|Jesuit Abuse Settlement Aims to Heal
$50 Million: Religious Order's Head Says Church Failed Victims in Alaska
By Lisa Demer
Anchorage Daily News
November 20, 2007
The head of a religious order sued by dozens of Alaska Natives who say they were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests and volunteers apologized to the victims on Monday and said the church had failed to protect vulnerable children all those decades ago.
"I think what happened in Alaska, and in other places as well, in terms of people being harmed, I am deeply sorry for that," said the Rev. John Whitney, officially the provincial superior for the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, also known as the Jesuits.
The order will pay $50 million to settle the claims, many out of Western Alaska villages, Whitney confirmed Monday.
The settlement was announced Sunday by lawyers for the plaintiffs to the annoyance of the Jesuits. One sign of continuing tensions between the two sides: no joint news conference to announce the deal, as often happens in high-publicity cases.
On Monday night at their lawyers' Anchorage office, two men who were part of the lawsuit said they were glad for the settlement but it doesn't take away the pain.
"It's not just the monetary settlement; it's acknowledgement that the sex abuse happened," said James Niksik, 48, of St. Michael.
Like that of many of the victims, he's had trouble as an adult with drinking and the law. But for years he didn't know why he was angry. He said he blocked out the abuse by Catholic church volunteer Joseph Lundowski until he started talking to attorney Ken Roosa about a lawsuit. Of all the abusers, Lundowski had the most victims: 59, Roosa said.
Another was Peter Kobuk, also from St. Michael, who joined Niksik in the Cooke Roosa law offices. He said he thought the settlement would be more.
"We were children," Kobuk said.
Whitney said Monday that the Jesuits are committed to the settlement and that he hopes it's a step toward healing.
"The vast majority of these cases are true. There are some I think that are questionable," Whitney said. One of the four accused priests still living has denied his guilt and could request a hearing before a church review board in order to clear himself and return to the ministry, Whitney said.
The long-secret scandal of sexual abuse by priests exploded into public view five years ago with revelations out of Boston. But it soon became apparent there were victims all over the country.
Nowhere in the five states covered by the Oregon Jesuits was the problem worse than in Alaska, Whitney said. In addition to Alaska and Oregon, the province includes Washington, Montana and Idaho. Before the Alaska settlement, the province had already settled sex abuse claims involving 78 victims.
The new settlement resolves claims by 110 Alaska Natives who had accused 12 Jesuit priests and three volunteers of abuse ranging from fondling to rape. Claims remain against the Diocese of Fairbanks, which also had authority over the priests. A spokesman there said negotiations continue but some cases may have go to trial.
The priest with the most claims against him was the Rev. Jules Convert, accused of abusing altar boys in St. Marys, Kaltag and Unalakleet. Another victim lived in a Holy Cross orphanage overseen by Convert. Convert worked in Alaska from 1942 to 1978 and died in 1985.
People felt they couldn't talk about the abuse, said Elsie Boudreau, who settled her claims involving priest James Poole two years ago with the Jesuits and the Fairbanks Diocese.
"You don't say anything bad about a priest," Boudreau said.
Some victims think it's their fault, that they somehow made the priest hurt them, she said. "So they hold that shame and the guilt and are frozen."
Boudreau works as a victims' advocate for a California law firm that has teamed with Cooke Roosa on the Alaska abuse cases. For the people now settling their cases, Boudreau had this advice: All the bad feelings may come rushing back, so stay connected to people who care.
The settlement announced this week covers accusations against Convert and Poole as well as the Revs. James Jacobson, James Laudwein, Francis X. Nawn, Segundo Llorente, Bernard McMeel, George Endal, Andrew Eordogh, Thomas Hatrel, John Wood and Henry Hargreaves (who was not sued). The only ones still alive are Poole, Hargreaves, Jacobson -- who fathered children as a priest -- and Laudwein, who Whitney says still maintains his innocence.
There were also claims against three non-priests, men who volunteered with the Jesuits: Lundowski, Anton Smario and Ignatius Jakes.
Some details of the settlement still need to be worked out. For one, the victims need to sign off on it.
A mediator will decide how much money each of the 110 who sued in Alaska receives, Roosa said. The amount could be based on their age, nature of the abuse, how long it lasted and damage to their life.
Attorneys will get from one-third to 40 percent of the amount each victim gets, he said. Along with Cooke Roosa, the other primary firm on the cases was Manly, McGuire & Stewart, of Newport Beach, Calif. Other lawyers were involved too. Roosa estimated the lawyers have spent about $1 million, which they'll now get back.
"We've been fighting these cases for five years with no guarantee of success," said Roosa, who handled sex abuse case as a state prosecutor.
Find Lisa Demer at email@example.com or call 257-4390.
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