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Abusive Priests On Indian Reservations Leave ‘Profound Wound’

Attorney Vito De La Cruz in the KUOW studios.
KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery
Attorney Vito De La Cruz in the KUOW studios.

Until the 1960s, Catholic boarding schools forcibly took Native American children from their families.

And often at those boarding schools were priests and nuns with histories of sexually abusing children – they were sent to those boarding schools because of their remoteness and isolation.

That’s according to attorney Vito de la Cruz who has represented some of these former students.

“The history of this country has promoted the stripping of Natives of all of the things that are important to them, including their religion and faith,” de la Cruz told KUOW’s Bill Radke. “And that was done with the complicity and the participation of the Catholic Church and other religions as well.

"It is a profound trauma.”

The Seattle Archdiocese recently released the names of 77 clergy who they say sexually abused children – including priests who worked on reservations.

The Catholic Church has had a presence on Indian reservations since the 1800s. Their missionary work was intertwined with early U.S. government policy toward Native Americans.

De la Cruz hopes this spotlight on the Catholic Church will protect children from future abuse. But he said poor economic and social conditions on reservations, including high unemployment and high suicide rates, make the Native American community vulnerable.

“A vulnerable community is less apt to speak up when something like this happens," de la Cruz said.

“It's a cross-generational wound that a lot of the Native folks have endured," he continued. "When that fundamental trust between a lay person, a priest or a nun, has been violated in the most gross way imaginable, the scars that people endure lead to other scars and other problems."

De la Cruz represents many victims of abuse by Catholic clergy in the Northwest, particularly Native American victims, who he says were particularly vulnerable to this abuse.

He currently represents 37 plaintiffs against the Great Falls Diocese in Montana, including Native Americans from the Crow and Cheyenne reservations.

He is also handling several claims against a priest in the Yakima Diocese.