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Clergy abuse case becomes spiritual struggle for attorney

One of the largest clergy sex abuse cases in the country has turned into the case of a lifetime for one Northwest attorney.

The settlement between the Northwest Jesuits and abuse victims will soon go before a federal judge in Portland for confirmation. The north Idaho attorney who helped negotiate this $166 million deal says he was a small town “nobody” before the case.

KPLU’s Jessica Robinson tells the story of how going up against the Catholic church shook up his own long-held beliefs.
Leander Lee James is standing next to a big red barn. Mud clings to his rubber boots.

Three of James’ young kids play nearby. James was raised Catholic and when he was about their age, he was an alter boy. And as he grew up, he was skeptical about the claims of widespread sexual abuse in the church. That was before he started representing people making those claims:

“Fifteen, 20, 30 people, who are abused by the same abuser. And they tell you the same story over and over and the same MO. You know for an abuser who’s MO was to - you know put the child on his lap and …

James has suddenly become aware how close his children are to the conversation.

“Hey guys! You know, I’m talking, so you gotta -- Why don’t you go up because it’s cold.”

It’s actually not that cold. James doesn’t want his kids to hear the horrific stories he’s been hearing over the last three years.

James announced compensation for these victims back in March.


From overalls to neckties

A crisp suit replaced James’ farm clothes on the day he told the press the Northwest Jesuits and their insurer had agreed to pay more than 500 sex abuse victims across the Northwest, Montana, and Alaska.

What was unusual about the case was that many of the victims were Native American. Before this, James didn’t have any experience working on clergy abuse cases. But he did have personal experience working with Native communities. For one, his farm is on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. A few years back, a Nez Perce woman came to him, saying she had been sexually abused as a child by a local Jesuit priest and he filed on her behalf. After her story hit the press more victims opened up to him.

“Probably 80 percent or close to of the folks I talk to, I’m the first person they told in their life. They haven’t told their spouses. And then get on the phone and they tell me.”

At times, he was part counselor. And the picture that began to emerge was a disturbing one. From the stories he heard, it appeared the Jesuits had sent problem clergy to reservations and native villages, dating back to the 1950s . This, from a Catholic Order that James associated with humanitarian work and scholarship. The Jesuits established some of the first universities in the West. James went to one: Santa Clara in California. Afterwards, he taught at a Jesuit school in France.

“I’ve had friends throughout my life who are clergy. Priests and Jesuits. I have clergy in my family. How could this have happened, you know?”

Tim Kosnoff is a Seattle attorney who specializes in child sex abuse cases. He was involved in the Spokane Diocese bankruptcy settlement in 2005. And he asked James to join his team in the Jesuit case.

“For somebody like Lee to come to see that much of what went on on these mission schools was at least in part a lie, I think that was very difficult at least initially to accept. I’m sure a lot of myths which he had been carrying around his whole life got shattered. ”


Case shook his faith

James no longer considers himself Catholic – a change he says was already underway, but which the Jesuit case solidified. He says he still has faith though. To James, one of the most troubling parts of the case is that many of his clients – don’t.

“I have clients time and again tell me the same thing in the exact same words. ‘I can’t have faith anymore. I can’t believe anymore.’ And it’s because they were taught this sense of belief in this man. And then he violates them. It, it eviscerates that belief, so they can’t believe anymore. It’s profoundly sad.”

James says he’ll probably use some of the fees he’ll get from the settlement to fix up his house – maybe repair some of the deer fences he’s neglected. He also got a call not too long ago from the alumni office of Santa Clara University, his Jesuit alma mater. James says he’ll probably give them a little money too.


Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.