Jesuits to Pay $7.5 Million to Men Who Contended Abuse

By Barbara Whitaker
New York Times
September 6, 2002

Two mentally retarded men who said they were sexually abused for years by Jesuits at a Northern California religious retreat will receive a total of $7.5 million in an out-of-court settlement.

The settlement, among the largest of its kind in a growing number of such cases, was reached on Wednesday after about a year of negotiations between the California Province of the Society of Jesus and lawyers representing the two men, who were identified only by the pseudonyms John and James Doe.

The two men — John is 56 and James 51 — had lived for nearly 30 years at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, which serves as a retirement home for some 60 priests in Los Gatos, Calif. Both had worked as dishwashers there, earning about $8 an hour.

"No amount of money will ever give them their life back," said Holly Ilse, who owns a dress shop in Los Gatos and filed the suit on behalf of John last year in Santa Clara County Superior Court. "But it will give them enough money to live comfortably for their remaining years."

According to the lawsuit, the men were repeatedly subjected over 30 years to sodomy, molestation and false imprisonment. The suit, which was scheduled for trial on Oct. 15, sought $10 million in damages.

Two men named in the lawsuit, the Rev. Edward Burke, 81, and Brother Charles Leonard Connor, 80, were each convicted of committing a lewd act on a dependent adult in related criminal cases. In June, Father Burke was sentenced to two years in state prison after confessing to the molestation of James. Brother Connor was convicted last year of molesting John. He is free after serving six months of home detention.

The other man named in the lawsuit is Brother Hal Ellis. He is an invalid living at the center and unable to communicate, said Robert L. Mezzetti II, a lawyer for the Does. A fourth resident was originally named in the lawsuit but was later dropped.

The Rev. Thomas H. Smolich, head of the California Province, acknowledged in the past that Father Burke and Brother Connor "did things they shouldn't have done" and indicated early in the case that the church wished to settle.

Still, it took five negotiation sessions with a mediator before a settlement was reached.

"I would hope the settlement brings to a close this chapter," Father Smolich said. "Obviously the issue of sexual misconduct needs to be a significant one in the church, and we're going to do what we can to assure it doesn't happen in the future."

It has been nearly five years since Ms. Ilse became concerned that John, whom she had befriended, was being molested after he started saying things like "I want him to leave me alone; I'm not gay."

Ms. Isle said: "You knew something was terribly wrong. He was so tormented."

She notified the sheriff's department, but both men initially denied they had been abused. The case was reopened in the spring of 2000 when Ms. Ilse returned with more accusations. She teamed up with Debra Sullivan, James's sister, to file a lawsuit on behalf of the two men.

As in many other cases of abuse by priests to come to light recently, an investigation into the accusations at Sacred Heart found that church officials knew of the abuse in some instances, but did little about it.

For example, though superiors at Sacred Heart relocated Father Burke in April 2000 after he admitted having had sexual contact with one of the victims, they did not notify law enforcement authorities.

Brother Connor was moved only after a sheriff's detective threatened to have him arrested. He was then moved to an all-boy high school without officials there being notified that he was under investigation for sexual crimes. Father Smolich said Brother Connor was placed in Jesuit housing under strict supervision.

At least five Jesuits in Northern California have in recent years registered as sex offenders for life. All five have lived at Sacred Heart, which is used as a safe house, but only two reside there now.

Even after the John and James Doe accusations were confirmed, the two men remained at Sacred Heart until July when a local organization stepped forward to provide them with appropriate housing. Both men require significant assistance to live on their own.

Terms of the settlement call for an annuity to be established, with each victim receiving $13,000 a month increasing to about $30,000 a month over the next 30 years.

"They are extremely relieved to know that they never have to go back to the Jesuit center and that they can live in a safe environment," Mr. Mezzetti said. "I don't think they really comprehend the comfort of the life they will be able to live."


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