Seattle: A US Jesuit order has agreed to pay USD 166.1 million to compensate nearly 500 victims of decades-long "horrific" sexual and psychological abuse by priests in five US states, lawyers said on Friday.
The US Northwest chapter of the Rome-based Society of Jesus agreed to the payout -- which lawyers said is the biggest by a religious organisation in the United States -- as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
Most of those abused by priests from the Oregon Province -- the Jesuit order which covers the states of Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Montana -- were Native Americans at mission schools on Indian reservations.
"This settlement recognises that the Jesuits betrayed the trust of hundreds of young children in their care, and inflicted terrible atrocities upon them," said lawyer Blaine Tamaki.
"These religious figures should have been responsible for protecting children, but instead raped and molested them," he added.
Victims of the abuse by the Catholic-following order have been watching the case closely, including Clarita Vargas, who said the announcement marked "a day of reckoning and justice”.
"I feel that nothing can compensate for the loss of being whole and being allowed to be a child and growing up in a healthy environment," she told the Oregonian newspaper.
"But this will start us and continue to help us on our path to healing," she added.
Katherine Mendez, 53, told how she was abused by Father John Morse, a Jesuit priest, when she entered the St Mary`s Mission boarding school in Omak, Washington state aged 11.
"Father Morse started abusing me almost immediately when I arrived at St Mary’s Mission," a lawyers` statement quoted her as saying. "I kept the sexual molestation hidden in the dark, in my soul, for years and years.”
"Finally, when I came forward and saw that others did too, it was as if the blanket that had hidden our secret was pulled off and we could move into the light again."
Thirty-eight of the claims involve sexual abuse by Morse, who now lives in a retirement home finance by the Jesuits, it said. Forty-nine of the victims represented by Tamaki were sexually abused when they were eight or younger.
The settlement also asks the Jesuits to provide a written apology to the victims, and share documents of importance to victims, such as their personal medical records, he said.
The abuse took place from the 1940s and continued through to the 1990s, he said. Of the nearly 500 claims, nearly 200 were Alaskan claims brought by John Manly of California law firm Manly & Stewart.
Tamaki, whose firm represented nearly a third of the non-Alaskan clients, said he hoped the settlement would help bring closure.
"Although the abuse they suffered was horrific, my clients are hopeful that, with the Jesuits’ acknowledgement of wrongdoing, changes will be made so that that this type of abuse can be prevented in the future.
"In other words, the church needs to correct flaws that have allowed this to happen," he said.
Patrick Lee, head of the Oregon Province, declined to confirm details of the settlement.
"Due to the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province`s current Chapter 11 bankruptcy status, as well as out of respect for the judicial process and all involved, we will not comment on today`s announcement," Lee said.
"The province continues to work with the creditors committee to conclude the bankruptcy process as promptly as possible," he added in a statement.