U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson is asking the Justice Department to investigate settlements made with two former St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School students who say they were sexually abused by the school’s clergy.

In his letter, dated Feb. 20, the Democratic congressman suggested that the Franciscan order, in paying $15,000 each to  La Jarvis Love and his cousin Joshua Love, took advantage of them because they are black and poor.

“There is a stark difference in the treatment of the financial settlements of survivors of abuse by Catholic officials in Mississippi because of their race and economic disparities,” Thompson wrote in the letter to Eric S. Dreiband, an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “It is critical that your office investigate this issue in the effort to secure justice for these survivors and to help prevent future cases of child sexual abuse.”

Joshua Love and La Jarvis Love and a third man, Joshua’s brother, Raphael Love, say they were repeatedly abused by Brother Paul West during the 1990s when they were elementary school students at the Catholic school in Greenwood. Joshua Love says he was also molested by Brother Donald Lucas, who died of an apparent suicide in 1999.

In addition, the alleged victims say they were repeatedly molested by West, the school’s principal, during excursions to Wisconsin and New York.

Both West and Lucas appeared last year on a list released by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson of clergy members credibly accused of sexual abuse.

West left Greenwood in November 1998 and the Franciscan community in 2002.

The Associated Press last year located him in Appleton, Wisconsin.

In his letter to Dreiband, Thompson wrote that the $15,000 payout that La Jarvis Love and Joshua Love received from the Wisconsin-based group of friars was considerably lower than the settlements other sex abuse victims have received.

As an example, Thompson cited the Catholic Diocese of Jackson’s 2006 settlement with 19 victims, 17 of whom were white, for $5 million. On average, each victim received a payment of $250,000.

Neither La Jarvis Love nor Joshua Love had counsel when they signed the settlement agreement. Raphael Love, who is incarcerated, declined the settlement offer.

“This is a clear case of an organization taking advantage of the disadvantaged,” Thompson wrote. “In comparison to other cases that were settled, two black men from one of the poorest areas in the state of Mississippi were exploited by the Catholic officials to cover up years (of) abuse that have left both men tainted for the rest of their lives.”

Attempts to get comment from officials at the Franciscan province were not immediately successful.

Joshua and La Jarvis Love have already filed a federal lawsuit in New York challenging the validity of the settlements in part because they contained a confidentiality clause, which, they argue, violated a 2002 promise by American bishops to abandon the use of nondisclosure agreements.

Mark Belenchia of the Mississippi chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the state’s legacy of systematic racism allowed the abuse of the Loves to go on without justice.

“It’s well-established what happened to these guys,” Belenchia said. “Nobody’s doubting it.”

Belenchia said he has been lobbying the office of Mississippi’s attorney general, both Democrat Jim Hood while he was in office and now Republican Lynn Fitch, to open an investigation into West. When they didn’t act, Belenchia said, he reached out to Thompson’s office.

Belenchia said he is hopeful that the Justice Department will investigate.

He said he has sent to Joshua Love, who lives in Greenwood, and La Jarvis Love, who lives in Senatobia, a copy of Thompson’s letter but has not heard back from either man as of early Tuesday evening.

“They’re struggling right now with the matter,” he said.

Contact Gerard Edic at 581-7239 or gedic@gwcommonwealth.com.

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