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Lawsuit Targets Diocese

Sep 27, 2002 | A lawsuit by 10 former altar boys and Catholic students accused the Spokane Roman Catholic Diocese on Thursday of systematically protecting a priest who church leaders knew was a serial pedophile.

The claim against the diocese and the Rev. Patrick G. O'Donnell raises questions about current Bishop William Skylstad, who supervised O'Donnell during a period when six of the plaintiffs say they were molested.

Skylstad has been among the church's lead reformers as the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The lawsuit says Skylstad knew personally as early as 1974 that O'Donnell had fondled boys, yet failed to restrict the priest's access to children, or to call police when he heard allegations.

"I think he was a company man," said Spokane journalist Michael Corrigan, who is the only named plaintiff in the lawsuit. "His priority was protecting the church and the church reputation."

Late Thursday, Skylstad apologized to parishioners at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin -- where Corrigan and five more of the lawsuit's plaintiffs worshipped -- saying church leaders were much less sensitive 25 years ago to the damage caused by sexual abuse.

"I am very, very sorry this happened," he told a group of 90.

The lawsuit, filed in Spokane County Superior Court by Seattle-area lawyers Timothy Kosnoff and Michael Pfau, is the largest allegation of priest sexual abuse in the diocese history, and resolving it could cost the church millions of dollars. Kosnoff said there would likely be a subsequent claim next week with about 10 more victims.

The lawsuit's plaintiffs attended three Spokane parishes and one Whitman County parish during O'Donnell's 15 years in active ministry, which ended in 1985. All but Corrigan are identified only by their initials.

O'Donnell, now a psychologist living in Bellevue, didn't return calls Thursday. Seattle attorney John Bergman, who accepted service of the lawsuit on O'Donnell's behalf, also didn't return phone calls.

Corrigan was among six Assumption children molested by O'Donnell during outings to Lake Coeur d'Alene, Morningstar Boy's Ranch and at the parish rectory, according to the lawsuit.

"What strikes me most is how prolific (O'Donnell) was, how daring he was, and what a predator he was," said Corrigan, music writer at the Pacific Northwest Inlander.

He faults Skylstad and past bishops Bernard Topel and Lawrence Welsh, who moved O'Donnell among seven parishes even as child molestation allegations increased.

Another of the lawsuit's plaintiffs is "C.C.", the widow of a 39-year-old man who committed suicide Aug. 29 after seeing O'Donnell's picture accompanying a Spokesman-Review story.

Because of abuse O'Donnell inflicted on "T.C.," the father of three "suffered profound, irreparable and devastating psychological injuries" severe enough that he killed himself, the lawsuit states.

Victims interviewed during the past month by The Spokesman-Review estimate at least four dozen boys were targets of O'Donnell's fondling.

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas believes it may be possible to criminally charge O'Donnell for decades-old cases. He has talked with two victims of O'Donnell, and referred them to sheriff's detectives.

The Washington State Board of Psychology also is investigating a complaint filed Sept. 19 against O'Donnell. Board officials wouldn't elaborate, but said discipline including license suspension, is possible if the complaint is substantiated.

According to the lawsuit, O'Donnell "procured boys" for his friend, Boy Scout troop leader George Robey, to be sexually abused. "Like O'Donnell, Robey was a serial pedophile," according the suit, which says Robey committed suicide in 1982.

Skylstad, during an interview Thursday afternoon, said some "erroneous" media reports about O'Donnell seemed to have a bias. "It looks like there is an agenda to damage me personally," he said.

Skylstad said he spoke with O'Donnell last week, and he apologized for the "hurt and pain" he caused Skylstad, the bishop said. O'Donnell didn't apologize to victims, Skylstad said.

O'Donnell deserves some sympathy because he was sexually abused as a child during a Boy Scout trip, Skylstad said. "It's very easy for folks to demonize him," Skylstad said. "Ministering to victims and those (like O'Donnell) who are broken, mine is a twofold role."

The claims would likely fall under the diocesan general insurance coverage, said diocese attorney Michael Geraghty, which is usually about $1 million per molestation victim. But the diocese is still gathering its insurance records, he said.

"We don't necessarily even have copies of policies from this time frame," Geraghty said.

According to the lawsuit, Skylstad supervised O'Donnell for 18 months at Assumption, sharing the small rectory. Skylstad knew of molestation allegations against O'Donnell when the priest was transferred to Assumption in 1974, the suit says.

Two victims said Skylstad, who lived in an apartment above O'Donnell, would provide loud warning before entering the downstairs apartment.

Skylstad "was informed by victims and parents from Assumption parish" about O'Donnell's molestations, but failed to report the allegations to law enforcement.

"How can a man who has held himself out to be leader in the Catholic Church relating to abuse by priests have any credibility when he himself exercised such poor judgement?" Kosnoff said.

Skylstad said he passed on one allegation of inappropriate bathing behavior by O'Donnell to then-Bishop Topel. "I don't remember any specific case of direct abuse coming up" while at Assumption, Skylstad said.

Skylstad had been promoted in 1976 to be chancellor, second in command to Topel, when a decision was made to remove O'Donnell from Assumption parish and send him to get sexual deviancy treatment in Seattle.

O'Donnell lived at Seattle's St. Paul's parish for more than two years, earning a doctorate in psychology. His graduate thesis: "Evoking Trust Between Children and Adolescents."

One of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, "J.B.", said O'Donnell sexually abused him while at St. Paul's.

Skylstad said he didn't remember how O'Donnell's living arrangements were made. "Those arrangements would have been made by Bishop Topel," Skylstad said.

"R.H.", another plaintiff, said the lawsuit would help "men who have lived with a lot of guilt, a lot of fear, a loss of self-worth and illegitimate shame" because of O'Donnell.

"There is a righteous indignation a lot of us feel with this lawsuit coming out," he said.

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