CHICAGO (Reuters) - An agreement by Oregon Jesuits to settle sexual abuse claims in Alaska is the largest ever by a Roman Catholic religious order and one of the few successful settlements against any order, lawyers and victims rights advocates said on Monday.
“It seems that Alaska was a dumping ground for predators,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abuses by Priests, commenting on Sunday’s announcement of a $50 million settlement by the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.
Lawyers said the settlement covers 110 victims in native Alaska villages where priests and volunteer missionaries were assigned by the Oregon Jesuit community.
“No amount of money can ever bring back a childhood, a soul or a community,” said Ken Roosa of Anchorage, Alaska, one of the victims’ attorneys.
“In some villages, it is difficult to find an adult who was not sexually violated by men who used religion and power to rape, shame and then silence hundreds of Alaska Native children. Despite all this, no Catholic religious leader has yet to admit that problem priests were dumped in Alaska,” he added.
He and other lawyers involved said it was the largest abuse settlement so far against a Catholic religious order and does not include Diocese of Fairbanks, which they said bears an equal responsibility “for the wide-scale abuse of hundreds of children in remote Alaska Native Villages.”
John Whitney, provincial superior for the Oregon Jesuits, said the group was disappointed by the disclosures made by the victims’ lawyers, “which we see as premature and detrimental to the work of healing.”
“It is my understanding that there are still many issues that need to be finalized before it is appropriate to make an official announcement about a settlement,” Whitney said in a written statement.
The settlement does not require the Jesuits to admit wrongdoing.
While the U.S. Catholic Church has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle abuse claims in recent years, “for the most part the victims of religious communities have not been successful in their lawsuits,” Blaine said.
“This is the first time we’ve seen something with a religious community that was this large,” she added.
“What happened in these villages was that they sent in a predator and people there had no contact with the outside world for four, five or six months, and during that time a guy could abuse every child. There is a whole generation of children who were abused,” Blaine said.
The biggest single church settlement paid so far was $660 million by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the largest in the United States, last July to 508 plaintiffs for cases that dated to the 1940s.
In September the Catholic Diocese of San Diego settled lawsuits with 144 victims of sexual abuse for $198 million. The Boston Archdiocese, where the abuse and cover-up scandal erupted in 2002, reached a settlement in 2003 to pay $85 million to 550 people.
There have been a number of other settlements around the country, and the drain has caused diocesan leaders in some areas to sell property or other assets.
“The Jesuits’ responsibility does not end by simply writing a check,” said attorney John Manly of Newport Beach, California, who represented the Alaska victims. “This abuse has caused a whole culture to bear an overwhelming sadness and deep, abiding pain. The Jesuit leadership must take full accountability for what they did to these kids.”
Additional reporting by Daisuke Wakabayashi in Seattle; Editing by David Wiessler