A former Franciscan friar has been found guilty of sexually abusing a grade-school student during the 1990s at a Greenwood Catholic school.
A Leflore County jury deliberated less than an hour Wednesday before finding Paul West guilty of one count of sexual battery and one count of gratification of lust.
West, 62, was sentenced by Circuit Judge Ashley Hines to 30 years on the first count and 15 years on the second, to be served consecutively.
Gaunt and relying on a walker, West made no comment when escorted by deputies from the Leflore County Civic Center, where the two-day trial was held.
La Jarvis Love, now 39, had accused West of numerous instances of sexual abuse while Love was a student at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School.
Love, who cried when the verdict was read, said afterward, “I want to thank the state. I want to thank everybody that represented us. I just want to thank God, the provider, the creator. He restored my faith today. I really appreciate him, and I believe again.”
Love and his cousin, Joshua Love, testified Tuesday that they had suffered repeated abuse by West starting in the fourth grade.
They testified that the abuse occurred both at the school and on trips to New York and Wisconsin.
“I’m happy. I’m thankful,” said Joshua Love following the verdict. “Justice is served.”
Mark Belenchia, a survivor of Catholic clergy abuse and the Mississippi coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was present for Wednesday’s verdict.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he said.
He blamed the Franciscan order to which West had belonged as well as the Catholic Diocese of Jackson for allowing West to avoid prosecution at the time the abuse occurred.
“This case should have been taken care of 20 years ago,” he said. “They had the facts and the figures. They downplayed it, and justice was served in little increments. These two men have suffered 20-something years because the Catholic Church decided that they weren’t worth it.”
In Wednesday’s closing arguments, Amanda Fritz with the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office told jurors that this case “was about stolen innocence” and showed a photo of a school-age La Jarvis Love to remind them of how young the victim was at the time of the abuse.
She said West was in a position to protect and guide the boy but instead preyed on him. She said that the cousins had “told their truth” and that “justice was a long time coming.”
Wallie Stuckey, the court-appointed attorney for West, told the jury that the charges were made with no witnesses and no scientific or physical evidence.
“The only thing (West) can say is, ‘I didn’t do it,’” he said.
Stuckey continued, asking how such allegedly regular abuse could take place considering the proximity of the school buildings and the constant presence of students, teachers and staff. He said he found it “unbelievable” that La Jarvis Love told no one about the abuse other than his grandmother, with whom the child lived.
In the prosecution’s rebuttal, Michael Ward said that blaming a child for not telling anyone or not knowing the abuse wasn’t OK was “shameful.” He said he could not imagine wanting to tell anyone if he were being abused in the manner La Jarvis Love had been.
West had also been indicted on charges of abusing Joshua Love. It could not be immediately determined why the cases were separated or whether the Attorney General’s Office still plans to prosecute West on the remaining charges. La Jarvis Love said he was unsure whether a second trial will be pursued.
West’s conviction is the latest in the string of legal actions taken against Catholic clergy and the church officials who allegedly covered up the decades-old abuse of children, mostly boys, by priests and other members of religious life.
La Jarvis Love said he and Joshua Love had received $96,750, after attorney’s fees, from the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province, of which West was a member, after settling a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleged that the Loves had been taken advantage of by the Wisconsin-based religious order during a prior settlement, in which each received $15,000, because they are Black and poor. Franciscan officials denied the charge.
“Have faith,” La Jarvis Love said after the verdict. “If you believe in yourself, regardless of who’s saying what. Believe in yourself and stand up. If you don’t, I swear it’s going to be swept under the rug for the rest of your life.
“Just stay focused out here in this world, man. Make this world a better place by speaking out for yourself against anybody. I don’t care who it is.”
- Contact Kevin Edwards at 662-581-7233 email@example.com.