Priest Accused of Sexual Abuse
Former Loyola Jesuit Was Professor, Author and Counselor

The Phoenix
December 5, 2008

As a Jesuit and a professor at Loyola University Chicago, the Rev. John Powell, S.J., built a reputation as a popular teacher and a best-selling religious author - and all of it was called into question again last month as he faced his third sexual abuse lawsuit since 2003.

The civil lawsuit, filed Nov. 6 by the plaintiff "Jane Doe 125," who has chosen to remain anonymous to the public, claimed that Powell held "private counseling sessions" with her during a religious retreat in 1967. During these sessions, said the official complaint, he forced her to kiss him and required her to remove her school u-niform so that he could fondle her.

The lawsuit also named the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, as a defendant on counts of negligence and fraud, and stated that the Jesuits knew about Powell's pedophilic tendencies before the alleged incident and failed to act on that knowledge.

Powell, 83, now retired in Michigan, worked as a professor of theology at Loyola from 1965 until his retirement in 1996. During that time, he held spiritual retreats and wrote popular books such as Fully Human, Fully Alive, inspirational self-help manuals that blended pop psychology with Catholic theology and established him as "one of the best-selling spiritual authors of our time," according to Publishers Weekly.

"This guy sells books about sexually intimate relationships, and the Jesuits make millions off of them, and it's a fraud, a complete fraud," said attorney Marc Pearlman, who represents the anonymous plaintiff for the law firm Kerns, Frost and Pearlman. "The guy was sexually abusing his students and people who came to him for counseling."

He also, according to a number of accusers, used his position as a counselor and professor to abuse young girls. Throughout the years he was assigned to Loyola University, the lawsuit said, Powell held spiritual retreats that brought him into contact with minor children. It was during one of these retreats, held at Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, Fla., that he sexually abused the plaintiff, according to the lawsuit. She was "approximately 16 or 17," the suit said.

The lawsuit also claimed that Powell "engaged in a pattern and practice of sexually abusing Loyola University students." In 2006, a former Loyola University student, Diane Ruhl, named the Chicago order of Jesuits as the defendant in a civil lawsuit along with three other women. The lawsuit, which is still pending, claimed that Powell sexually abused Ruhl during private counseling sessions while she attended Loyola and also said that both Jesuit leaders and Loyola administrators received reports of Powell's alleged abuses and ignored them.

Powell has never been charged with a crime.

Pearlman, the attorney, represented four women in a 2003 sexual abuse lawsuit against Powell, which the defendant settled publicly in 2005. He said that he has dealt with a number of women who have come forward and claimed that Powell abused them, enough to convince him that there may have been dozens more.

"I really doubt the number is just six or seven or 13," he said. "We had a client, her sister went to Loyola and he was abusing her 13-year-old sister. He used to frequent the house, and he'd tell her parents he was going to tuck her in and bless her and read her confession, and then he'd abuse her. A 13 year-old."

Powell could not be reached for comment. A statement from the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus said he was in "extremely poor health, requiring 24-hour medical care and supervision."

Pearlman also said that in his experience, the Jesuits displayed a record of covering up sex abuse within their ranks.

"The Jesuits have a history of being horrible on these types of issues," he said. "They've had sex abusers in their ranks, they've known about them, they've covered it up, they've transferred them and ignored it, and Powell's not the only example. I really think the way they approached this sex issue was to sweep it under the rug."

Pearlman pointed to the case of the Rev. Donald McGuire, S.J., as an example. A public jury convicted McGuire in a 2006 criminal trial of sexually abusing two teenage boys in Chicago in the 1960s. Documents show that Chicago Jesuit leaders received alerts about McGuire's behavior dozens of times during his career, according to multiple news sources.

A spokesperson for the Jesuits' Chicago Province said he was not able to comment by phone. In an e-mailed response statement, the Rev. Edward Schmidt, S.J., Chicago Provincial of the Society of Jesus, said that the Chicago Province does not comment on ongoing legal proceedings out of respect for the judicial system.

"The Province takes allegations of sexual misconduct seriously," said the statement, "investigates them fully, and cooperates with authorities. We believe the individuals who have come forward deserve our understanding and prayers."

The statement also encouraged anyone who has been abused by a member of the Province to contact the appropriate law enforcement or child protection agency no matter what amount of time has passed since the abuse.

Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), agreed with Pearlman's estimate, calling the Jesuits "the worst in this country" in terms of religious organizations with a track record of concealing abuse. SNAP is a Chicago-based national advocacy and support group for survivors of sexual clerical abuse.

Blaine said that the 30 year span between the alleged incident and the lawsuit typified cases of clerical abuse based on her experience, especially so with cases involving Jesuit priests. She also said she was disappointed by Loyola University's lack of response to the claims of abuse by Powell.

"When you're raped by a teacher in your school," she said, "you're not really in a position to speak up or do anything about it. It takes years, sometimes decades of healing to withstand the scrutiny, especially because the Jesuits and Loyola do not make it easy for victims to speak up."

Steve Christensen, communications manager at Loyola University Chicago, declined to respond. He said that the university refers all questions about Powell and the alleged abuse to the Jesuits' Chicago Province and said that university officials would not comment on the lawsuit.

In an e-mail response, Ellen Kane Munro, vice president and general counsel at Loyola, said that the university "will not tolerate sexual abuse, or indeed sexual harassment of any kind, by anyone, including its faculty and the Jesuits."

Pearlman said the case might reach a settlement, but he promised to make the results public.

"If the Jesuits want to step up and settle the case," he said, "that's always better for the victims, but it will be public, whether it goes through the courts or not."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.