More than 130 people who say they were sexually abused as children at a now-defunct charity school in Haiti would receive $NZ88million in a legal settlement with an American Jesuit school and other religious organizations, lawyers and school officials announced today.
The class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in Hartford, Connecticut, involved poor and often homeless boys who attended the Project Pierre Toussaint School in Cap-Haitien over a period of more than a decade beginning in the late 1990s.
A founder of the school, Fairfield University graduate Douglas Perlitz, is serving a nearly 20-year prison sentence for sexually abusing boys there.
The defendants include Fairfield University, the Society of Jesus of New England, the Order of Malta and Haiti Fund Inc., which financially supported the Haiti school.
The lawsuit alleged they were negligent in supervising Perlitz and failed to prevent the abuse.
"What we learned in these cases is that impoverished Haitian children were sexually abused and then left in pain, agony and without hope," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer representing the 130 plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.
The settlement must be approved by a federal judge.
Fairfield University officials said in a statement that it played no role in running the Haiti school. University officials were not aware of the sexual abuse before it was publicly reported, the statement said.
They said the lawsuit is being settled to support the victims and spare them the potential pain of having to go through a trial — the same reasons the university and the other defendants agreed to a $NZ17 million settlement in 2013 with two dozen other young men who said they were sexually abused as minors by Perlitz.
"Everyone in our community has been saddened by these events," said Fairfield University President Mark Nemec and the college's Board of Trustees chairman, Frank Carroll III, in a statement to the university community.
"Our prayers are with all those whose trust has been betrayed, and we hope that these proceedings and the settlement reached will give some measure of relief to the victims."
The USA Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus, a religious order of the Catholic Church into which the former Society of Jesus of New England has merged, issued similar comments about the settlement.
"The Society was not responsible for the oversight and management of the project in Haiti, but we nonetheless deeply regret that anyone experienced any abuse, harm, or suffering in connection with that project," a statement said.
"We hope that this resolution of the litigation will provide some measure of closure and relief to all those affected, though we recognise the enduring pain that accompanies survivors of sexual abuse."
A message was left for an official at the Order of Malta, another Catholic religious order that supported the Haiti school.
Perlitz, a 1992 Fairfield University graduate who last lived in Eagle, Colorado, helped found the Project Pierre Toussaint School in 1997 when he lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Authorities said he began abusing the children, some as young as 11, in 1998 before the school was built.
The abuse scandal led to the collapse of the school and its fundraising arm, the Haiti Fund, forcing the children back into homelessness on the streets, prosecutors said.
Perlitz was arrested in 2009 and later convicted. Prosecutors said he abused at least 16 children, gave them money, food, clothing and electronics and threatened to take everything away and expel them from the program if they told anyone.
The judge who sentenced Perlitz called him a serial rapist and molester.