updated 9/8/2006 11:06:01 PM ET 2006-09-09T03:06:01

Former Gonzaga University President John Leary was involved in the sexual abuse of boys and young men in the 1960s, but the priest’s actions were covered up by Jesuit officials, the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus said Friday.

Leary, who died in 1993, led the Jesuit-run university in Spokane from 1961 to 1969.

“While today, stronger safeguards and clearer policies are in place, the Jesuits wish to publicly acknowledge the failures of our history and apologize to those who have suffered,” the Rev. John D. Whitney of Portland, Ore., leader of the Oregon Province, said in a news release Friday. He called the cover up “uncharacteristic.”

Whitney said the Jesuits discovered notes regarding Leary’s actions while preparing court documents in other cases in recent weeks.

It was unclear how many victims may have been involved. Officials said the Jesuits had settled directly with two victims from Spokane, and two other people had named Leary in lawsuits filed against the Catholic Diocese of Spokane.

The allegations first surfaced in 1966, while Leary was Gonzaga’s president. He denied them and remained in office, and no investigation was undertaken, the news release said.

Told to leave city or else
In 1969, Spokane authorities raised new allegations against Leary and gave him 24 hours to leave the city or face arrest, according to the news release. The release said a leader of the Jesuits in the Northwest created a story that Leary was resigning for health reasons, and Leary left the city.

Leary went briefly to New York, then Massachusetts and was later assigned to positions “throughout the western United States,” according to the release.

“I can only surmise that fear of scandal and of harm to Gonzaga University gripped those Jesuits,” Whitney said. He said he knew of no accusations involving Leary after he left Gonzaga.

An advocate for sex abuse victims doubted the documents were recently found.

“At least a dozen times in the past few years, church officials have made identical claims, almost always after such records could have been crucial in litigation,” said David Clohessy, national director of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Gonzaga’s president issued a statement of sympathy.

“My deepest sorrow and sympathy go out to the victims and their families,” said current Gonzaga President Rev. Robert J. Spitzer, also a Jesuit. “John Leary was highly regarded by many alumni, friends and other members of the community.”

The revelation was another blow for Catholics in the Spokane area. The Catholic Diocese of Spokane, which does not control the university, filed for bankruptcy protection two years ago because of lawsuits filed by victims of sexual abuse by priests.

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