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American Jesuits pledge $100 million for descendants of slaves they owned, sold

The Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests that counts Pope Francis among its members, have pledged to raise at least $100 million to atone for the order’s ownership and sale of enslaved Black people in the early days of the American republic, The New York Times reported Monday. Historians and Catholic officials said it is one of the largest efforts by an institution to atone for participating in slavery.

The money will be paid out through a new foundation, the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, created through three years of discussions between Jesuit leaders and a group representing the descendants of 272 slaves the order sold to a Louisiana plantation in 1838 to save Georgetown College, now Georgetown University, the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the U.S. The sale raised $115,000, or about $3.3 million in today’s dollars. Genealogists at the Georgetown Memory Project have identified about 5,000 living descendants of people enslaved by the Jesuits.

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The new foundation is headed by one of the descendants, Joseph Stewart, and its governing board includes representatives from Georgetown and other institutions with roots in slavery. The Jesuits have already contributed $15 million and plan to raise the other $85 million over the next five years. About half the annual budget will go toward grants for organizations engaging in racial reconciliation, a quarter will fund educational grants and scholarships for descendants, and some of the money will go directly toward supporting the needs of old and infirm descendants, the Times reports.

Stewart wrote the Jesuit leadership in Rome in May 2017, calling for negotiations over the newly resurfaced Georgetown slave sale. The Jesuit superior general, Rev. Arturo Sosa, wrote back a month later, urging Stewart’s group and American Jesuits to talk and describing the order’s slaveholding past as “a sin against God and a betrayal of the human dignity of your ancestors.” In August 2017, Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, flew to Michigan to meet with the Stewarts and lay the groundwork for the new foundation.

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“This is an opportunity for Jesuits to begin a very serious process of truth and reconciliation,” Fr. Kesicki said in a statement. “Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back.”