In one of the largest monetary payouts nationwide in the Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis, and the largest one by a religious order, the Jesuit order in the Northwest has agreed to pay $166.1 million to about 500 abuse victims, including those in Alaska, as part of its bankruptcy settlement.
The settlement between the victims and the order's Oregon Province, the Northwest chapter of the Jesuits, also asks the order to provide a written apology to the victims, to no longer call victims "alleged victims" and to enforce new practices designed to prevent abuses, according to plaintiffs' attorneys.
Many of the abuses happened to Native American or Alaska Native children. Some were living in remote Alaska villages when they were abused, others on reservations or in Christian boarding schools into which the federal government had forcibly placed them in an attempt to assimilate them into the dominant culture.
The order was accused of regarding the villages and reservations as dumping grounds for problem priests -- a characterization the province's leaders have repeatedly rejected.
"They sent their problem priests to the most remote areas where there was little supervision and they had access to the most vulnerable children," said victims' attorney Michael Pfau.
Including today's settlement, the Northwest Jesuits have agreed to pay about $250 million total to about 700 victims.
"It's a day of reckoning and justice," said Clarita Vargas, 51, of Tacoma. Vargas, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, spoke at a press conference Friday morning called by plaintiffs' attorneys John Manly and Blaine Tamaki. Vargas was abused while she was a student at St. Mary's Mission and School, a former Jesuit-run Indian boarding school on the Colville Indian Reservation near Omak.
Nothing can compensate for having her childhood taken away, she said. "My spirit was wounded. I can only say (the settlement) makes me feel better. And I can't explain it."
Leaders with the Northwest Jesuits declined to comment, saying only in a written statement attributed to the provincial superior, the Very Rev. Patrick Lee, that that was "out of respect for the judicial process and all involved. ... The province continues to work with the Creditors Committee to conclude the bankruptcy process as promptly as possible."
Before filing for bankruptcy in February 2009, the Jesuits' Oregon Province, which covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and Montana, had already settled about 200 abuse claims for about $84 million.
The province was facing about 200 more claims when it filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, listing assets of $4.8 million and liabilities of $61.8 million. It was the first Catholic religious order in the U.S. to file for bankruptcy because of abuse claims.
Eventually, hundreds of creditors filed claims, some 500 of which alleged sexual abuse -- including 172 from Washington state.
In Washington, dozens of victims said they were abused at St. Mary's Mission and School by Jesuit priests and those supervised by Jesuits.
"Maybe the thought was, 'Little Indian girls would not say anything,' " said Dorothea Skalicky, 42, of Lewiston, Idaho, who was abused by a Jesuit priest at Sacred Heart Church in Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Perce Reservation.
"It's been a long journey" toward the settlement, said Skalicky, who did not tell anyone of her abuse until about two years ago. "I think a lot of people have this stigma (about lawsuits that) everyone is suing everybody these days. ... But because of these settlements, hopefully (the church) is making substantial changes to prevent future abuses. That's the big thing."
"This is a sad story for Native Americans," said victims' attorney Timothy Kosnoff. "The victims represent some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in the Pacific Northwest."
A big question when the bankruptcy proceedings began was whether the assets of local Jesuit schools, including Seattle University, Gonzaga University, Seattle Preparatory School, Bellarmine Preparatory School and Gonzaga Preparatory School, belonged to the province. Attorneys for the victims had initially argued that they did and therefore could be used to pay creditors. The province and schools said they are separate from each other.
But during the bankruptcy negotiations, the victims' attorneys did not pursue that argument. As a result, Friday's settlement does not include the schools and they are not contributing any money toward the settlement.
But that also means that lawsuits filed against the schools before the Jesuits declared bankruptcy will now move forward again -- including claims against Seattle University alleging abuse by the Rev. Michael Toulouse, a former professor there.
Largest settlements in the Catholic abuse scandal
Los Angeles Archdiocese: $660 million San Diego: $198 million
NW Jesuits: $166.1 million
Orange, Calif.: $100 million
Boston: $84.3 million
Covington, Ky.: $79 million
Portland, Ore.: $71.5 million
Los Angeles: $60 million
Oakland, Calif.: $56 million
NW Jesuits (Fairbanks cases): $50 million
Spokane, Wash.: $48 million
January 2002: Scandal breaks with reports that priests in Boston sexually abused hundreds of children over past decades; victims across nation later begin filing lawsuits
July 2004: Beset by abuse claims, Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., becomes first in nation to seek bankruptcy protection.
September 2004: Diocese of Tucson seeks bankruptcy protection, followed in December by Diocese of Spokane
2006-2011: Six more dioceses or archdioceses seek bankruptcy protection.
November 2007: Jesuit order in Northwest settles 110 abuse claims for $50 million.
January 2008: Jesuit order in Northwest settles other claims totaling nearly $5 million.
February 2009: Beset by continuing claims, Jesuit order in Northwest becomes first Catholic order to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
March 25, 2011: Northwest Jesuits agree to pay $166.1 million to some 500 victims to settle bankruptcy proceedings. Settlement includes apologies to victims.
By JANET I. TU
Alaska Dispatch Publishing