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Dixie Trahan Brabender knows what it's like to hold on to a secret.

She also knows what it's like to tell someone that secret and not be believed.

Now she's starting a support group for those who've shared either side of that experience.

Like other children on the Flathead Reservation, Brabender said she was sexually abused by a Jesuit priest named Augustine Feretti. For her, the abuse started at age 12 in the rectory at St. Ignatius.

She eventually told her mother about it, but her mother didn't believe her.

"She told me that priests wouldn't do that, that they were good people," Brabender said Monday. "But I see how it happened. This happened to so many kids and we never even told one another about it. We just buried it."

Those memories weren't unearthed until recent years, when news broke across the country about sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Even more recently, Brabender learned about a bankruptcy case involving Jesuit priests in the Northwest. Feretti was a member of that order. After reading about the bankruptcy, which was filed after the church paid more than $25 million in damages in sex abuse cases, Brabender got in touch with attorneys handling the case.

"I think I was one of the first people to step forward up here, but we've got so many other people who this happened to and they're still worried about coming forward," Brabender.

To help, Brabender is starting a support group that will offer people an opportunity to tell their stories without the trappings of a legal case.

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"I just want to set up something where people can talk, where no one asks them any questions, where you can feel totally safe," Brabender said. "People really get a lot of good out of just sharing the experience and realizing they're not alone with this."

Brabender said she's heard from a handful of people who were abused as children but who aren't quite ready to step forward.

"Everybody's story is significant, and we're just trying to provide a way for those people to be heard," she said. "I've had people try to talk on the phone, but they often end up hanging up. It's just so hard to finally step forward."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

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