Catholic abuse case settled cheaply in Mississippi Delta, but lifetimes of scars endure

Published 8:27 am Tuesday, August 27, 2019

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.