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Northwest Jesuits to pay $166 million to abuse victims

Northwest Jesuits to pay $166 million to abuse victims

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SEATTLE — 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 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 and to share documents with them such as their personal medical records.

Many of the abuses happened to American Indian or Alaska Native children. Some were living in remote Alaskan 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.

"Maybe the thought was: ‘Little Indian girls would not say anything,'" said Dorothea Skalicky, 42, of Lewiston, Idaho, who says she was abused as a little girl 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."

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 totaling more than $55 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 thought to be the first Catholic religious order in the United States to file for bankruptcy because of abuse claims.

Eventually, hundreds of creditors filed claims, 500 of which alleged sexual abuse. More than 100 were from Washington state.

In Washington state, the majority of the abuses happened at St. Mary's Mission and School, a former Jesuit-run Indian boarding school on the Colville Indian Reservation near Omak. More than 60 victims claimed they were abused there by Jesuit priests and brothers.

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.

The Jesuits' settlement is thought to be the Catholic Church's third largest in the sex abuse cases, behind the Los Angeles Diocese, which agreed to pay $660 million to 508 victims, and the San Diego Diocese, which agreed to pay $198 million to 144 victims as part of its bankruptcy agreement, according to information from the website BishopAccountability.org.

Both the order and its insurers are paying into the settlement.

The settlement ranks about 12th in terms of per-person award for cases involving 25 or more victims.

Victims' attorneys declined to disclose what percentage of the settlement they would get, though the standard attorneys' contingency fees in abuse settlements range from about 33 percent to 40 percent.

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