Sex-Abuse Suits Embroil Jesuits in Northwest
Lawsuits the Oregon-Based Province Faces Scores of Cases, Many Involving Priests in Alaska

By Ashbel S. Green
The Oregonian [Oregon]
November 14, 2005

In the long shadow of the Archdiocese of Portland bankruptcy, an Oregon-based Jesuit province faces a growing priest-abuse litigation crisis of its own.

In the last few years, as many as 100 people have filed sex-abuse lawsuits accusing more than a dozen priests and volunteers of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, according to plaintiffs' attorneys.

The Northwest Jesuits are separate from the Portland Archdiocese and report to superiors outside the Vatican in Rome. The province covers five states -- Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska -- but the bulk 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 April.

The Rev. John D. Whitney, the Portland-based provincial superior, admitted that the Rev. James Poole had committed sexual abuse and apologized to Boudreau.

"We apologize to the victim of this misconduct, and to all who have suffered a loss of hope and trust," Whitney said in April. "We ask forgiveness as we strive to ensure that such actions do not happen again."

The Northwest Jesuits have paid about $7.5 million to settle lawsuits, far less than the $53 million spent by the Portland Archdiocese before it sought bankruptcy protection in 2004.

Bankruptcy was supposed to allow the archdiocese to get a handle on priest-abuse litigation, but 18 months later little has been resolved. More than 200 sex-abuse claims are pending. And a judge has yet to decide the most explosive issue in the case: The archdiocese's claim that church law prohibits it from selling parish churches to pay off sex-abuse claims.

The Northwest Jesuits take the same position about such prominent Jesuit organizations as Gonzaga and Seattle universities, and Portland's Jesuit High School. But no legal proceeding has forced the issue.

Although dozens of lawsuits are pending against the Jesuits and a trial is scheduled to begin in February, Whitney said he has given no serious thought to following the Portland Archdiocese into bankruptcy.

"My primary concern really is trying to find ways toward healing," he said.

Pope Pius XI 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.

Christopher R. Cooke, an Anchorage attorney who represents priest-abuse plaintiffs, said the remoteness of the villages proved ideal for pedophile priests. Many villages lacked phone service, and roads were not passable during the long winters.

Absolute trust

And the Yupik Eskimos, isolated by geography, language and culture, were taught to trust their priests absolutely.

"Their power was virtually unfettered," Cooke said. "There wasn't a policeman down the street you could talk to if something was wrong."

Cooke said documents indicate that when the Portland-based Jesuits learned about sex-abuse allegations as far back as 1960, they moved the priest to another village or another state. Cooke said that in some cases, pedophile priests from other parts of the country were sent to Alaska.

"They knew," Cooke said. "They had plenty of notice."

Whitney disagrees.

"We never dumped people in Alaska," he said.

Whitney also said plaintiffs' lawyers are reading too much into documents that they claim show Jesuits did nothing about sex-abuse allegations.

Although the province's headquarters are in Portland, very little of the litigation directly touches Oregon.

A suit filed in Multnomah County in September accused the Rev. John Schwartz, a former teacher at Jesuit High School, of molesting a student in the 1980s. Schwartz is no longer a Jesuit and works as a priest in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Schwartz denies the charge, according to a spokesman for the San Francisco Archdiocese, but has taken a voluntary leave of absence from a church assignment.

Priest fathered two

A suit filed last month in Alaska accused the Rev. James E. Jacobson of sexually assaulting two women in Alaska during the 1960s and '70s and fathering two sons. Jacobson later was sent to Oregon and assigned to be a prison chaplain in Salem, where he worked for 25 years before retiring in August.

An article in the Catholic Sentinel said Jacobson was especially beloved by inmates on Death Row. He received the Salvation Army's national award for Chaplain of the Year and the American Catholic Correctional Chaplain Association's Maximilian Kolbe Award.

Whitney said he recently became aware of evidence that Jacobson had fathered children. Jacobson acknowledges having a relationship with two women, but denies sexually assaulting them.

The Rev. James Laudwein was working in a ministry for the poor in Portland until last month, when he was accused in a lawsuit of molesting a 14-year-old Eskimo girl in 1980. Laudwein denies the accusations against him, Whitney said.

Missionary work

The Jesuits, the largest Catholic religious order in the world with 20,000 members, were founded during the Protestant Reformation. They are known for education and missionary work.

In the Northwest province, Jesuit priests do missionary work among native peoples in Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana. They also teach at Jesuit colleges and schools, and staff more than half a dozen parishes, including St. Ignatius in Southeast Portland.

Whitney said the organization has paid for settlements with insurance, savings and by asking priestly communities to reduce expenses. None of the money has come or could come from Jesuit schools because they are independent organizations, he said.

That claim -- disputed by plaintiffs' attorneys -- echoes the most hotly contested issue in the Portland Archdiocese bankruptcy: ownership of the more than 100 Catholic churches in Western Oregon.

Archdiocese officials say that under church law, the parishes are separate entities. A bankruptcy judge in Spokane -- the location of one of the two other Catholic bankruptcy cases in the United States -- ruled earlier this year that the diocese owned the parish churches. Elizabeth Perris, the judge overseeing the Portland case, is expected to rule on that issue early next year.

Trial scheduled

The most immediate legal issue on the horizon for the Jesuits is a trial scheduled for February in Nome involving Poole, whom five people have accused of sexual abuse. The Jesuits and the Diocese of Fairbanks have settled two Poole cases, including the one with Boudreau. Poole lives in an assisted living facility in Spokane.

One reason that Whitney said he is not considering bankruptcy is that he is seeking to have the courts say the Jesuits are not liable for dozens of sex-abuse allegations against volunteers. That would significantly reduce the number of lawsuits.

Still, he acknowledged that the organization cannot afford to continue paying big settlements.

"If all the claims come though in million-dollar increments, we'll be in trouble," Whitney said.