In one of the largest settlements nationwide in the Roman Catholic Church's sexual-abuse crisis, the Jesuits will pay $166.1 million to about 500 abuse victims — many of them Native Americans or Alaska Natives.
The abuses spanned decades and states, from remote Alaskan villages to boarding schools on Northwest tribal lands. Hundreds of victims, most of them Native American or Alaska Natives, were sexually or physically abused as children by Jesuit priests or people the priests supervised.
On Friday, the victims received some justice.
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 Jesuits in the Northwest agreed to pay $166.1 million to about 500 abuse victims as part of its bankruptcy settlement.
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The order has also agreed to no longer call the victims “alleged victims,” to write apologies to them and to enforce new practices designed to prevent abuse, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“It’s a day of reckoning and justice,” said Clarita Vargas, 51, of Tacoma, who was abused while a student at St. Mary’s Mission and School, a former Jesuit-run Indian boarding school on the Colville Indian Reservation near Omak.
Of the 500 victims, about 470 suffered sexual abuse. About two dozen others were physically abused.
Insurance companies will pay $118 million of the settlement, with the Jesuits paying $48.1 million.
Including this week’s settlement, the Northwest Jesuits, formally called the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, and their insurers have agreed to pay about $250 million total to some 700 victims. Victims’ lawyers say they’ve identified about 57 Jesuit priests or brothers who have abused.
Oregon Province leaders declined to comment “out of respect for the judicial process and all involved,” Provincial Superior the Very Rev. Patrick Lee said in a statement. “The province continues to work with the Creditors Committee to conclude the bankruptcy process as promptly as possible.”
Vargas, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, remembers being abused by the Rev. John Morse at St. Mary’s Mission and School, which she attended from second to eighth grade.
Morse would sometimes lock her in a cellar, telling her she couldn’t come out until she agreed to do what he wanted, Vargas said during a Friday news conference in Seattle called by plaintiffs’ attorneys John Manly and Blaine Tamaki.
Morse is currently living in Spokane, Tamaki said.
Vargas said nothing can compensate for having her childhood taken away. “My spirit was wounded. I can only say (the settlement) makes me feel better. And I can’t explain it.”
About 60 former students now say they were abused at that school, one of many across the nation that date back to the Indian boarding-school era of the late 1800s, when the federal government began placing Native American children, sometimes forcibly, in such schools to assimilate them into the dominant culture.
The order has been accused of regarding reservations and remote villages as dumping grounds for problem priests — a characterization the Oregon Province’s leaders have repeatedly rejected.
“The victims represent some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in the Pacific Northwest,” said attorney Timothy Kosnoff.
Dorothea Skalicky, 42, of Lewiston, Idaho, was abused from the ages of 6 to 8 by the Rev. Augustine Ferretti at Sacred Heart Church in Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Percé Reservation. Ferretti has since died.
Ferretti “was kind of a grandpa figure” who kept dolls and toys at the church, she said. “He would encourage me to come and play.”
Skalicky told no one about her abuse for years. “My family liked him,” she said.
About two years ago, Skalicky read a newspaper account of a woman who had been abused by Ferretti, and she started crying. Her husband asked her what was going on. It was the first time she’d ever told anyone about what had happened to her.
“The biggest thing that really pissed me off was that Father Ferretti had done this — allegedly, had done this before,” she said. “And he was put on the reservation because it’s a reservation. Maybe the thought was: Little Indian girls would not say anything.”
“Because of these settlements, hopefully, (the church) is making substantial changes to prevent future abuses,” she added. “That’s the big thing.”
Bankrupted by cases
Before filing for bankruptcy in February 2009, the Jesuits’ Oregon Province, which covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and Montana, already had settled some 200 abuse claims for about $84 million. The province was facing about 200 more claims when it filed for Chapter 11.
The bankruptcy reorganization must go through several steps before it is final.
Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge Elizabeth Perris, in Portland, who wants to see a final reorganization plan by Monday, needs to approve it. Then the creditors — almost all of whom are abuse victims — must vote to approve it. That’s likely to happen, given that the plan is being worked out together by the Jesuits and the victims.
In the meantime, two reviewers selected by a victims’ committee — former U.S. attorney Kate Pflaumer in Seattle and retired Superior Court Judge William Bettinelli in San Francisco — have already started evaluating each sexual-abuse victim’s case to decide how much each person will receive.
Factors they will consider are severity and duration of abuse and how people have since done in their lives, said victims’ attorney Michael Pfau. Those who suffered physical abuse will go through a separate process.
The victims are expected to get their checks sometime later this year. It’s not known exactly how much of the $166.1 million settlement will go to the victims’ lawyers, but typically in such cases their fees are about 33 to 40 percent. About $6 million of the settlement is being set aside for victims who may come forward in the future.
According to public documents, several companies have insured the Oregon Province, including Safeco, Atlantic Mutual, USF&G and Western World. The victims’ committee is still negotiating a settlement with the two latter companies, meaning the total settlement amount could go up even higher.
Oregon Province leaders would not say how the Jesuits will pay their $48.1 million portion of the settlement, but victims’ attorneys speculate the money will come from the province’s bank accounts — which the Jesuits characterize as trust funds — as well as the sale of real estate.
Schools not pursued
One place the money won’t be coming from: the Jesuits’ prestigious schools.
When the bankruptcy proceedings began, attorneys for the victims initially argued that Jesuit schools belonged to the province and therefore could be used to pay creditors. The province and schools said they are separate from each other.
But during negotiations, the victims’ attorneys did not pursue that argument. As a result, Friday’s settlement does not include the schools.
That means lawsuits filed before the bankruptcy against Seattle University alleging abuse by the Rev. Michael Toulouse, a former professor there, will now move forward.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.