In Mississippi Delta, Catholic abuse cases settled on cheap
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.
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.
The Mississippi Delta stretches nearly 250 miles, from Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south. It is 40 miles wide, uniformly flat, and etched by rows of cotton, soybeans and corn, all running to a distant, sweltering horizon.
Near its heart lies Greenwood, a small city of 15,000 with a legacy that looms far larger. It was a flashpoint during the voter registration drives of the civil rights movement, and the Delta is where guitar legend B.B. King and other blues players got their start.
It is also a place where the conditions that gave rise to the blues continue to haunt everyday life: racism, unemployment, despair, and a more recent scourge — drugs.
La Jarvis, Joshua and Joshua’s brother Raphael grew up in a neighborhood known as Baptist Town, a collection of humble, single-story houses due east of the city center, literally on the other side of the tracks. Often, more than 10 people in their extended family were crowded into their three-bedroom home.
Among them was their grandmother, family matriarch Lou Alice Bolden. Known as “Miss Lou,” Bolden was born a Baptist but converted to Catholicism in 1964, after a Franciscan missionary baptized her infant son at a local hospital.
The Franciscan order was established in the early 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi to evangelize and work among the poor. Franciscan Friars based in Wisconsin have been traveling to Mississippi in their trademark brown robes and sandals to fulfill that mission among the Delta’s black citizens since the early 1950s.
Like other religious order priests and brothers, the Franciscan Friars report to their order’s leaders in the U.S. and at the Vatican. While they don’t answer directly to local diocesan bishops, they are subject to bishops’ authority and direction in parish work.
Just 3% of American Catholics are black but the percentage in Mississippi is higher, in part because of missionary work by the Franciscans. The church lists 26 parishes in the Jackson Diocese, out of 101, where blacks have a significant presence.
All of Miss Lou’s five children were baptized by Franciscans and attended St. Francis of Assisi School and Church, on the order’s compound out on Highway 82. It was the same with her nine grandchildren.
“I wanted a positive life for them,” said Miss Lou, now 78.
But a positive life eluded her family, as joblessness and the Delta’s crack cocaine epidemic stalked it throughout the 1990s. Back then, it was often up to Miss Lou, then an orderly at Greenwood Leflore Hospital, to cover tuition and pay for school uniforms for her grandchildren.
Times were especially hard when La Jarvis and Joshua were fourth and fifth graders. At the time, Joshua’s mother was addicted to drugs, living on the streets of Greenwood, and his father had drifted away from home.
The family’s hardships presented a perfect opportunity for a sexual predator.
When Brother Paul West or Brother Donald Lucas offered to pay La Jarvis or Joshua pocket money to work weekends at the Franciscans’ Greenwood compound —doing yard work or cleaning up the church and school — it seemed like an act of generosity.
The boys would alternate weekends, so they were never working together. Often, West ended the day with a meal at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. And he sometimes drove one of boys home with a stack of pizzas for the entire family. Raphael, five years younger than his brother, Joshua, would cry because he wasn’t yet asked to work at the compound.
West “made it seem like it was really good but it was really bad,” said Joshua.
West, then his fourth-grade teacher and later the school principal, encouraged Joshua by telling him he was a good student with a bright future. But this classic grooming soon led to sexual assaults, Joshua said.
As a matter of routine, Joshua said, West would take him to the empty school cafeteria, where he would order him to drop his pants and bend over a railing while he “whupped” him.
On some occasions, Joshua said, West asked whether he preferred to be beaten or molested. “He gave me the option to whup me or play with my penis,” he said.
La Jarvis recalls similar experiences. Once, he said, West took him into the men’s room at the school, took out his penis and told La Jarvis to hold it while he urinated.
“He was bold to do something in the open like that,” La Jarvis said, adding that West also showed him child pornography on a computer in his office.
“It was a grown man with a little boy. He was trying to make me think this is how it should be,” La Jarvis explained.
Sometime in 1995, when Joshua was in fifth grade and La Jarvis was in sixth, Lucas arrived at St. Francis. He began working as a cook and quickly took an interest in Joshua.
In contrast to West’s aggression and violence, Lucas was gentle and reassuring, the cousins said. “He asked us questions about — like what’s Brother Paul doing to you all?” Joshua recalled.
Soon, however, Lucas was also having his way with Joshua.
The cousins say the abuse by West continued during summer excursions to Wisconsin, where the Greenwood Franciscans were based, and to Centerport, New York, the site of a summer camp established by the Franciscans in the late 1800s.
During one of those trips, Joshua said, West was teaching him to float on his back in a motel swimming pool when he suddenly pushed his head under water. After he came up gasping, Joshua said, West threatened to drown him if he ever told anyone he was being sexually assaulted.
