By Dan Cook
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - The Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church's Jesuit order has agreed to pay $166 million to settle more than 500 child sexual abuse claims against priests in five states, attorneys said on Friday.
The payout by the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province -- part of an agreement to resolve its two-year-old bankruptcy case -- marks one of the biggest settlements to date in the church's sexual abuse scandals.
Lawyers for the victims said it also is the largest ever by a Catholic religious order, such as the Jesuits.
The Oregon Province is the Northwest chapter of the Rome-based Jesuit order and covers Oregon, Washington state, Alaska, Idaho and Montana.
The victims, most of them Native Americans from remote Alaska Native villages or Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest, were sexually or psychologically abused as children by Jesuit missionaries in those states in the 1940s through the 1990s, the plaintiffs' attorneys said.
"No amount of money can bring back a lost childhood, a destroyed culture or a shattered faith," lawyer Blaine Tamaki, who represents about 90 victims in the settlement, said in a statement.
"This settlement recognizes that the Jesuits betrayed the trust of hundreds of young children in their care," Tamaki said. "These religious figures should have been responsible for protecting children, but instead raped and molested them."
Elsie Boudreau, 42, abused for years by a priest in Nome, Alaska, beginning when she was 10 years old, said the settlement helps ease victims' feelings of shame and guilt because it "places the blame where it needs to be."
"It really isn't about the money," she told Reuters. "They came into our Alaska villages and reservations proclaiming God's love and showed us the face of evil."
Terence McKiernan, head of the private watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, said the Jesuits' abuse was especially egregious because members of the order "have prided themselves on offering Catholicism with a social conscience."
The province released its own statement saying the $166.1 million would be paid into a trust to "resolve approximately 524 abuse claims in a five-state area." Church officials declined further comment on the case.
Rebecca Rhoades, another attorney for abuse victims, said perpetrators among the Northwest Jesuits included not just priests but also Jesuit novices, scholastics, lay volunteers, deacons, Jesuit brothers and even nuns.
Rhoades said that to her knowledge, none of the perpetrators covered under the settlement ever faced criminal charges. In most cases, the abuse came to light only after the victims had reached adulthood, and the statute of limitations had expired or the perpetrators had died, she told Reuters.
Settlement talks began in earnest in October 2010 and were concluded this week, she said. The settlement, approved by all parties, will be filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Portland, Oregon, on March 29.
The province filed for Chapter 11 protection in February 2009 as litigation over sexual abuse claims was mounting.
As part of the settlement Jesuits agreed to send priests to speak with victims about what happened and to counsel victims that they should not feel at fault, Rhoades said.
They also agreed to post on the order's website the names of priests known to have committed abuse and to no longer refer to those who were abused as "alleged victims."
The Northwest Jesuits' payout is believed to be the third largest to settle various Catholic Church sex abuse cases, behind a $660 million settlement reached with the Los Angeles Diocese and $198 million agreed to by the San Diego Diocese, according to BishopAccountability.org.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)