Catholic Order Reaches $166 Million Settlement With Sexual Abuse Victims

by William Yardley (New York Times)
March 25, 2011

SEATTLE — A Roman Catholic religious order in the Northwest has agreed to pay $166 million to more than 500 victims of sexual abuse, many of whom are American Indians and Alaska Natives who were abused decades ago at Indian boarding schools and in remote villages, lawyers for the plaintiffs said Friday.

The settlement, with the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, known as the Northwest Jesuits, is the largest abuse settlement by far from a Catholic religious order, as opposed to a diocese, and it is one of the largest abuse settlements of any kind by the Catholic Church. The Jesuits are the church's largest religious order, and their focus is education. The Oregon Province includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

"There is a huge number of victims, in part because these Native American communities were remote and vulnerable, and in part because of a policy by the Jesuits, even though they deny it, of sending problem priests to these far-off regions," said Terry McKiernan of Bishopaccountability.org, a victims' advocacy group that tracks abuse cases.

The province released a statement saying it would not comment on the settlement announced by the plaintiffs' lawyers because it was involved in bankruptcy litigation. The bankruptcy stems from previous abuse settlements, totaling about $55 million, reached several years ago. A small group of victims and their lawyers have been negotiating the current settlement for more than a year as part of the province's bankruptcy-ordered restructuring.

An insurer for the province is paying the bulk of the settlement, which still is subject to approval by hundreds of other victims and by a federal judge.

John Allison, a lawyer based in Spokane, Wash., represented many clients who were abused in the late 1960s and early 1970s while they were students at St. Mary's Mission in Omak, Wash., near the reservation of the Colville Confederated Tribes, one of the largest reservations in the country. The Jesuits ran the St. Mary's school until the 1970s, when federal policies began to encourage more Indian control. St. Mary's is now closed, though its building stands beside a new school.

Mr. Allison noted that English was not the native language for some of the students at the time of the abuse. Some were 6 and 7 years old and came from difficult family situations. Some were orphans. At the same time, many Jesuit priests were not happy to have been assigned to such remote places.

"They let down a very vulnerable population," Mr. Allison said.

Lawyers representing some of the victims initially suggested they would go after assets of some of the region's large Jesuit institutions, including Gonzaga University and Seattle University. But the settlement does not involve them, and their future vulnerability is unclear. Mr. Allison said some of the accused priests, now in their 80s, live at Gonzaga under strict supervision.

Mr. Allison and another lawyer, Leander James, of Idaho, said the settlement required the province to eventually apologize to the victims.

One of the plaintiffs, Dorothea Skalicky, was living on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in northern Idaho in the 1970s when she said she was abused by a Jesuit priest who ran Sacred Heart Church, in Lapwai. Ms. Skalicky, now 42, said that her family lived across from the church for several years, and that she was abused from age 6 to 8.

"My family looked up to him," Ms. Skalicky said of the priest, who is deceased. "He was somebody high up that was respected by the community and my parents." The church, she said, "was supposed to be a safe place."

Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.