West drove the Love boys to Wisconsin, again alternating among them so they were never there together, to live with white, middle class families for a few weeks and escape their troubles back home.
La Jarvis remembers these trips fondly, even though, he said, West continued to molest him there. “I had a lot of good experiences in Wisconsin. Paul West was not one of them,” he said.
La Jarvis also said he treasures memories of a summer visit to Camp Alvernia, the Long Island summer camp established by the Franciscans, although he believes West drugged him and molested him on the way there and back.
For the long drive home to Greenwood, La Jarvis said, West brought Joshua along for the ride and, during a motel stop, told the boys he wanted to watch them having sex with each other.
“I don’t remember if we did,” La Jarvis said. “I don’t want to remember.”
In 1998 Raphael was in the fourth grade at St. Francis, and La Jarvis and Joshua were no longer students there. It was his turn, Raphael said, to work weekends at the compound — and be molested by West.
Unlike his older brother and his cousin, who waited until two years ago to report their alleged molestations, Raphael told his family and church authorities about West while the abuse was taking place.
According to a Greenwood police report provided to the AP by the Jackson diocese, Raphael was working at the compound on a Sunday after Mass in August of 1998 when he visited a rest room. That’s when “Brother Paul came in and showed him some nude pictures of men and women, and then started to play with himself and also played with Raphael’s private parts.”
Stephen J. Carmody, an attorney who represents the diocese, told the AP that the diocese also reported Raphael’s claim to the state Department of Human Services and arranged for Raphael to be evaluated by a therapist.
But apparently neither the police nor the diocese discovered the alleged abuse of La Jarvis and Joshua.
Greenwood Police Chief Ray Moore told the AP that he could not find any record showing that police investigated the 1998 report. He said his department has been unable to locate “any kind of case file” or even the original copy of the police report.
“I have no explanation for that,” he said.
By the time Raphael stepped forward with his allegations, he had lost two father figures: His grandfather, Eugene, and a neighbor who often rewarded him for good grades with the change in his pockets. A year later, his biological father, never a strong presence in his life, was murdered. Then, in 2002, when he was 13, his mother, Linda Faye Love, was stabbed to death on the streets of Greenwood.
After moving to Memphis to live with an aunt when he was 16, Raphael was home with her one evening when teenagers from another neighborhood drove by shooting. Raphael recognized the assailants and went after them. He drove with friends to confront them, and then shot into a crowd of young people, killing two bystanders. A jury convicted him of murder and gave him a double life sentence.
Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, an organization that helps survivors and maintains a data base of Catholic abusers, said it’s not unusual for church sex abuse victims to land in prison, although their stories are seldom told.
“Because of what’s happened to them, they use drugs, hate authority, get into trouble, and before you know it they’re behind bars,” he said. “It’s an unpleasant fact that many, including some in the survivor movement, choose to ignore.”
Mark Belenchia, a clergy abuse survivor and Mississippi leader of SNAP — the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — said the lack of action on Raphael’s 1998 abuse claim amounts to “a tragedy for several families.”
If police or the diocese had investigated further, he said, “They would have discovered that two other boys in the same family had been abused. And if Raphael had gotten the help he needed, two young people in Tennessee might not have been killed, and Raphael might not be serving two life sentences.”
Belenchia said he hopes attention devoted to the Loves will encourage other black survivors of abuse by Catholic authority figures to step forward and tell their stories. At a recent national conference held by SNAP in Arlington, Virginia, attendees noted the lack of black representation at the event and voiced concern that many African Americans abused by priests are not being heard or getting the support they need.
Even though Raphael’s 1998 report of abuse was never thoroughly investigated, the Franciscans recalled Brother West from Mississippi later that year and had him evaluated at the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, Gannon said. The following year, in 1999, Brother Lucas was found dead at St. Francis Church, an apparent suicide.
Gannon, who is formally known as the provincial minister for the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, would not share the results of West’s evaluation. But he said West asked to leave the order and that the Vatican granted his request in 2002.
After that, Gannon said, the Franciscans lost touch with West, to the point where Gannon had to hire a private detective to find the former Friar two years ago, so he could let him know about the abuse allegations made by La Jarvis and Joshua.
But the AP found that in 2000, while West was still a Franciscan, he landed a job teaching fifth grade at a Catholic school near his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, about a two-hour drive from the Franciscans’ regional headquarters in suburban Milwaukee.
West held his teaching job at St. John School in the village of Little Chute until at least 2010, according to records reviewed by the AP. School principal Kevin Flottmeyer declined to comment on West’s tenure.
When the AP tried to interview West at his home, the 59-year-old former friar declined to answers questions about his time as a teacher and principal in Mississippi.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, before closing his front door.
