Circle of Violence: A Lakota's Faith and Betrayal

Charles Trimble

I recently downloaded a list of Jesuits—priests, brothers and deacons—who have been accused of sexual abuse of children and, presumably, adult parishioners as well. The list is more than 130 names and gives the year of ordination, current status (accused, sued, settled or convicted) and the diocese in which each served at the time of the alleged or proven abuse. And this is only a partial list, for some Jesuit provinces in the U.S. are not yet included. The list does not include information as to whether the victims/accusers were Native American students in mission schools, although the location of some of the dioceses would indicate that it was likely not the case.

Circle of Violence series

Although it is always good to see justice done, I do feel some pain at these revelations. It can be said that I was born a Catholic, for I was baptized within an hour of my birth by a man in our reservation community who was a Catechist (a layman who conducted Catholic prayer meetings—usually in Lakota—in the absence of a priest). My mother told me that I was convulsing at birth and it appeared that I would not live, so the Catechist was called to baptize me. The man happened to be my uncle, John Fast Wolf who, like the Lakota holy man Black Elk, was both a traditional holy man and a Catholic Catechist. I was raised Catholic by my mother, who was a very devout member of the Church. My father, who died when I was not yet 2 years old, was not a Catholic but respected my mother’s wish for all 13 of their children to be baptized, and the 11 of us who survived beyond childhood to be raised as Catholics.

Click here for a list of resources for victims of abuse.

But except for funeral services, I have not been in a church for many years. I am having my own personal crisis of faith, due in part to the exposition of the phenomenal numbers of predatory priests and the damage they have done and are doing to children and their families. And the damage they have done and are doing to people who want to believe, who want to have faith, and whose spiritual life is shaken by these rogue pastors.

Thus it hurts to see so many priests as vile perpetrators.

But when a man, in the name of Jesus Christ, instructs an innocent mind on the infinite love of God, or on the other hand instills fear of the almighty Lord, and uses that teaching and trust and fear to impose himself on a child for his sexual gratification, I am horrified and sickened. I can’t imagine Dante himself devising a place horrible enough in the depths of the Inferno to cast such persons unrepentant.

For me, there is no comfort to be found in the fact that the exposed pedophiles in the Catholic clergy represent only a portion of trusted adults preying on children in their care—children of all races and religions. The local newspaper here in Omaha reports almost weekly of scout leaders, coaches, teachers, and clergy of various faiths being accused, brought to trial, and in most cases convicted of sexual exploitation of children in their care. The Omaha School District, and presumably many other districts, is wrestling with requirements on reporting and handling accusations or suspicions of such abuse.

There is no comfort because I remain a Catholic, albeit a weak and wayward member of the Church. As a Catholic, I should take ownership of the Church, as one might take ownership of any corporation in which he is invested. And, as an owner, as a faithful investor, I should encourage all efforts to rid our Church of scoundrels and criminals who prey on the congregations, especially on the children.

And as a Catholic member of the Lakota Oyate and the Native community as a whole, I especially decry and condemn the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of Native children who have been placed in the care of people entrusted with their education—particularly the clergy and government teachers and administrators of Indian schools.

Finally, as a Catholic citizen of the United States, bound by the laws of the Nation and committed to abide by them and uphold them, I should urge the leaders of my Church to abide by the laws of our Nation, and to see to the perfection of those laws in the Courts—to bind the accused, suspected or admitted offenders over to civil authority.

This I believe and, as a Catholic, I will insist on. But first I must put myself right with the Church, and begin again, after so many years, to practice the faith. This, I intend to do.

Having expressed outrage against the crimes of so many Catholic clergy, especially against Native American children entrusted to them in their schools, I will in later columns, talk about why I criticize and dispute some accusations against the Jesuit-run Indian boarding school I attended for all my school years from 1940 to 1952. In so doing, I wish to provide perspective that will help younger generations deal with the reality of boarding school experience, at least my first hand experiences in such an institution, and maybe help them reconcile any feelings of intergenerational trauma.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.

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mikeatcf's picture
One thing that has helped me with my questioning of the Church is this piece of advice from another Catholic who has been a friend for decades. He said, "Remember that Jesus picked twelve men to be his Apostles - his closest friends - fully aware that one would betray him, one would deny him, and nine out of the other ten would desert him at the first sign of serious trouble. Why would he do this? I don't know for sure but I think Jesus might have been trying to tell us that there would always be some scoundrels in the priesthood but, as bad as that is, we should never let that destroy our faith." He went on to add, "We always have the choice of following Jesus in his Church or following Judas out of the Church. Today I'm doing my best to follow Jesus." I got that email in 2002, at the height of the abuse scandal in Boston. I can't tell you how many times I've read it since then and how much it has helped over those years.
kbearchief's picture
Wow, Chuck! Finally a crack in your armour, you in this article you intend to address or help reconcile " any feelings of intergenerational trauma." This is something you had previously said you never heard of, and did not believe in. I applaud you for your painstaking effort to come to terms with what I and others have been saying for the past several years, that sexual abuses of Native American children happened at the residential mission schools in the NW and in S. Dakota, and elsewhere, and that this is historical fact. I understand you when you said that while you were in a Jesuit run baording school, either St. Francis or Holy Rosary, and you never witnessed that kind of abuse and that no one ever told you that it happened to them. In fact, it can take a life-time for survivors of abuse to even begin to come to terms with childhood sexual abuse, and only 2 out of 10 will ever do so. Children never talk about what they cannot understand themselves, at the ages of 5,6,7..they have no concept ot sex. I wish you well in your journey of discovery, and that the truthes of what was done to our Indian children (now our elders) will become apparent to you. Perhaps, in time, you too will become a supporter of our efforts to obtain justice, healing, and solutions to end child abuse in Indian Country that began in the residential schools so long ago.
beaver's picture
Chuck, I thought you denied intergenerational trauma? This essay might lead people to believe you made a 180 degree turn. But if you read between the lines of his essay and if you know Chuck or Anne well, you will realize that this man is still insisting that, while the Catholic priests abused children, there was no abuse of any kind in Indian boarding schools and that others are making up stories of abuse in boarding schools. I reconcile myself by saying that even the most documented event will always have some deniers. What makes me sad is that Indian Country Today gives space to this denier's diatribe.
annshuski's picture
Chuck, Do you personlly know anyone who was abused in the Jesuit run boarding schools? I have a feeling they do not want to reconcile to the Catholic church, period. Why do they have to? Well, we know silence among the elders does not mean being committed to a religion which destroyed their way of life. When you've been held prisoner in the worst possible way, your in shock, and people will feign "commitment" for survival. I would suggest reading stories of the Indians with Jewish ancestry in Mexico and South America. They only feigned allegiance to the Catholic church for survival only! For you to coerce the younger generation to make peace with the Catholic church is the worst statement to suggest. Have you ever thought they don't want any part of it? Well, my mother did not attend church, and as a teen I could see this. Sometimes, silence, speaks volumes. I would like to ask your opinion why some native people are afraid to walk away from church and live a committed life to Creator without church ceremony? Will they go to hell, is it because ingrained, forced assimilation? I think so, FEAR passed on. Have a good day, Chuck.