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Originally published Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Lawsuit claims, but Seattle U. president denies, that he knew of priest's abuse

A lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Seattle University president the Rev. Stephen Sundborg of knowing about an abusive Jesuit priest yet allowing that priest to remain in ministry, back when Sundborg served as head of the Jesuit order in the Northwest from about 1990 to 1996. Sundborg is one of several defendants named in the lawsuit, filed by 40 men and women who say they were sexually abused as children in Alaska years ago by Jesuits or those supervised by Jesuits.

Seattle Times staff reporters

A lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Seattle University President the Rev. Stephen Sundborg of knowing about an abusive Jesuit priest yet allowing that priest to remain in ministry when Sundborg served as provincial — or head — of the Jesuit order in the Northwest from about 1990 to 1996.

Sundborg is one of several defendants named in the lawsuit, filed by more than 40 men and women who say they were sexually abused as children or teens in Alaska years ago by Jesuits or those supervised by Jesuits.

The suit claims that as provincial, Sundborg had access to something called "hell files" — files containing information about Jesuit priests that was "not public," and "not good."

As such, Sundborg should have known that the Rev. Henry Hargreaves, one of the accused priests, had abused children, the suit says. Hargreaves could not be reached Tuesday evening. According to the lawsuit, he resides with the Jesuit community in Spokane.

Sundborg issued a statement Wednesday saying: "The allegations brought against me are false. I firmly deny them. I want the victims and the entire community to know that.

"The complaint filed by the plaintiffs' lawyers represents an unprincipled and irresponsible attack on my reputation," Sundborg said. "Let me be clear — my commitment to justice and reconciliation for all victims remains steadfast. The sexual abuse by Catholic priests is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of our church. I will continue to work toward the goal of bringing healing to all victims."

Tuesday's lawsuit says Native villages in Alaska were essentially a "dumping ground" for Jesuit priests unsuited to serve anywhere else. That characterization has repeatedly been denied by the Jesuits. However they also have paid out millions of dollars in recent years to settle sexual-abuse claims in Alaska.

Several of the plaintiffs and their attorneys plan to hold a news conference this morning near Seattle University.

The lawsuit, filed in Alaska Superior Court's Bethel Judicial District, accuses six Jesuits or those supervised by Jesuits, of sexual abuses ranging from fondling to rape. The abuses allegedly took place from around the 1950s into the early 1990s in remote Alaskan villages.

All the plaintiffs are Alaska Natives.

Other defendants in the suit include the international Jesuit order, and the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province — the formal name of the Jesuits in the Northwest. The province covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

The Very Rev. Patrick Lee, head of the Oregon Province, said in a statement that it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on the lawsuit since he hadn't reviewed the allegations yet.

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"The Oregon Province takes these allegations seriously and will investigate them to the fullest extent," Lee said. "The province is committed to a just and healing course in all cases of misconduct and child abuse."

In recent years, the Oregon Province has received numerous allegations of past sexual abuse, most of them involving Jesuits in Alaska. In November 2007, the province agreed to pay $50 million to 110 Alaska Natives — believed to be the largest settlement by a religious order in the Catholic Church abuse cases.

The Fairbanks Diocese, which owned and managed the churches in the villages where Jesuit priests, brothers and volunteers were assigned, filed for bankruptcy protection last March. About 300 people — including those who filed earlier lawsuits — have filed abuse claims with the diocese.

In Washington state, the Oregon Province agreed in January 2008 to pay $4.8 million to 16 Native Americans who were abused years ago when they were students at a boarding school near Omak.

Settlements in the state have also involved the Rev. John Leary, former president of Gonzaga University, and the Revs. Michael Toulouse and Englebert Axer, both former Seattle U. professors.

In 2006, the Rev. Tony Harris, the second-highest ranking Jesuit at Seattle U. after Sundborg, resigned when allegations that he'd sexually harassed a trainee priest in the 1990s publicly resurfaced. The Jesuits had earlier settled a lawsuit involving Harris and two other priests for an undisclosed amount.

Sundborg, who has led Seattle U. for more than a decade, faced criticism in 2005 for refusing to testify at a deposition in a case involving the Rev. James Poole, a Tacoma priest accused of raping or molesting several girls. Sundborg said that any meetings he'd had with Poole fell under a protective veil known to Jesuits as "manifestations of conscience."

Sundborg said at the time that if Poole had disclosed any criminal conduct, he would have tried to make it public. The Jesuits paid about $1.6 million to settle two cases involving Poole and apologized for his actions.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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