DEBORAH GORDON BLANKENSHIP
SEATTLE — Clarita Vargas was sent to an Indian boarding school some four decades ago to study her ABCs and learn to blend in with majority culture. She says she instead learned a nightmarish lesson — that children sometimes have no one to protect them from pedophiles.
On Friday, the 51-year-old had her "day of reckoning and justice," when an order of Jesuit priests agreed to pay $166.1 million to hundreds of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives who were abused at its schools around the Pacific Northwest.
The settlement with victims like Vargas is one of the largest in the Catholic church's sweeping sex abuse scandal.
Vargas alleges she and her two sisters were abused at St. Mary's Mission and School, a former Jesuit-run boarding school on the reservation near Omak, Wash., in the late 1960s and 1970s.
She says the abuse began when they were as young as 6 or 7, and that she was told to obey the priest who was abusing her or forfeit the chance to go to heaven. "My spirit was wounded, and this makes it feel better."
St. Mary's now operates as Paschal Sherman Indian School and is run by the Colville Tribe.
The Jesuit order, called the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, has been accused of using its schools in remote villages and on reservations as dumping grounds for problem priests.
Attorneys representing the mostly Native American and Alaskan Native victims said the abuse added to the mistreatment already endured by these children, some of whom were forcibly removed from their homes to attend these schools.
The settlement between the more than 450 victims and the province also calls for a written apology to the victims and disclosure of documents to them, including their medical records.
The Jesuit order ran village and reservation schools in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. The claims are from victims who were students at schools in all five states.
The Very Rev. Patrick Lee, speaking for the Oregon Province, said the organization would not comment on the settlement announcement because of its ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, "as well as out of respect for the judicial process and all involved."
He said the province hopes to conclude the bankruptcy process as quickly as possible.
The province previously settled another 200 claims. Then it filed for bankruptcy in 2009, claiming the payments depleted its treasury.
An issue that surfaced when the bankruptcy proceedings got under way was the relationship between the province and other Jesuit properties, such as Gonzaga University. Attorneys for the victims initially argued the province was wealthy because it controls and owns Gonzaga, along with Gonzaga Preparatory School, Seattle University and other schools and properties.
Both Gonzaga and the Jesuit order maintain they are separate entities, and victims' attorneys did not pursue the issue during bankruptcy negotiations. Neither Gonzaga nor the other schools are contributing to the settlement announced Friday.
California attorney John Manly, who represented some of the abuse victims, contends 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," Manly said.
He added he was certain not all the victims have come forward, and he 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.
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.