Bishop William Skylstad released the names of six Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse of minors Wednesday and turned over information on them and several deceased priests to law enforcement officials.
All the alleged abuse occurred at least 15 years ago, the bishop said in a statement, “and action was taken to remove these men from ministry when the diocese became aware of the allegations.”
Skylstad’s statement contained minimal information: no details of allegations, no amounts of money paid in any settlements to victims, no names of parishes where the priests worked, no names of deceased priests who also were accused.
But the bishop’s action, which went further than the recommendation he received from his sex-abuse advisory committee, comes down on the side of openness, rather than priests’ rights.
Across the country, there’s been great variation in church officials’ responses to the sex-abuse crisis that has rocked the American Catholic Church for the past year. Some have fought in court to keep priests’ names secret. At the other extreme, one cardinal posted names and allegations on the Internet.
Victims and some churchgoers have called for the release of names in order to prevent future victimization, to hold alleged molesters accountable and to help past victims heal. But more recently, some priests have advocated for due process rights, and the Vatican has asked for revisions in the U.S. bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy that called for ousting any priest after one instance of sexual misconduct.
Four of the priests named Wednesday were removed from the ministry. James J. O’Malley was removed in 1989, Theodore F.X. Bradley this year, Arthur C. Mertens in 1989 and Reinard W. Beaver in 1983.
Two of the accused priests resigned: Patrick G. O’Donnell in 1985 and Bernard O. Oosterman in 1980.
Skylstad, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained why he decided to release the names during a brief interview Wednesday.
“We had no doubt about the validity of the claims,” he said. “Some of the news media already had names. We wanted to stop the snarfing around. It’s been a media frenzy.”
The head of Skylstad’s sex-abuse advisory committee, retired Judge Phil Thompson, said the committee recommended reporting the names only to the police.
“There were different degrees of culpability involved (among the six priests),” Thompson said. “Releasing all the names would cause them all to be painted with the same brush.”
But because names were appearing in the news and in civil lawsuits filed by alleged victims, Thompson said Skylstad found it unrealistic to delay releasing the names.
The committee met three times before making its recommendation. Members had received all the information the diocese possessed about all accused priests, “living or dead,” said Vicar General Steven Dublinski, who also served on the committee.
Dublinski said information on “a few” deceased priests was turned over to Spokane police officials Wednesday afternoon in a 21/2-hour meeting. Dublinski and the diocese’s attorney filed police reports on the six named priests, too.
Skylstad’s office first made contact with police a week or 10 days ago, said Al Odenthal, deputy chief of the Spokane Police Department.
Odenthal said detectives were already reviewing documents they received Wednesday from the diocese.
“There is no crime, except for homicide, that we take more seriously than child abuse and child sexual abuse, specifically,” Odenthal said.
Even if the statute of limitations has expired for criminal prosecution, investigators may be able to substantiate claims or clear people who are wrongly accused, he said.
In each instance where investigators can substantiate improper or criminal activity occurred, they will consult with prosecutors to see if a case can be taken to court, Odenthal said.
“Bishop Skylstad has said it is the intent of the church from this point on,” to report allegations of sexual abuse to the appropriate police agency anywhere in the diocese, Odenthal said.
Skylstad said he has drafted a letter that will be mailed to all Catholic households in the diocese. The letter “will address the overall situation in the diocese,” Dublinski said.
The bishop’s action was praised by members of a Spokane support group for victims. One noted the bishop’s decisiveness in light of last week’s request from the Vatican for changes in the U.S. bishops’ policy.
“This shows they’re not only willing to help the victims, they’re willing to take on the Vatican,” said Michael Ross, co-founder of the Spokane chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
But SNAP’s national director, David Clohessy, said he had hoped for more details, such as dollar amounts of settlements with alleged victims.
“Skylstad is not just any bishop, he’s the vice president,” Clohessy said. “It’s reasonable to expect him to be more proactive.”
Several of the named priests spent time at parishes that operated elementary schools on the church grounds. Bradley, O’Malley and O’Donnell spent time at St. John Vianney in the Spokane Valley. Oosterman, Bradley and Mertens were assigned to St. Francis Xavier, which operated a school for 93 years until it closed in 1999.
O’Donnell already had been named in two lawsuits, which accuse him of molesting several young boys, and in extensive media coverage. Bradley also had been identified in news reports about a settled lawsuit involving his alleged decades-old involvement with a teenage girl.
Reinard Beaver, one of the accused priests named Wednesday, praised Skylstad.
“My comment is that I have the deepest esteem and the highest regard for Bishop Skylstad. He did what he had to do,” said Beaver, reached on his cell phone near his home in Steilacoom, Wash.
Beaver said he appreciated a call he received from Skylstad on Tuesday to inform him of the impending release of names.
“We’re old friends and these are old stories,” Beaver said. “I’m not bitter. I’m better because of this.”
Beaver, 73, said he has an attorney who advised him not to comment on details of allegations against him. He also said he would withhold comment about whether he thought his rights have been violated by the release of his name.
A 61-year-old man, who asked to remain anonymous, said Beaver molested him when he was 15 during a trip to Seattle. As a teenager, he had worked at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church on the South Hill. When he returned from the trip, he abruptly quit his job and quit church.
“I couldn’t tell my folks,” the man said. “They were upset and wondered why I had quit such a good job and quit going to church with them.”
He didn’t report the abuse until 1990 when he told a St. Augustine’s official. By then, Beaver already had been removed from the ministry.
The other named priests did not return phone messages seeking comment.