JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Court of Appeals has affirmed the 2022 conviction of a former Franciscan friar in the 1990s sexual abuse of a student at a Catholic school.
In a split decision Tuesday, a majority of the court found “no reversible error” in the conviction of Paul West, 63, who is Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.
Leflore County jurors in April 2022 found West guilty of one count of sexual battery and one count of gratification of lust. A judge sentenced him to 30 years on the first count and 15 years on the second count, to be served at the same time.
As first reported by The Associated Press in 2019, La Jarvis Love and his cousin, Joshua Love, had accused West of numerous instances of sexual abuse while they were students at St. Francis of Assisi School in Greenwood. The AP usually does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but the cousins agreed to be identified.
West’s attorneys argued on appeal that prosecutors failed to prove La Jarvis Love was younger than 18 when the abuse occurred. A majority of the appeals court judges wrote that West’s attorneys should have raised that challenge during the trial.
Appeals Court Judge Latrice Westbrooks disagreed with the majority.
“West’s charged offenses are deeply disturbing, but that does not overshadow the fact that this Court must make sure that if a person is going to be convicted — no matter the offense — that every element is to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Westbrooks wrote.
La Jarvis Love and Joshua Love testified during West’s trial of repeated abuse by West beginning when they were in the fourth grade. They testified the abuse occurred both at the school and on trips to New York and to Wisconsin, where the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are based. West was a member of the religious order.
West left Mississippi in the late 1990s. He returned to his home state of Wisconsin and left the Franciscan order. In September 2020, he was extradited from Wisconsin to Mississippi to face criminal charges in the sexual abuse case.
St. Francis of Assisi School primarily served Black and Hispanic families in Greenwood. About a month after West was convicted, the school announced it was closing after more than 70 years. The decision came after the sex abuse scandal, declining enrollment and a steep decrease in donations.