because she was unaware of them. (Catholics have certainly heard this one before.)

Roger Yankton, the tribe’s chairman, did not respond to requests for interviews. (and this one.)
But in a letter published last month in The Devils Lake Journal, a local newspaper, tribal officials cast blame on whistle-blowers and a lack of federal money.

“The tribe’s elected leaders and its people are well aware of the gravity and difficult nature of these problems,” the letter said, “particularly because we live with their consequences every day.”

But members of the tribe say their leadership has often sought to hide abuse.

Ms. McDonald said that the police investigated sex crimes against children only if a victim requested hospitalization, and that tribal leaders frequently sought to sway judges’ opinions improperly. She said she was forced to dismiss many cases because social workers forgot to submit required paperwork. (I seriously doubt 'forgot to submit required paperwork' are the operative words.)
“The perpetrators know they can get away with it because the authorities don’t do anything,” said Joanne Streifel, a tribal elder.

Among the sex offenders is Quentin Yankton, 61, who stands 6 feet 5 inches and is a brother of the tribe’s chairman. He was first convicted of raping a child in 1976, state records show. In 1992, he was convicted of a similar crime after he forced his 15-year-old niece into sex. The girl became pregnant with twins, and DNA analysis showed that he was the father.

Mr. Yankton told the police, according to court documents, that he thought he was entitled to have sex with his niece because she told him that she had previously been sexually abused by her father.
(No comment, as it deserves no comment.)
Mr. Yankton was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The girl’s father was never prosecuted, but Alfred Longie, 67, a half-brother of the men, was convicted in 2008 for undressing and rubbing the genitals of a 12-year-old who had passed out after he had given her alcohol.

Joseph Alberts, 59, who plays Santa Claus for the tribe, was convicted of rape in 1983, and in 1986 was found guilty of committing lewd acts with a child under 14 on four different occasions. He served one year in jail for that crime and 18 months for the rape.

In another case, after a woman tried to burn down her house with her 5-year-old daughter inside, the girl was put in a foster home where a sex offender was living, according to Mr. Sullivan and a member of the tribe. Once the foster parent’s criminal record was discovered, the tribe removed the child and put her back in her mother’s home.

But when the child proved too much for the mother to care for, Mr. Sullivan said, she sold her daughter back to the family of the registered sex offender for $50 and a ride to Grand Forks.
 (In the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions, Native American children in foster care are 5 times more likely to die in that care, than any other racial group. Obviously the sexual abuse is part of that equation.)


I have spent my time on more reservations discussing this abuse culture than I ever have spent in Catholic churches discussing the abuse culture in the Roman Catholic priesthood.  I have heard many Native American elders who were truly disgusted, and also baffled, as to why this is happening to the extent it's happening on their reservations.  No question alcohol and drugs are a huge part of it, but they also think it was the collision of white culture with their own culture.

I wrote above that this is generational and it is. Most of it in Native families can be traced back to the 1870's thru the 1930's when Native children were place in religious boarding schools. Guess what happened there.  In my own diocese of Helena there are two major class action law suits involve some 200+ natives against the diocese, the Jesuits and the Ursulines.  The Jesuits and Ursulines ran Western Montana's boarding schools.  It didn't' take many abusers to infect Native families, and I don't mean to imply this is exclusively a boarding school problem.  I do believe though, that sexual abuse of children was not part of Native culture until after they met white culture.  Couple sexual abuse with zero tolerance for the white man's alcohol and you have a recipe for disaster--generational with little end in sight.

This link will take you to the response of Bishop George Leo Thomas to the multiple law suits brought by Native Americans against the Diocese of Helena.  I feel bad for all the parties in this law suit.  What should have happened didn't happen for over a 140 years and has been passed on by five generations. Generational abuse is really difficult to heal, whether it's in tribes or clergy.  Jesus knew that which is why He had something to say about millstones around necks.


  1. I recall watching a documentary on the Long Walk of the Navajo of 1864. To this day the elderly Navajos still tell their grandparents stories of the physical and sexual degradation they had suffered at the hands of the Army. I watched these people still trembling 70 years later after hearing these stories of what happened to their grandparents, aunts and uncles. As your post shows , it seems that their history since meeting the European settlers just primed them to accept the abuses you've written about. After seeing that documentary , I wonder how horrific the Cherokee Trail of Tears or Seminole Indian Wars must have been for those that survived.

    John Fremont

  2. John when I listen to the elders and they recall some of their boarding school stories they aren't much different from stories about the Navajo long walk or the Cherokee Trail of Tears. What really tore my heart was listening to one Navajo elder speak with a very distinguished Cherokee elder about these historic situations. Their take was that the task of the current tribal generations was to 'walk through' that history--transcend it in other words--before that history destroyed the Native American tradition. It was really a request for Resurrection or the transcendence of cultural crucifixion.

    I was reading the Detroit Free Press this morning and there was a story about a 26 year old Michigan Native man who killed his 15 day old daughter by forced oral rape. It doesn't get much worse than that. He got life without parole, but my guess is he already suffered that sentence somewhere in the past in his own sexual being.