A Minnesota woman on Monday filed a suit against a Catholic school in Waite Park, Minn., alleging that she suffered “ritual sexual abuse” at the hands of five members of the family that founded the school and still runs it, as well as a priest who performed services there.
“Doe 596” filed a complaint in Stearns County District Court against Holy Innocents’ School, a private K-12 school not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud.
In her complaint, Doe 596 alleges that she was sexually abused when she attended Holy Innocents’ more than 30 years ago. Her abusers, she said, were Robert, Bernice, Maria, Heidi and Christopher Sis — all members of the school’s founding family — as well as Father Lawrence Brey, a Catholic priest who lived on the school grounds.
A Holy Innocents’ spokeswoman on Monday strongly denied the charges.
“We find that the suit is unfounded accusations and calumny,” said Theresa Carlstedt, the school’s secretary and a Holy Innocents’ graduate. “The school is reviewing it. The parents of students have been properly notified.”
“We are a character-building school dedicated to making outstanding citizens,” she said. “The school’s mission has always been the same and it’s never faltered, it’s never changed. The accusations are false.”
Carlstedt said the school learned of the lawsuit on Monday and is seeking legal representation.
Hundreds of Minnesotans have come forward in recent years with allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and others affiliated with the Catholic church. But this case is different because Holy Innocents’, now in its 50th year, isn’t officially recognized by the church, said Josh Peck, Doe 596’s lawyer.
In her complaint, Doe 596 said that she attended Holy Innocents’ from 1978 to 1984 — from the ages of 5 to 11. She said schoolteachers and officials were strict and punished her for being slow to learn.
According to the complaint, she was physically punished by members of the Sis family and Brey, who told her she was punished for not being good.
“Her punishments progressed over time to include ritual sexual abuse that Brey and the Sises told Doe 596 were for her own good,” the complaint said.
Carlstedt, the school spokeswoman, said that members of the Sis family are still associated with the school, “some more than others.” Robert Sis is on the school board, she said, while Bernice Sis and Brey have died.
Brey, who died in 2006, according to the complaint, transferred to the school from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Peck speculated that he was sent there to rid Milwaukee of a problem priest.
“We don’t know the full history on Father Brey,” Peck said. “He’s listed in the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but he’s not listed in the Diocese of St. Cloud. Given what we know, do we suspect that Father Brey was a known offender being moved around, pushed out of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee? Absolutely, we do.”
What Doe 596 went through, starting in kindergarten, was horrific, Peck said.
“They were taking this student, who had difficulty reading and memorizing, and repeatedly telling her it was the work of the devil,” he said. “They needed to cleanse her of the devil. And they were saying this was punishment from God.”
In her lawsuit, Doe 596 seeks to have Holy Innocents’ declared a public nuisance and shut down. The school has 20 to 25 students. Peck said the Diocese of St. Cloud should publicly dissociate itself from the school and divulge anything it may know about allegations.
Joe Towalski, director of communications for the diocese, said the school “has no affiliation whatsoever or connection or association with the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud. It’s not part of our Roman Catholic Church.”
He said the church can’t control schools that aren’t under its wing.
“Somebody could start anything and call it Catholic,” he said. “We want to be clear, obviously in this case and others, what is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and by the bishop.”