FRANKLIN -- The IHOP in Southhaven, Mississippi, was an unlikely place to settle a sex abuse claim against the Catholic Church. But in January a white official from the Franciscan religious order slid into a booth across from a 35-year-old black man and offered to pay him $15,000 to keep years of alleged abuse by another Franciscan secret.
The Rev. James G. Gannon, the leader of a Wisconsin-based group of Franciscan Friars, arrived at the crowded pancake house with copies of a legal settlement for La Jarvis D. Love, who had arrived with his wife and three young children.
As La Jarvis skimmed the four-page agreement, his thoughts flickered back more than two decades to the physical and sexual abuse he says he suffered at the hands of a Franciscan Friar at a Catholic grade school in Greenwood. He told Gannon he wasn't sure $15,000 was enough.
"He said if I wanted more, I would have to get a lawyer and have my lawyer call his lawyer," La Jarvis recently told The Associated Press. "Well, we don't have lawyers. We felt like we had to take what we could."
La Jarvis considered his mounting bills, his young family and, with his wife's consent, signed the agreement, dating it Jan. 11, 2019.
Then Gannon announced it was time to eat.
"He was all smiles then," La Jarvis said.
At the time, La Jarvis didn't understand that the agreement he signed is unusual in several respects. It includes a confidentiality requirement, even though American Catholic leaders have barred the use of non-disclosure agreements in sex abuse settlements.
In addition, the amount of money Gannon and the Franciscans offered is far less than what many other sex abuse victims have received through legal settlements with the Catholic Church. In 2006, the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, settled a handful of lawsuits with 19 victims, 17 of whom were white, for $5 million and an average payout of more than $250,000 for each survivor. More recent settlements have ranged even higher, including an average payment of nearly $500,000 each for abuse survivors in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese.
La Jarvis and two of his cousins, who have also reported that they were abused at Greenwood's St. Francis of Assisi School, differ from most victims with sex abuse claims against the church because they are black, desperately poor and, until recently, never had a lawyer to argue their case.
The abuse they say they endured at the hands of two Franciscans, Brother Paul West and Brother Donald Lucas, included beatings, rape, and other sexual violations beginning when they were nine and 10 years old.
The Franciscans tried to settle with one of La Jarvis's cousins, Joshua K. Love, by offering to pay him up to $10,000 to cover the cost of a used car, maintenance and insurance. Joshua, who has limited reading and writing skills, rejected the offer but later signed a confidential agreement for $15,000 — something he now regrets.
"They felt they could treat us that way because we're poor and we're black," Joshua said of the settlements he and La Jarvis received.
Catholic officials have been promising to end the cover-up of clergy abuse for nearly two decades. In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, pledging to respond to abuse allegations in an "open and transparent" manner. And earlier this year, Pope Francis issued a new church law requiring Catholic officials worldwide to report sexual abuse — and the cover-up of abuse — to their superiors.
But the confidential deals the Franciscans reached with La Jarvis and Joshua show that, in some cases, the American church continues efforts to limit financial fallout and keep sexual abuse under wraps — as it did in the years before 2002 when settlements with victims were routinely arranged in secret for small sums of money.
Gannon, during interviews with the AP, said he believes that both La Jarvis and Joshua were abused and acknowledged that the settlements are less than generous.
"We've hurt them tremendously and no amount of money would ever account for what happened to them," he said.
Asked if the Loves' race or poverty had anything to do with the size of the settlements they were offered, Gannon said: "Absolutely not."
Gannon also said the Franciscans have no intention of enforcing the confidentiality clauses, noting that La Jarvis and his cousins have discussed the settlements among themselves.
"There is no confidentiality," he said. As for why the non-disclosure agreements were included, in violation of the American bishops' 2002 charter, he said, "The lawyers put it in there. I can't give you a good answer on that."
West declined to answer questions for this story, and Lucas died in 1999. The Jackson diocese, for its part, has found the allegations against West and Lucas "credible" and has notified the local district attorney.
Statement from James Gannon, provincial minister of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province:
"On Tuesday, August 27th, 2019 the Associated Press published a story about two of our former friars who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors while ministering at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Greenwood, MS in 1998. The information in the article is upsetting, disappointing, and may even bring back painful memories to victims and their families. For that, we sincerely apologize.
The Franciscans of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province will continue to maintain safe environments. Protecting children and vulnerable adults is one of our utmost priorities. These strenuous efforts have been validated through our accreditation status by an independent firm that evaluates protection policies and procedures of major organizations."
Statement from Peter Isely with SNAP Wisconsin (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests):
"A lengthy Associated Press investigation published today about a former member of a Wisconsin based Catholic religious under who is under current criminal investigation for multiple acts of felony child sexual assault in Mississippi, Wisconsin and New York State is raising troubling questions as to the treatment of racial or economically disadvantaged survivors of clerical child sex offenders by Catholic church officials.
Over the past nine months, church officials of the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption Province, headquartered in St. Francis, Wisconsin, have been actively soliciting secrecy agreements from African American victims of Paul West, 59, a former Franciscan, in exchange for financial settlements which are among the lowest in the United States. The settlements were brokered by church officials of the Jackson, Mississippi diocese. The secrecy agreements are not only in direct violation of the US Bishops policy on abuse but appear to have been engineered to mislead these victims into believing that West could no longer be prosecuted. The criminal statute on West's alleged offenses, however, are currently active in both Mississippi and Wisconsin.
Fortunately, because these courageous victims have come forward, West is finally being investigated in both states, including in Milwaukee and Outagamie Counties, where West allegedly transported children across state lines for the purposes of committing criminal sex acts, a federal crime that should also trigger and investigation by the US Department of Justice.
There are likely many more victims of West, who was the principal of a traditional black Catholic "mission" school in Mississippi. The allegations against him, which the order has confirmed as credible, include "beatings, rape, and other sexual violations" beginning when the victims were as young as 10.
The treatment of these particular survivors, according to the AP investigation, "differ from most victims with sex abuse claims against the church because they are black, desperately poor and, until recently, never had a lawyer to argue their case." These brave survivors represent the most hidden and vulnerable population of victims in the church, which makes their plea for justice ethically urgent and their treatment by church officials morally shameful.
Survivors are grateful that West is being investigated and, given the severity of these alleged acts, believe that he needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Wisconsin and Mississippi church officials also need to be investigated for allowing this dangerous abuser to evade justice. And his victims must be compensated properly for the immense harm and damage done to them, which includes the discriminatory treatment they have had to endure that has significantly compounded that harm."