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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

conflict of interest

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 05, 2007

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An 83-year-old Jesuit priest named James Jacobson is being sued by children whom he sired in the 1960s while a missionary in Alaska. Accused of fathering as many as five, Jacobson admits his relations with several women but disputes the nature of the contact. From the Anchorage Daily News.

DNA testing done in 2005 proved that Jacobson is the father of the two men now suing. When the results came back, the Oregon-based head of the region's Jesuits directed him to move into the retirement home in Washington, where he could be watched more closely, he said.

Jacobson testified that he didn't recall having sex with one of the women who had his child but didn't doubt that it happened, because of the test results. He disputed her assertion that he sexually assaulted her.

One woman is accusing Jacobson of rape. Two of his adult sons, more strangely, are suing "for child support and damages." The plaintiffs' lawyer is claiming Jacobson is guilty of coercion, and Jacobson admits his actions are sordid even if no coercion was involved.

During his time as a priest in various Western Alaska villages, [Jacobson] said, he believes he had sexual relations with seven women, upping his previous estimate from five made in an earlier statement. Two were teenage girls, and none of the women had the ability to resist a priest, one of the most powerful people in the community, Cooke said.

Jacobson testified he knew it was wrong but was alone in a remote parish. He felt guilty. He went to confession, sought absolution and believes his sins have been forgiven.

The last paragraph is interesting in light of a news story that appeared a month ago, in which it was revealed that Jacobson's Jesuit superior and the bishop of the time -- who was also a Jesuit -- had been informed of accusations against Jacobson but discounted them.

According to a letter written in 1967 and included as an exhibit in the case, the Jesuits heard accusations from Nelson Island about "very serious moral charges" against Jacobson but left it to the Fairbanks diocese to investigate. A bishop looked into it and concluded the accusations came out of grudges and local politics, the Jesuit Superior in Alaska, Jules Convert, wrote in the 1967 letter to the head of the order in Portland.

The letter went on to say even more. The Bethel magistrate, "a good Catholic woman," told Convert that many people knew that Jacobson had two children on the island. One of the men suing for child support was born in 1966.

"Consulted, the Bishop decided to just drop this last case and move Father to St. Michael with a good admonition to watch his relationship with women; he apparently just took this new charge as a rebound of the old stories, by someone with a grudge," Convert wrote. Anyway, he said, he had observed a number of police investigations in villages and had "come to the conclusion our people are not yet advanced enough to give impartial and true testimony."

Two aspects of the story deserve attention. On the one hand, Jacobson claims that -- at some unspecified time in the past -- he felt guilty about his sexual dalliance, went to confession, and received absolution. On the eminently plausible assumption that Jacobson had heard the accusations against him of which his bishop and Jesuit superior were aware, he must have countered with some kind of denial in order to stay in ministry -- he didn't plead Fifth Amendment immunity -- and such a denial would entail bearing false witness against his accusers, and effectively so, as evidenced by his superior's conviction that native people "are not yet advanced enough to give impartial and true testimony." So either Jacobson, when he went to confession, mentioned the sin but failed to mention his denying the accusation, or else he mentioned his denial and his confessor felt it was OK to let the Susanna in the case suffer the consequences (Jacobson's denial, in effect, amounted to a counter-claim that his accuser was not only herself the liar in the case but a malicious slanderer as well, and his being kept in active ministry would serve to reinforce the impression that he, and not she, was the one worthy of belief). Even conceding that his accusers may have been fallen shy of Susanna's death-before-dishonor moral heroism, Fr. Jacobson -- and his confessor as well -- must have felt somewhat queasy in subsequent years when reading the Book of Daniel.

And there's a second aspect to consider. Fr. Jules Convert, Jacobson's Jesuit superior who sent the 1967 letter concerning his exoneration, was himself a child molester, and was accused by eighteen boys of abusing them sexually in the years 1954-1979 when they were between the ages of 6 and 16. Convert died in France in 1995, at the age of 85. In 2004, the Society of Jesus settled with fourteen of the claimants against Convert for an undisclosed amount. So ask yourselves: was Convert likely to be an impartial judge between Jacobson and his accusers? Likely to be a man zealous in safeguarding the spiritual good of the faithful to whom he ministered?

The closed circle of conflicts of interest is a kind of ouroboros, the archetypal snake that eats its own tail. Can it be broken? Yes: in the first instance, by appointing bishops and superiors who are blackmail-proof -- i.e., men with a track-record of having caused so much antipathy by cleaning the ecclesiastical stables of miscreants that their slightest lapses would be broadcast by their enemies -- i.e., past and prospective victims of the purge. Will such reformers be the cuddly, affable sort of churchmen we've come to expect in the position? They won't. On the other hand, if the Alaska situation is any guide, we may no longer have an option in the matter.

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