FARGO — Kateri Marion said she felt abandoned by Catholic leaders when she reported that a priest at her church in Belcourt, N.D., sexually abused her three years ago.
"I can't tell you how scared I was when I came forward," she said Thursday, July 11, during a news conference held at the law offices of O'Keeffe O'Brien Lyson Foss in Fargo. "When I came forward, they left me in despair to pick up the pieces myself."
The 33-year-old Belcourt woman has filed a civil suit in Cass County District Court against the priest, the Rev. Michael Wight, as well as the Catholic Diocese of Fargo and the Texas-based Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), an order connected to the Diocese of Corpus Christi that lists Wight as a member.
Marion, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said she was 30 years old when the alleged abuse happened. With attorneys at her side, Marion held back tears as she told her story, hoping she can inspire other victims to come forward with their stories.
"Let the victims come forward and get justice,” she said. “Let the truth come out. Let us be heard."
The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $50,000, as well as compensation for other expenses. Attorneys for Marion also called for Wight, who is 52 years old, to be removed from his priestly duties, demanded the Fargo Diocese release its list of clergy accused of sexual abuse and challenged North Dakota legislators to loosen statutes of limitations for victims so they can seek criminal charges and civil remedies.
Catholic leaders in North Dakota and Texas say Wight’s faculties as a priest have been removed. The Fargo Diocese previously said it is reviewing 70 years worth of files in preparation for releasing a list of credibly accused priests, but it is unclear when that will happen.
'This is not something you get over'
Wight was ordained in January 2014 by the Corpus Christi Diocese and was sent in February 2016 to serve as a priest at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Belcourt, according to a statement from the Fargo Diocese.
Marion had a history of being neglected and abused, and she came to church almost daily, she said during the news conference. She was devoted to her religion before reporting Wight — she has lost her faith because of what she said happened to her.
She alleged that Wight groomed her, touched her inappropriately, jumped on her and wrestled with her. When she protested, he said it was alright because he was her “father” and she was his “daughter,” according to Marion. The lawsuit alleges Wight talked with her about pornography and sex.
In July 2016, Wight was conducting a confessional with Marion when the assault occurred, the lawsuit claimed. He allegedly tried to touch her vagina and hugged her against her will during confession, court documents said.
"Kateri tried to pull away. (Wight) would not let her, and instead (Wight) held Kateri close and shortly thereafter (Wight) ejaculated," the lawsuit states.
Kateri said she never had a father figure in her life until she met Wight, adding that she trusted him.
“Everyday he would tell me he hated everyone that abused me, for only him to abuse me himself,” she said. “His last words to me was that I would get over it. This is not something you get over.”
She came forward to report the alleged assault the same month she said it occurred.
Court documents mention the FBI was involved in the case, but no charges have been filed. The Forum contacted several agencies, including the FBI, to confirm the status of the investigation, but it hadn’t heard back by publication time.
'Everybody is listening'
The Fargo Diocese learned of the allegations on July 12, 2016, and reported them to Belcourt police the same day, according to a statement from the diocese. On July 14, 2016, the diocese notified him that his priestly faculties were removed, the statement said.
Marion and her attorneys claim the diocese blamed her for the attack and didn't offer any help after Wight was reported. “A priest told me I dress immodestly … and that I make all holy men of God lust for me,” she said.
The Fargo Diocese declined to comment further on the accusations, citing the pending litigation.
SOLT said in a 2016 statement to St. Ann’s parishioners it was aware of the complaint against Wight. The society removed Wight from “the mission and priestly ministry in order to better address the matter,” the Rev. Jerry Drolshagen, American regional priest servant for SOLT, wrote in the statement obtained by The Forum.
"While the authorities determined that the behavior of Father Wight was not of a criminal nature, it is a very serious matter that demands thorough attention and an adequate response,” Drolshagen wrote. “Please be assured our prayers for each of you. In particular, we express our deepest apology, prayers and support to the woman who was subject to Father Wight’s behavior.”
The Corpus Christi Diocese confirmed Wight is a SOLT priest. Attorneys for Marion said they believe Wight is a janitor at the retreat center.
When confronted about the lawsuit, Drolshagen forwarded his statement from 2016 to The Forum. He did not answer further questions, including whether Wight is in contact with children or vulnerable adults.
Marion called Wight a “very high risk.”
“It took him six months to groom me and manipulate me and control me,” she said. “In that six months, he ... destroyed my whole entire life.”
This is the first time Marion has felt hope since reporting Wight to authorities, she said. She feels there may be justice for her.
Marion and her attorneys said they hope they can protect children and vulnerable adults from being assaulted in the future by bringing her case to light.
“I have tried to share my story multiple times,” she said. “Nobody (was) listening, but now everybody is listening.”