Denise K. Lajimodiere, Ed.D., an indigenous educator and a guest speaker in a new Fordham discussion series, recounted the historical and intergenerational trauma experienced by indigenous sexual abuse survivors in U.S. Catholic boarding schools and their descendants in a Feb. 25 webinar. 

“[A] man from Montana said, ‘How do you tell anyone that you’ve been sodomized over 300 times?’” Lajimodiere said, recalling an interview from her research. “That’s the issue with boarding school stories. How do you tell [them]? … They keep it inside. And we know that you’re only as healthy as your secrets.” 

The event, co-sponsored by the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and Fordham’s theology department, is part of the Taking Responsibility initiative, a grant-sponsored project that confronts the causes and legacy of clergy sexual abuse. This spring semester, the initiative is hosting a webinar series that examines how the crisis has affected historically marginalized communities in the U.S., including indigenous peoples.  

“Historically, hearing Native voices is not something that the Catholic Church has excelled at,” said webinar moderator Jack Downey, Ph.D., an associate professor of Catholic studies at the University of Rochester and a 2012 graduate of Fordham’s doctoral theology program. “[But] it’s core to the history of Catholicism on these lands.” 

From 1860 to 1978, the federal government forced indigenous children to attend boarding schools—many of which were managed by Catholic priests and nuns—where some children fell prey to clergy sexual abuse and “cultural genocide,” said Lajimodiere. But the church hasn’t paid enough attention to the issue because it’s “not a white Catholic problem,” said Kathleen Holscher, Ph.D., an associate professor of American studies and religious studies at the University of New Mexico. 

“We should be sitting here, having a crisis about our legacy of boarding schools in this country, in the same way that we’re sitting here having a crisis about Catholic sexual abuse, but we’re not,” said Holscher, who studies the records of abusive priests. “White Catholics don’t see it as their problem in the same way.”  

Interviewing the ‘Stolen Generation’

Boarding school survivors experienced loss of identity and culture; corporeal punishment and forced child labor, hunger, sexual and mental abuseand the unresolved grief, mental health issues, relationship issues, and alcohol abuse that followed, as detailed in the 1928 Meriam Report, said Lajimodiere. 

Among the victims of the “stolen generation” were her own parents and grandfathers, Lajimodiere said. Their experiences inspired her to spend more than a decade researching their trauma and interviewing other boarding school survivors in the Midwest, resulting in her book, “Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding Schools” (North Dakota State University Press, 2019). Her research uncovered a vast history of sexual abuse.

‘They Took Advantage of That Brokenness’

Lajimodiere read aloud the stories of several survivors in her book, including a woman who was 6 years old when she was sexually abused by a priest and a man who couldn’t pray with his tribe without remembering the boarding school staff who forced him to kneel on a broomstick every time he spoke in his native tongue. 

The boarding school priests and nuns had secrets, too. Holscher shared the story of one Jesuit priest, Bernard Fagan, a boarding school director who admitted to sexually exploiting about 20 indigeneous girls, starting in the late 1970s. 

“Fagan’s story reveals how clerical abusers took advantage of the damage that settler colonialism and their own missions as institutions that were part of that colonialism had already rendered on Native communities,” Holscher said, adding that much of the abuse against indigenous children has been unreported and underreported. “They took advantage of that brokenness.”

In September 2020, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Deb Haaland introduced a bill that would establish the first formal commission in U.S. history to investigate and acknowledge the federal government’s injustices toward indigenous boarding school survivors and their families.

“We need more research on boarding schools and scholarship focused on family programs,” said Lajimodiere, who co-founded the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. “We have not even begun the truth tellingeven gotten close to reconciliation here in the United States.”

The full recording of the event, “Native American Communites and the Clerical Sexual Abuse Crisis,” is below

The Taking Responsibility initiative, which began last summer, hopes to help Jesuit schools, colleges, and universities become safer and more transparent institutions.