Veil of privilege or cover-up?

In the early 1990s, a Jesuit priest in Tacoma, facing allegations of fondling young women, met with his superior for spiritual counseling. The priest was soon sent for sexual-deviancy treatment and was put under strict oversight, but police were never called.

Over the next decade, the priest, the Rev. James Poole, would be accused of raping or molesting several girls. The Jesuits have paid about $1.6 million to settle two lawsuits and apologized for Poole's actions. And more civil lawsuits are pending.

What Poole told his superior, the Rev. Stephen Sundborg, and what Sundborg did or did not do with the information has taken on a larger significance for Jesuits nationwide.

Sundborg, now the president of Seattle University, has refused to testify at a deposition about the meetings he had with Poole — which Jesuits call "manifestations of conscience." Sundborg said his talks with Poole occurred behind the veil of confessional privilege.

Lawyers for Poole's alleged victims say the meetings were administrative in nature, and they accuse the Jesuits, and Sundborg, of trying to hide secrets.

For the first time, the courts are being asked to rule on which interpretation is correct. A hearing is scheduled this winter in Nome, Alaska, where the lawsuits were filed against Poole.

Meanwhile, a group representing clergy-abuse victims is so incensed by Sundborg's refusal to reveal what Poole told him that it's trying to stir up faculty and students at the Jesuit-run Seattle University to pressure their president to resign.

The controversy, Sundborg said, is "damaging to my reputation as president of the university."

Sundborg said he was compelled to respect the confidentiality of his past job as provincial, the top Jesuit in the Northwest. But if Poole had disclosed criminal behavior during a manifestation, Sundborg said, he would have tried to make it public.

"To give the impression that I would not have acted on it to protect children is absolutely false," he said.

John Manly, a California lawyer representing two of Poole's alleged victims, said the public could be assured if Sundborg simply testified about his meetings with Poole.

"It is not a confession and it has nothing to do with confession. They're taking an administrative tool and using it to shield sexual abuse."

Invoking a privilege

Manifestations of conscience are particular to Jesuits, the largest order of the Catholic Church.

The yearly meetings between a priest and his superior are a process in which "the spiritual director or the major religious superior can be approached by anyone of the Jesuits for spiritual direction," said William Bassett, a law professor at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco.

"It's not the same thing as going to confession, but it is very close," he said.

Canon law and Jesuit norms mandate strict confidentiality of manifestations, to ensure total transparency between priests and their superiors.

In his deposition, taken in late October, Sundborg was asked if he would breach the need for confidentiality and call police if a priest admitted to raping and beheading a child.

No, Sundborg answered.

On Wednesday, Sundborg said he would encourage the priest to make the same admission outside of the so-called manifestation and then would have called police.

If the priest refused, Sundborg said, a provincial could use the information to restrict a priest's ministry and send him to treatment.

Joelle Casteix, a spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests' Alaska chapter, said the Jesuits are putting their need for secrecy above their moral responsibility to protect children. "I think Father Sundborg is invoking a privilege that is terribly convenient for him," she said.

But Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, said that while diocesan priests have no similar process, Sundborg is "completely right" in refusing to disclose a manifestation. "The only way he could be released is if the priest released him."

Sent to treatment

Poole, 82, now lives at a facility for older or ailing Jesuits, near Gonzaga University in Spokane. He did not respond to phone messages this week.

A native of Cle Elum, Kittitas County, Poole was a young seminarian when he first went to Alaska in 1948. He settled in Nome, starting a radio station, KNOM, that became a point of pride to Alaska Natives.

Poole first got into trouble in the early 1960s for having asked inappropriate questions in private sessions with young girls. He was sent away for a year to get help and training, said the Rev. John Whitney, head of the Jesuit's Oregon Province, which includes Washington and Alaska.

Poole remained in Nome before returning in 1989 to live at a Jesuit house at Tacoma's Bellarmine Preparatory School and work as a hospital chaplain.

In 1993 and 1994, several women who volunteered at the KNOM station said they had been groped by Poole. Sundborg sent him to a treatment center for troubled priests in New Mexico.

After returning, Poole had to undergo sexual-deviance counseling.

Complaints of abuse

More serious complaints began to surface in 2004. A woman named Elsie Boudreau sued, claiming that Poole fondled her dozens of times from the time she was 10, in 1978, until 17. The Jesuits settled this spring for about $1 million, and apologized for Poole's actions.

A second woman also came forward to say Poole had gotten her pregnant in 1976 when she was 14. She claims Poole told her to "get rid of the baby" and to blame her father for the pregnancy, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Her lawsuit is pending and is the case in which Sundborg is asked to testify.

Dean Guaneli, chief assistant Alaska attorney general in the criminal division, said the statute of limitations ran out long ago on sex crimes committed in the '60s, '70s and even into the 1980s. However, the state's statute of limitations on sex crimes involving minors was eliminated in 2001, meaning there no longer is a time limit.

As an indication of the importance of the case, Jesuits nationwide have filed affidavits in Alaskan Superior Court supporting Sundborg's stand.

"It's never been tested in court," Whitney said.

If manifestations are not confidential, Whitney said, "It wouldn't keep men from coming to the society, but it would affect the way we live with one another."

Manly, the plaintiffs' lawyer, confronted Whitney and the Jesuits' tradition in a deposition in October. "It is beyond me that you would take a beautiful thing like Ignatius' order and the spiritual exercises and pervert it to hide perverts."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or

Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.