GREENWOOD, Mississippi (AP) — 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.
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.”
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.