A former Franciscan friar convicted of sexually abusing a Greenwood grade-school student in the 1990s will have no chance at parole, according to the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office.
Paul West, 62, was found guilty by a Leflore County jury Wednesday of one count of sexual battery and one count of gratification of lust for preying on La Jarvis Love when Love was a student at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School. West was a teacher and later principal at the school.
“Sexual abuse of a child is a heinous crime that deserves serious punishment,” said Attorney General Lynn Fitch in a statement. “Children looked up to this man as a teacher and a priest. They trusted him and he failed them in every way. My Office will always work tirelessly to protect and defend the vulnerable from predators like this.”
West was a Franciscan brother, not a priest. Although he was a member of the religious order at the time of the abuse, he was not ordained to administer the sacraments of the Catholic Church, such as Holy Communion.
Love testified at this week’s trial that he was repeatedly abused by West, including fondling, oral sex and anal penetration. He said he was abused in various locations at the school and on trips with the friar.
West, who showed signs of deteriorating health at his trial, including needing the assistance of a walker, has been sentenced to 45 years in prison. In the unlikely event he reaches his release, he would be 107 years old and have to register as a sex offender.
La Jarvis’ cousin, Joshua Love, has also accused West of abusing him and testified during the trial. West is still charged with two counts in that case, but a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office declined to say Thursday if it planned to further prosecute West. “We cannot comment on an open case,” Michelle Williams said in an email.
Requests for comment from the Rev. Joachim Studwell, the current pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, and the Rev. Hilary Brzezinski, parochial vicar and pastor during the time West was with the school, were forwarded to their provincial leaders in Wisconsin.
In a written statement provided by a spokesman, the Province of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “The Province is hopeful that this conviction brings further peace, comfort and healing to the abuse survivors and their families.”
Catholic leaders in the United States and around the world have been accused of covering up many of the decades-old cases of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The Catholic Diocese of Jackson, however, said in a statement after Wednesday’s verdict that it not only had fully cooperated in the attorney general’s recent investigation of West but also had reported in 1998 to the Greenwood Police Department and the Mississippi Department of Human Services the initial allegation of sexual abuse against West. That allegation was made by Joshua Love’s younger brother, Raphael Love, while he was still a student at the school.
No charges have ever been filed regarding the alleged abuse of Raphael Love, who is now serving two life sentences in a Tennessee prison for a double homicide he committed as a juvenile.
The diocese said in its statement that it “is committed to protecting children. Sexual misconduct by Church personnel violates human dignity and the mission of the Church. The Diocese has dedicated substantial time and resources to ensure that children being served by the Church are not at risk of sexual abuse by Church personnel.”
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests took exception to the diocese’s statement and responded with one of its own.
“Adding insult to injury, we find it deplorable that the Diocese of Jackson is so quick to issue a response to the conviction of Paul West, during a holy week, to paint a picture of cooperation with investigators and appear transparent and supportive to victims,” SNAP said. “It is well documented that the Diocese of Jackson and the Franciscan Order knew of Paul West and his criminal behavior but did nothing to stop him from teaching 5th graders in (Wisconsin) for 11 more years after they discovered his crimes.”
In a 2019 story that prompted authorities to reopen a criminal investigation into West, The Associated Press reported that West, after being recalled to Wisconsin by his religious superiors and while still a Franciscan, landed a job teaching fifth grade at a Catholic school in 2000 and held that job until at least 2010. West left the Franciscans in 2002.
The Franciscan order had also been heavily criticized for the $15,000 confidential settlements its officials offered three years ago to La Jarvis, Joshua and Raphael Love. Although La Jarvis and Joshua accepted the offers, they later filed suit in a New York federal court, alleging that they had been taken advantage of because they are Black and poor.
That lawsuit was settled out of court, with the cousins each receiving an additional $96,750, after attorneys fees, according to La Jarvis.
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