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Originally published Saturday, September 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Jesuits hid sexual abuse by ex-Gonzaga president

For 40 years, the Jesuit leadership in the Northwest buried allegations that John Leary, former president of Gonzaga University, sexually...

Seattle Times staff reporters

For 40 years, the Jesuit leadership in the Northwest buried allegations that John Leary, former president of Gonzaga University, sexually abused boys and young men in the 1960s.

On Friday, church officials announced that the abuse occurred during Leary's tenure at the university. It is the latest disclosure of a number of sexual-abuse allegations against Jesuits that have emerged in recent years.

Leary was president from 1961 to 1969, and it's not clear how many victims there may be, according to the Very Rev. John Whitney, provincial superior of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.

Allegations against Leary, who died in 1993, were first brought to the province in 1966, but nevertheless church officials reassigned him to other positions throughout the Western United States, the statement said.

Whitney said he decided to make the announcement after province officials recently found more information on the allegations while researching records for a case involving another Jesuit, Michael Toulouse.

In the Toulouse case, a federal judge had ordered the province to release all documents that might show Jesuit officials knew of abuses by its members in 1969 or earlier.

"The Jesuits and these orders have flown under the radar for these last couple of years, and that's about to change," said Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle area lawyer representing a number of Catholic Church abuse victims.

In Friday's statement, the church said Leary had denied the 1966 accusations and was allowed to remain as Gonzaga president. But three years later, Spokane authorities told the province of new allegations and demanded that Leary leave Spokane or face arrest.

Provincial leaders allowed Leary to leave and resign.

"While today stronger safeguards and clearer policies are in place, the Jesuits wish to publicly acknowledge the failures of our history and apologize to those who have suffered," Whitney said in his statement.

The province settled with two men who came forward in the last year saying they had been abused by Leary, and the church knows of at least two more, Whitney said in an interview. There are about eight other allegations the province is reviewing.

"It was not my intention to keep it a secret," Whitney said. In the last couple of weeks, "when I found out this [most recent] information, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was just: 'Let's get it out.' ... I thought these need to be out as soon as possible."

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Whitney said the announcement had nothing to do with the recent federal court order compelling the province to turn over information on allegations against other Jesuits.

Others are not so sure.

"Frankly, it's hard to believe these documents were just 'found,' " David Clohessy, head of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a statement. "At least a dozen times in the past few years, church officials have made identical claims, almost always after such records could have been crucial in litigation."

30 to 50 open claims

The allegations against Leary and Toulouse are among dozens that have emerged against Northwest Jesuits.

In the Oregon Province, which covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, there are at least 30 to 50 open claims of sexual abuse against priests who are or were with the Society of Jesus, Whitney said in a recent court deposition. Including closed cases, the province has handled 70 to 80 claims since 2002.

The case filed last year against Toulouse, a former philosophy professor at Seattle University who died in 1976, accused the priest of taking a 12-year-old boy to the Jesuit residence at the school in 1968 and molesting him.

Evidence unearthed as part of the lawsuit revealed that Toulouse had been similarly accused years earlier.

Victims had complained about Toulouse to church officials, including former Seattle Archbishop Thomas Connolly in 1965, to the province in 1993, and to the Seattle Archdiocese in 2004, according to court documents.

Whitney said the province didn't know about allegations against Toulouse until about the early 1990s. "If the archbishop was told, that doesn't mean the province knew about it. When the allegations started coming forward [more recently], we responded."

The Rev. Stephen Sundborg, Seattle University president, said in a letter sent to faculty and staff last year that the allegations against Toulouse were not filed by a student at the school.

Other allegations in this state against Jesuits include nine women who recently came forward to the Oregon Province, saying they were sexually abused by a Jesuit priest when they were girls at St. Mary Mission School, a former Jesuit-run Indian boarding school in Omak on the Colville Indian Reservation, according to John Allison, an attorney representing the women.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272

or jtu@seattletimes.com

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