A Northern Cheyenne woman in her 60s filed a lawsuit Friday in which she says she was repeatedly molested and raped as a young girl by the Rev. Emmett Hoffmann, a revered and popular priest at the St. Labre Mission School in Ashland.
The woman, who is not named in the suit, filed the action Friday in Cascade County District Court in Great Falls, home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, which has jurisdiction over the St. Labre Mission.
The lawsuit, which names as defendants the diocese and the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin, to which Hoffmann belonged, seeks unspecified damages and asks the diocese and the Capuchin Order to publicly acknowledge the sexual abuse suffered by the plaintiff.
The woman's attorney, Vito de la Cruz of Yakima, Wash., said the suit does not name Hoffmann as a defendant because the diocese and the order were ultimately responsible for placing Hoffmann at the mission. De la Cruz said he has handled lawsuits dealing with similar cases of clergy abuse in Indian Country, and he has found that it's best to go after the parties who should have acted to stop the abuse.
"If you find a rattlesnake in the backyard, you don't just throw it over the fence into the neighbors' yard so somebody else gets hurt," he said. "You do something about it."
Hoffmann, 85, retired from St. Labre in 1993 and now resides in the Heritage Living Center in Ashland, which he helped found. He did not return phone calls Friday.
The Rev. Michael Warfel, bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, was out of town Friday. The Rev. Jay Peterson, vicar general of the diocese, when asked about the lawsuit, said only, "This is the first we've heard of it."
Hoffmann, popularly known as Father Emmett, was sent to St. Labre to close the mission in 1954. Instead, he dedicated himself to reviving it, and when he retired, the school had a $50 million endowment.
He was one of only two white men ever to have been made an honorary chief of the Northern Cheyenne, and he was the subject of a book, "Renegade Priest of the Northern Cheyenne," by Billings author Renee Sansom Flood.
De la Cruz said Hoffmann's "legendary status" makes it difficult for victims to come forward, and that while his supporters may not want to "see his halo tarnished ... the fact is, at least one child was molested and deserves justice."
The suit says the plaintiff, identified only as Jane Doe, wanted to remain anonymous in the filing because she was the victim of sex crimes as a minor. The suit says her identity will be revealed to the defendants, but she will file a motion seeking permission to proceed anonymously after the defendants have been served with the lawsuit.
The lawsuit describes an escalating series of abuse that occurred between 1955 and 1962. De la Cruz said the plaintiff, who boarded at the mission school and still lives in the Ashland area, was a pre-teen when the abuse began and was in her late teens when it ended.
Hoffmann began by removing her panties and rubbing her buttocks before and after he spanked her, the suit says, telling her that God told him to punish her that way. He later exposed himself to the girl and made her rub his penis, and he also penetrated her with his fingers, the suit continues.
"The incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated by Father Emmett Hoffmann upon Plaintiff progressed in scope and severity and included acts of sexual intercourse that were unwanted and unconsented to by Plaintiff, a minor under the age of eighteen," the suit says.
De la Cruz said his client suffered severe emotional damage as a result of the abuse but suppressed her memories of it until three years ago, when she went to work at the mission.
"These memories started to surface," de la Cruz said. "At one point, I believe that she may have run into Father Hoffmann, and it shocked her."
He said the woman called him because she knew that he had been involved in lawsuits concerning clergy abuse. The statute of limitations prevented his client from pursuing criminal charges against Hoffmann, he said.
The lawsuit says the diocesan bishop and the Capuchin Order "knew or should have known that Father Emmett Hoffmann was committing acts of sexual abuse against Plaintiff." From 1955 to 1962, the bishop in Great Falls was the Rev. William Condon, according to the suit.
The suit also alleges that the diocese and the Capuchin Order operate under authority of the Code of Canon Law, requiring them to "maintain 'secret archival files' of any material injurious to the Catholic Church."
The maintenance of such files "results in suppression of any data and evidence related to child sexual abuse committed by priests and other clergy, including but not limited to the names of victims, the identities of perpetrators, and actions taken by the Church to 'fix' problems involving allegations of child sexual abuse. Thus, the Bishop and the (order) hid, occulted, suppressed, and/or destroyed evidence."
De la Cruz said he is familiar with the church's secret archives and has examined such files as part of "similar cases that we have litigated."
The suit accuses the diocese and the Capuchin Order of negligence and negligent supervision and seeks unspecified general and special damages "in an amount that will fairly compensate Plaintiff for all damages sustained."
It also asks the diocese and the Capuchin order to publicly acknowledge the sexual abuse and to agree to formulate "policies and procedures to ensure the future physical, spiritual, and emotional safety of children and parishioners entrusted" to them.
In a profile of Hoffmann published in The Gazette in 2004, after Flood's biography of him came out, there was a mention of his struggle with alcoholism, which he freely acknowledged.
The story also said his struggles were exacerbated in the mid-1960s when Hoffmann's superiors ordered him to dismiss a young female volunteer who worked as his secretary.
"In Flood's book," the story said, "Hoffmann freely talks of being in love with the woman, but says there was no physical relationship."
Although de la Cruz is the attorney for the plaintiff, he has not passed the bar in Montana, which is why the suit was actually filed by a Missoula law firm, Morales Law Offices.