A Florida woman has become the most recent person to claim she was sexually abused by a Jesuit priest who used to teach at Loyola University Chicago, and that the Jesuit order covered up the incident and others like it.
The woman claims that in 1967, when she was 17, the Rev. John Powell molested her at a spiritual retreat in Florida.
She is seeking at least $50,000 in damages, according to the lawsuit recently filed in Cook County Circuit Court.
The suit also names the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order based here, as a defendant. Loyola is not involved in the litigation.
Powell, 83 and now retired, was named in two previous sex abuse lawsuits, one of which was settled out of court in 2005.
The former professor is also a well-known author on spiritual matters. Powell’s books include such titles as “Unconditional Love: Love Without Limits” and “Why Am I Afraid to Love?: Overcoming Rejection and Indifference,” as well as titles focused on communication skills and improving one’s sense of self.
“It’s depressing when you find out that people who are presenting themselves as inspiring role models … turn out to be sex offenders,” says Terence McKiernan, the co-director of the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, which tracks priest abuse cases across the nation.
Powell is one of several high-profile Jesuit priests that have faced sexual abuse lawsuits in recent years.
“Many accused priests never face criminal trial,” McKiernan says. “Honestly, it is unfortunate because it prevents justice being done in many cases and it leaves that question mark out there, even with priests that are multiply accused.”
The woman in the most recent lawsuit is identified only as “Jane Doe 125.”
The suit says that during private counseling sessions at the 1967 retreat, Powell “required Plaintiff to sit on his lap, force her to kiss, and on at least one occasion required her to take her school uniform off from the waist up and then fondled her.”
Marc Pearlman, the Chicago attorney representing the woman, did not return calls seeking comment today.
The lawsuit also says that the Jesuit order “fraudulently concealed Powell’s exploitation and misconduct” and that it knew “that Powell was sexually abusing other minors.”
Under Illinois law, victims of childhood sexual abuse generally must sue by the time they turn 28. In certain cases, victims may sue within five years of discovering that they had been abused as a child.
In the most recent case against Powell, the lawsuit argues that because the Jesuit order kept word of the abuse under wraps, the statute of limitations does not apply. The lawsuit also says that the victim did not realize she had been sexually abused until recently, though the suit does not put a date on that discovery.
In general, most priest abuse cases nationwide are filed as civil cases. The cases are difficult for district attorneys to prosecute criminally because often decades have passed by the time a case is filed. And often, such cases have little or no physical evidence, relying on letters and recollections from both sides.
In a prepared statement, Fr. Edward Schmidt, the Jesuits’ Provincial in Chicago, said, “The Province takes allegations of sexual misconduct seriously; investigates them fully, and cooperates with authorities. We believe the individuals who have come forward deserve our understanding and prayers.”
Pat Walsh, a spokesman hired by the Jesuit order in Chicago, says he cannot comment on the case beyond what was in the prepared statement.
McKiernan says in Powell’s cases and others, the Jesuits have not been forthcoming in trying to root out abusive priests or resolve abuse claims.
“There’s clearly reluctance on the part of the Jesuits to really grapple with this,” he says.
Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.