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Originally published Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 12:17 AM

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Hundreds expected to file abuse claims against Jesuits

About 400 to 500 people — including more than 100 in Washington state — are expected to file abuse claims against the Jesuits in the Northwest by a Nov. 30 filing deadline.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For Charlene Sam, coming forward to say she was abused years ago at a Jesuit-run boarding school near Omak was a step toward "trying to find some inner peace — feeling that I'm OK and worthy."

Sam, a member of the Wenatchee tribe, is encouraged that dozens of other Native Americans who once attended St. Mary's Mission and School are stepping forward as well. She hopes still others will do the same before a Nov. 30 deadline to file claims against the Jesuits in the Northwest.

For years, "We thought: 'No one's listening. No one's doing anything,' " she said.

So it's important, she said, for those who were abused to tell their stories and get the sense that "there's safety now, that someone's going to listen."

Sam is one of more than 100 people in Washington state who are expected to file abuse claims against the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, by the deadline. Across the Northwest, about 400 to 500 people total are expected to file — most of them Native Americans or Alaska Natives.

As of last week, about 240 claims had already been filed.

The Jesuit province — which covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana and Idaho — declared bankruptcy in February, saying it didn't have enough to pay for about 200 pending or threatened lawsuits, most filed by Alaska Natives who said they were abused in their remote villages years ago.

Since then, more people have come forward from the other Northwest states as well.

Attorneys Timothy Kosnoff, of Seattle, and John Allison, of Spokane, are part of a group of law firms that represent about 120 abuse victims — mostly Native American — including about 35 in Washington and 60 in Montana. Most of their Washington victims say they were abused at St. Mary's.

Sam is now a 56-year-old manager of behavioral-health programs for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. But she still remembers attending St. Mary's from age 7 to about 14.

The now-closed school on the Colville Indian Reservation was part of the Indian boarding-school era, which started in the late 1800s when the federal government began forcibly placing tribal children in institutions — many of them Christian schools — to try to assimilate them into the dominant culture. The schools slowly started reforming in the 1930s.

Still, Sam remembers not being allowed to talk about, much less practice, any aspect of her culture. She also remembers being sexually abused by a Jesuit priest there.

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For her, what's at stake is "some healing for my people. It's not much, but at least it's a small justice," she said.

The stakes are high as well for the Oregon Province, part of the worldwide Jesuit order, which is widely known for its intellectual rigor, prestigious schools and far-flung mission work.

The province's bankruptcy filing is believed to be the first by a Catholic religious order since the abuse scandals broke nationwide.

A big and still unsettled question is whether the assets of Jesuit schools and universities — including Seattle University and Gonzaga University — belong to the province.

Attorneys for the victims argue that they do, and therefore can be used to pay creditors. The schools and the province say they are legally and financially separate from each other. It will be up to the court to decide.

According to the province, it has settled more than 200 claims and paid more than $25 million from its own resources since 2001.

A large number of those settlements came in 2007, when the province agreed to pay about $55 million to more than 100 Alaska Natives for abuses dating from the 1960s to the 1980s. Insurance paid for $48 million of that, but in exchange, the province agreed the insurance company would not pay for any further claims arising from abuses in Alaska.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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