Friendship forged out of a dark childhood past

Aug 15, 2011

This series takes a look at how the Catholic Church and its victims move forward from the legacy of abuse.

Checks will soon be going out in the mail to some 500 victims of clergy sex abuse across the Northwest. They're part of a major settlement with an order of Jesuits based in Portland. Most of the victims are from reservations and native communities from Montana to Alaska.

Alberta Sena was driving through downtown Lewiston, Idaho, on her way to Macullen's steakhouse. It was 2008 and she had just told an attorney something she had never told anyone. Now, he wanted her to meet some strangers who had told him the same thing.

"And I remember walking up to Macullen's and thinking, 'Oh my gosh I wonder what it's going to be like,'" Sena says. "And then I walk in, we kind of all just look at each other, and..."

"And that was the start of a healing process for all of us, because each individual little girl thought, you know, they were it," adds Dorothea Skalicky.

Alberta is tall and expressive and Dorothea is petite and no-nonsense. The two have no recollection of each other as children, but they grew up in the same town -– Lapwai, a small town on the Nez Perce Reservation.

And they went to the same church, Sacred Heart.

"It was on the edge of town. It used to be red," Skalicky describes.

"Now it's a different color, I don't even know. But every time I see it I see it as red," says Sena.

Skalicky agrees, "I see it as red too."

Father Freddy comes to Sacred Heart

Back in the early '70s, the Jesuits sent a priest named A.J. Ferretti to staff Sacred Heart. Ferretti had moved a lot. He had already been in Montana, Washington and Alaska. In the Lapwai community, he was affectionately nicknamed "Father Freddy."

"He was loved by the people that I loved, you know?" Skalicky says.

To understand why Father Freddy was so trusted, you have to understand that at that time, and to this day, many Native American reservations have strong ties to the Catholic church. Alberta says, under Father Freddy's authority, Sacred Heart became a popular spot for the kids too.

"Oh, we could play in the pews, we could play in the Sunday room classes and play in with the toys, draw on the chalkboard," Sena recalls. "I just remember that it felt fun to be there and so I went back. And that's when things happened."

What happened was one summer afternoon, during a game of hide-and-go-seek, Father Freddy raped Alberta. She was in second or third grade at the time.

A few years later, when Dorothea was around the same age, Father Freddy sexually abused her too.

There were other girls as well. But back then, the only murmur of what went on at the church was in jokes, told out of ear shot of parents.

"We had always said 'Father Freddy was a pervert' and stuff like that but never really 'Well why do you think he's a pervert?'" Skalicky says.

"It's almost like I think we all knew," Sena adds. "But nobody said anything."

Silence around Father Freddy ends

Then one morning, 30 years later, Dorothea woke up to find her secret in the paper. Only it wasn't hers. It was another girl's, a girl who had grown up in Lapwai, who was claiming abuse by a priest named Father Freddy.

"And when I read this article that morning – I had to go to work - and my husband was there, and I just started bawling," Skalicky says. "And so he read it, because I couldn't read it to him."

Dorothea contacted the attorney in the article. So did Alberta. At the same time, other people who had been abused by other Jesuit priests in other native communities across the Northwest and Alaska were starting to emerge.

Dorothea says it felt like a relief.

"I mean, you don't want this to happen to anyone else but still you had that, 'I am not going crazy' and I wasn't," she says. "You know it was real. Like you didn't do anything wrong."

Now Dorothea's and Alberta's claims are part of one of the largest clergy sex abuse cases against the Catholic Church. The settlement mandates that Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus pay out more than $166 million to victims and establish practices to prevent future abuse.

At this point, neither Dorothea nor Alberta consider themselves Catholic.

Feeling empowered

But they feel - and they recognize this seems kind of cliched - but they feel "empowered."

"I want to fight!" Skalicky exclaims. "I want to keep going."

"I never thought I'd be a part of this. I just thought I'd just be Alberta, who graduated from school, who works and supports her family," Sena says. "Not that that's all mediocre. It's just, you realize you've made a difference in people's lives."

As for Father Freddy, he died in 1982 in California. But Dorothea says, in her mind, the case sort of changed him too.

"I almost feel sorry. Even though there's a little bit of a hatred, you know, there had to have been something going on. What was his story? Now I can say that.”

Most of the victims in the case will get around $300,000. Both Dorothea and Alberta say they're looking forward to paying off debt.