Settlement Talks Continue in Clergy Sex Abuse Cases

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks News-Miner
November 3, 2007

Settlement talks in the multiple child sexual abuse cases lodged against the Society of Jesus Oregon Province continue to be actively pursued.

"I think we're close to putting together with our insurers a package that can achieve a settlement," the Rev. John Whitney, Oregon Province provincial, said Thursday evening. "My sense is we are working toward it. I'm not sure what is going to happen. There are some real differences right now that need to be ironed out."

The Jesuits have settled approximately 30 cases out of court.

If a settlement is made, the remaining 111 claimants against the Society of Jesus will receive compensation for alleged sexual abuse by ministers of the religious order who served primarily in Western Alaska Native villages.

Neither side would discuss the monetary terms of the possible settlement.

The Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, which has compensated six plaintiffs, hasn't been involved in the settlement talks — which involve a mediator — since last summer. At that time, their offers on two of the 135 cases still pending against the diocese were rejected by the claimants' lawyers, said Robert Groseclose, an attorney for the diocese.

However, the impasse may likely clear soon.

In a hearing Thursday, Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger ordered all sides in the clerical sexual abuse cases — attorneys as well as insurance carriers — to appear at a court hearing scheduled for Dec. 14 in Anchorage.

The insurance carrier, CNA (formerly Continental) that has sued the diocese in federal court over whether it has an insurance obligation to the diocese, was included in the order.

"Someone with actual authority with CNA must be in the courtroom," Steinkruger said.

Steinkruger, who officially retired from the bench Friday, was assigned by Presiding Superior Court Judge Mark I. Wood to manage the litigation process and she will continue to do so during her retirement.

Many of the civil suits still pending against the bishop of northern Alaska and the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province and Alaska, were filed in 2003.

Steinkruger met with attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants in early October, hashing out a calendar to get the cases moving through the court system.

At the same time, attorneys on each side agreed to try a smaller, cross-section of cases — 10 — as the fastest way to gain resolution for the majority of cases. Each side agreed to select five cases apiece.

In the October hearing, Steinkruger called the civil suits "the most complex litigation within the Alaska Court System next to oil and fisheries negotiations," and "one of the main important issues facing the Yukon Delta."

Thursday, the judge's focus was to jump-start all players into action and not wait around for insurance carriers to prolong any proceedings, settlement-wise or otherwise.

Ken Roosa of Anchorage, attorney for the majority of plaintiffs, also opened the door for the Catholic Bishop to "re-engage with the mediator."

Roosa said a number of the civil cases have been amended to include new plaintiffs. And two new defendants, both deceased Jesuit priests, were added to the list of defendants — the Rev. Thomas Hatrel and the Rev. John J. Wood.

Hatrel, a former chaplain and mathematics teacher at Immaculate Conception Grade School in Fairbanks (1979-83), is accused of abuse in 1985-87, while serving at St. Ignatius parish in Alakanuk.

Wood, who spent more than a dozen years serving in rural Alaska, is accused of abuse in Chevak.

In addition to ordering all insurance representatives and all counsel to be physically present at the December hearing, the judge asked that the mediator, William Bettinelli, a retired judge, also be present to brief the court.

"I want to get a look at these folks eyeball to eyeball This is going forward," Steinkruger said.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546 or


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