In 2014, La Jarvis got married. His wife landed a steady job at a home for adults with special needs, and the couple soon had three children. When his wife’s mother died, the young family moved into her three-bedroom home in Senatobia, Mississippi, a suburb of Memphis.
Suddenly, La Jarvis looked a lot like a middle-class family man. But he didn’t feel that way. Often, while his wife worked, he’d stay home to care for their children and wonder why he wasn’t able to provide more reliable support for his family.
He tried landscaping but never had enough money to keep his mowers and his car running. At times he resorted to robbery and selling drugs and served prison time for those offenses.
Then, late in 2017, when the news was full of stories about comedian-actor Bill Cosby and the sexual abuse charges he faced, La Jarvis decided it was time to tell someone about West. “I was just sitting here looking at my children,” he said, recalling the moment when he picked up the phone and notified officials at St. Francis of Assisi School.
After making the call, La Jarvis was referred to Gannon, who traveled to Mississippi to meet him at his home. And before long, Gannon was sending him money for therapy and transportation to see a therapist.
After a notice about La Jarvis’s allegation was published in the St. Francis Church bulletin, Joshua stepped forward with his accusations about West and Lucas. Then La Jarvis, during a phone call with Raphael, learned that his younger cousin had reported his alleged abuse two decades earlier.
That’s the first time, the three Love men said, that they realized their family had been targeted — that all three of them had been abused.
For Joshua, the realization was especially painful, he said, because he understood that his years of silence had led to his younger brother’s abuse, contributing to Raphael’s life of tragedy.
“That’s a dagger in the heart,” Joshua said, breaking down.
Of the three Love men, Raphael alone turned down the offer of a settlement from the Franciscans. He told the AP that Gannon had also offered him $15,000, but that he rejected the deal because he needs more to hire a criminal lawyer willing to argue that he deserves a new trial — based on the fact he was tried as an adult, even though he was a juvenile who’d suffered multiple traumatic events.
Law enforcement officials in at least four jurisdictions, meanwhile, are reviewing the sexual abuse allegations against West made by La Jarvis, Joshua and Raphael.
They include the Mississippi attorney general’s office; the district attorney’s office in Leflore County, which includes Greenwood; the district attorney’s office in Milwaukee County, which includes Franklin, headquarters of the Wisconsin Franciscans; and the district attorney’s office in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, which includes West’s Appleton home and locations where the Loves say he molested them.
Milwaukee District Attorney John T. Chisholm would not discuss details of his review but said his office is devoting more attention to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, in part because the Vatican has yet to take specific measures to address the issue.
“It hasn’t been addressed in a comprehensive, thorough, transparent way,” Chisholm said. “And because of that there’s always going to be that sense of what else it out there? What’s been hidden?”
John F. Hawkins, a civil attorney who represented victims in the 2006 settlement with the Jackson diocese, said he’s preparing to file a lawsuit on behalf of La Jarvis and Joshua, in which he will argue that the settlements they signed are not legally binding, in part because of the “extreme emotional and financial duress” they were under at the time they agreed to the deals.
Hawkins will be working against a backdrop of a Franciscan settlement much larger than the $15,000 payments received by La Jarvis and Joshua. In 2006, a Franciscan province based in Santa Barbara and the Los Angeles diocese paid $28 million to settle claims made by 22 victims, with an average payment of nearly $1.3 million.
The Jackson diocese also played a role in negotiating the settlements with La Jarvis and Joshua. Valerie McClellan, a therapist and the victim assistance coordinator, accompanied Joshua to his first negotiating session with Gannon.
Joshua said McClellan encouraged him to settle with Gannon, although she denies telling him that and said she maintained appropriate boundaries between her two roles as victim assistance coordinator and Joshua’s therapist. But Belenchia said it was a conflict of interest for McClellan to be on the scene in any capacity. “I don’t know how she could serve the diocese and serve a client at the same time,” he said.
For the time being, La Jarvis says he’s looking for help that will allow him to become more of “a rock” for his family.
“I’d love to be financially stable but I want to be mentally stable and emotionally stable, too,” he said.
Joshua, meanwhile, offers discount haircuts to friends and family in the three-room shotgun shack in Greenwood that he calls home. He said he’s been unable to get a barber’s license because he doesn’t read or write well enough to pass the exam.
When he’s not cutting hair, he said, he spends time alone on his front porch, sitting at what he calls his “thinking chair,” a classroom desk and attached chair he recently salvaged from a dumpster.
“I just fell in love with the chair because it makes me feel like I’m still happy,” he said, recalling his early grade school years, before West and Lucas interrupted his life.
“It’s a school chair and I’ve been hurt by wanting to learn and go to school,” he added, breaking down again. “I guess there’s a child inside of me that still wants to sit there and learn.”
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Rezendes at https://twitter.com/mikerezendes