Jesuits Settle Lawsuit over Priest's Suicide

By Melissa Evans
Daily Breeze
December 15, 2007

John Chevedden flips through a spiral notebook thick with dated accounts of legal depositions and interviews with psychologists and Catholic leaders charged with his brother's care.

The Redondo Beach resident, along with his 96-year-old father, has been fighting for answers since his younger brother, the Rev. James Chevedden, a Jesuit priest, jumped to his death from a six-story parking garage in 2004.

"This is horrendous," he says, pointing to a paragraph highlighted in his notes. "The psychologist said he wasn't vulnerable. They can't say that. He was supposed to be in an environment that wasn't stressful."

The truth of what happened may never be known, but the legal ordeal is over. Two days into a trial over a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Chevedden family against the Los Gatos-based Society of Jesus religious order, the two sides reached a $1.6million settlement this week.

It was a bittersweet end for the family, which alleges the Jesuits placed the late Chevedden in a retirement community surrounded by sexual predators, one of whom molested him in the late 1990s.

Jesuit leaders, meanwhile, say Chevedden had a history of mental illness, and that he had tried to commit suicide twice before he even came to the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center where the abuse allegedly took place.

"While he lived at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, the (California) province did the best that it could to take care of him," the statement read.

The Jesuits admitted no liability or wrongdoing in the settlement. The Rev. Alfred Naucke, executive assistant to the provincial of the order, said Friday that the order sought a settlement to avoid the emotional stress of a trial.

"There weren't going to be any winners in having this whole story put out in the news day after day after day," Naucke said.

Among the 80 men who lived at the retirement community in the hills of Los Gatos, Naucke confirmed that about five of them had a history of sexual misconduct. One of them was Brother Charles Leonard Connor, who pleaded no contest to one count of lewd conduct in 2001 and was ordered to serve six months of house arrest. The religious order also paid $7.5 million in a settlement with two disabled adult men who say they were molested by him.

The late Chevedden told his family in 2002 that he had also been molested by Connor. The abuse, he said, happened shortly after he was placed at Sacred Heart, where he was recovering from a suicide attempt in 1998. Chevedden had jumped off scaffolding from a building and severely injured his legs.

John Chevedden said Connor was allowed back at Sacred Heart after serving his sentence, which caused enormous emotional stress for his brother.

"They were supposed to protect him," he said. "He was living right next to the man who abused him."

The emotional abuse, however, began long before the alleged sexual misconduct, family members say.

The late Chevedden left for the priesthood out of high school in 1966 and was sent to a mission in China. He was ordained in 1978 at Holy Family Chapel in Taipei, and served 22 years teaching and pastoring small churches abroad.

Family members say he was isolated and ignored by the religious order in a foreign land. The priest had a mental breakdown in 1995, and was sent back to the California province for care. It was here that his mental condition deteriorated, family members and their attorney say.

The province failed to give him challenging work, and failed to give him adequate psychological treatment, said Mark Meuser, the family's attorney.

"His identity was made up in his ministry," Meuser said. "He had to be given some kind of work so he could feel effective."

On the day of his death, Chevedden had jury duty. It was his 56th birthday.

The late priest got a ride to the courthouse in downtown San Jose by another priest who had a history of sexual misconduct, family members and the attorney say. He was dropped off, then apparently climbed to the top of a parking structure and jumped.

Despite his mental difficulties, Jesuit leaders said in the statement they "continue to have high regard for their late brother."

"His first love was China, but he was also knowledgeable and widely read in philosophy, history and art," according to a statement from Brother Dan Peterson, archivist for the Jesuit province. "He played the piano and composed liturgical music in Chinese."

Next to his notebook of scribbled legal notes, John Chevedden, 61, carries a memory book created a year after his brother's death by the religious communities he served in China. The book shows pictures of a good-looking, bespectacled young man who won medals in track and bonded with the children he taught.

He loved the Catholic Church, his brother said, and had wanted to serve it since he was in elementary school. His parents had donated thousands of dollars to Jesuit missions, and remained devout members until their son's troubles began.

It was a tough decision to file a lawsuit, John Chevedden said. His father, who lives in Los Angeles, turned 96 on the first day of trial.

"They thought we'd never sue," the brother said. "They thought we'd never do anything or say anything. (My father) is still very upset, but I think we're doing OK. We did the right thing."



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