|Jesuits Tentatively Settle Alaska Sex Abuse Cases
Priests - Accusers' Attorneys Confirm the Proposed Payout, a Record $50 Million
By Ashbel S. Green
November 19, 2007
An Oregon-based Jesuit province has tentatively agreed to pay a record $50 million to settle 110 claims of child sexual abuse in remote Alaska Native villages, attorneys for the accusers said Sunday.
The settlement is the largest ever involving a Catholic religious order, according to a statement issued by plaintiffs' attorneys.
The Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, with headquarters in Portland, includes in its territory Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. It is separate from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, which earlier this year agreed to pay clergy accusers up to $75 million to emerge from bankruptcy. The Rev. John D. Whitney, the Jesuit provincial superior, on Sunday said he was surprised and disappointed by what he called a premature announcement.
"While the Jesuits have been dedicated to finding a just and timely solution to these cases, it is my understanding that there are still many issues that need to be finalized before it is appropriate to make an official announcement about a settlement," Whitney said in a statement.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs provided to The Oregonian a copy of an e-mail in which a Portland attorney for the Jesuits confirmed the agreement of the $50 million settlement, but said it probably would take another month to work out the details.
It is unclear how the Northwest Jesuits will cover the settlement. Two years ago, Whitney said that the organization had settled cases up to that point with insurance money, savings and by asking priestly communities to reduce expenses.
He said none of the money had come or could come from prominent Jesuit-affiliated schools such as Gonzaga University in Spokane or Jesuit High School in Portland because they are independent organizations.
Insurance money was key to the Portland Archdiocese emerging from bankruptcy. It provided about $50 million of the settlement.
The Jesuits, with 20,000 members the largest Catholic religious order in the world, are known for education and missionary work and report directly to superiors outside the Vatican in Rome.
In Oregon, Jesuit priests teach at colleges and schools and staff more than half a dozen parishes, including St. Ignatius in Southeast Portland.
Jesuits also do missionary work among Native peoples in Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana. The child sex abuse incidents at the core of the settlement derive from work in Alaska villages, most of them Eskimo, dating to the 1960s.
"In some villages, it is difficult to find an adult who was not sexually violated by men who used religion and power to rape, shame and then silence hundreds of Alaska Native children," said Ken Roosa, an Anchorage attorney for the plaintiffs. Whitney said in his statement Sunday that the Jesuits are trying to make amends with abuse victims.
"The Society of Jesus is laboring to find just settlements in Alaska and elsewhere for the sake of the survivors of abuse and the many men and women who have had their faith and their lives shaken by the crisis of the last few years," he said. "We proceed carefully in announcing such settlements so as to be respectful of these people and accurate in what we say."
Separately, the Portland Archdiocese largely closed the book on past priest abuse litigation through the bankruptcy proceeding. The archdiocese settled all existing cases, and put a $20 million cap on cases that come forward in the future.
The Jesuit settlement is unlikely to provide the same level of legal certainty, however, because it could not prevent additional accusers from coming forward in the future.
Although the Jesuit province has its headquarters here, few of the accusations involve children in Oregon or priests stationed in the state.
Most of the alleged abuse occurred in remote Alaskan Eskimo villages that during the long winters are almost completely cut off from the rest of the world.
"There's no one to tell, no one to turn to, no one to talk to," said Elsie Boudreau, an Anchorage woman who was sexually abused by a Jesuit priest when she was a girl. Boudreau settled her case for $1 million in 2005.
Roosa said some cases involve the Rev. James Poole, who worked in Alaska villages before being transferred to Portland in 1964 and now lives in an assisted-living facility in Spokane.
In February, an Oregon woman filed a $5 million lawsuit against the Oregon Province saying she was molested by Poole and the late Rev. John Duffy when she was 7 or 8 and a student at St. Mary of the Valley School in Beaverton. Duffy died in 1992.
The lawsuit alleges the Jesuits became aware in about 1960 of Poole "behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner" with minor girls at a boarding school in Alaska and transferred him to Portland with no apparent restrictions.
Pope Pius XI, who led the church from 1922 to 1939, once called remote Alaska "the most difficult mission in the world" because of the extreme conditions, Whitney said. The challenge of working in such a tough environment has drawn Jesuits from throughout the world.
Attorneys for the accusers say the remoteness of the villages proved ideal for pedophile priests.
Whitney has acknowledged that some Jesuit priests committed abuse. But he has disputed claims by plaintiffs' attorneys that the religious order sent pedophile priests there intentionally.
Tony Green: 503-221-8202; firstname.lastname@example.org
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