Victims sue Missoula Jesuits

About 500 people from across the Northwest who claim Jesuit priests molested them filed suit last month to recoup money used to pay bills incurred by St. Francis Xavier Parish in Missoula.

The suit, filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Feb. 17 by the group of unsecured creditors, alleges that during a four-year period $55,000 was improperly directed to Missoula Jesuits from their parent entity, the Oregon-based Society of Jesus.

Across the northwest, the Society of Jesus oversees multiple small Jesuit communities. The lawsuit leveled against the organization and the Missoula Jesuits is one of 37 filed within a 24-hour period that seek to recoup a total of $3.1 million from parishes in Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

Between 2001 and 2009, the Society of Jesus paid $25 million to settle more than 200 sexual abuse claims, forcing it to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009.

The lawsuit asserts that because the organization was struggling financially, it should not have continued to fund operations in Missoula.

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"The concept is if you're broke, you shouldn't be making gifts," says Los Angeles-based attorney James Stang, of Pachulski, Stang, Ziehl & Jones, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the alleged abuse victims.

However, Richard Hansen, an attorney representing the Jesuits, says all of the payments were legitimate and simply covered the modest overhead expenses accrued by priests in Missoula and elsewhere.

"Those payments were made in the normal course of what we do," Hansen says. "The money to the community went for the men's support, so they could eat, so they could pay rent, so they could put gas in their cars."

Hansen asserts the lawsuit is simply an attempt to bleed the order of more cash.

"Mr. Stang's committee just wants more money," he says.

As churches across the country go bankrupt settling sex abuse allegations, the Missoula lawsuit provides a snapshot of what's happening nationally. In addition to the Society's Chapter 11 filing, since 2004 eight Catholic dioceses have gone bankrupt. Most recently, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in January filed for protection from its creditors.

"This is far from being over," Stang says.

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