Jesuits to pay $166M to settle sex abuse claims

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SEATTLE - In one of the largest settlements in the Roman Catholic church's sweeping sex abuse scandal, an order of priests agreed Friday to pay $166.1 million to hundreds of Native Americans and Alaska Natives who were abused at the order's schools in the northwestern U.S.

The settlement between more than 450 victims and the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus also calls for a written apology to the victims and disclosure of documents to them, including their personal medical records.

The Jesuit province owns Gonzaga University, known for its successful basketball program, but the settlement does not include assets from that institution or any other school controlled by the order.

"It's a day of reckoning and justice," said Clarita Vargas, 51, who said she and her two sisters were abused by the head of St. Mary's Mission and School, a former Jesuit-run Indian boarding school on the Colville Indian Reservation near Omak, Washington state, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The abuse began when they were as young as 6 or 7, she said. "My spirit was wounded, and this makes it feel better."

The province ran village and reservation schools in Oregon, Washington state, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. The claims are from victims who were students at schools in all five states. Nearly all the victims are American Indian or Alaska Native.

The Very Rev. Patrick Lee, speaking for the Oregon Province, said the organization would not comment on the settlement announcement because the bankruptcy proceedings are ongoing, "as well as out of respect for the judicial process and all involved."

He said the province was hoping to conclude the bankruptcy process as quickly as possible.

The province previously settled another 200 claims. Then the organization filed for bankruptcy in 2009, claiming the payments had depleted its treasury. But victims argued the province remained wealthy because it controls and owns Gonzaga University, Gonzaga Preparatory School, Seattle University and other schools and properties.

Many of the abuses happened in remote villages and on reservations. The order was accused of using those areas as dumping grounds for problem priests.

California attorney John Manley, who represented some of the abuse victims, said the Jesuits knowingly put molesters in a position to abuse children.

"It wasn't an accident. The evidence showed they did it on purpose and it was rape," Manley said.

Manley said he was certain not all the victims have come forward and believes the pattern of abuse among Catholic priests continues.

Both the order and its insurers are paying into the settlement. About $6 million of the settlement is being set aside for future claims.

Attorney Blaine Tamaki said the priest who molested Vargas and about 100 other children has not been charged with a crime because the statute of limitations in Washington state is so restrictive. A bill before the state's 2011 Legislature would remove that statute of limitations.

Although the victims' attorneys initially cited the wealth of the Jesuit colleges and prep schools in the region, they did not pursue that argument during the bankruptcy negotiations, so the settlement does not includes such institutions as Gonzaga University in Spokane.

The settlement is believed 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, according to the website BishopAccountability.org.