The Portland Archdiocese, pressured by a lawsuit against a parish priest, has begun an extensive education program about sex abuse.
The priest, 57-year-old Thomas Laughlin, was sentenced Aug. 29 to one year in a Portland jail on a misdemeanor sex abuse charge and ordered into subsequent treatment at Foundation House, a New Mexican treatment facility for priests.
The education program comes after an admission by Archbishop Cornelius M. Power that he had been informed in 1981 of the priest’s involvement with a boy under the age of 18.
But the education program and the priest’s sentence will only partially alleviate, it appears, what one diocesan priest described as “a severe credibility problem” for the archbishop for his handling of the situation.
The district attorney prosecuting Laughlin said in court that the priest’s involvement with young boys has probably occurred over a 15- to 20- year period, and informed sources at the middle-class Portland parish where Laughlin served as pastor since 1972 say that concerns about the priest’s sexual activities were brought to the archbishop’s attention several times before 1981. In an article in the diocesan newspaper Catholic Sentinel, Power made reference only to a 1981 meeting with a sex abuse victim and his parents, and said he responded to the problem by directing Laughlin to seek professional counseling.
The mild action by the archbishop has subsequently raised questions of both pastoral and legal responsibility within the archdiocese. Power apparently violated a state disclosure law by failing to report sex abuse incidents to state authorities, and Multnomah county District Attorney Michael Shrunk said he has not ruled out the possibility of prosecuting the archbishop. However, Shrunk said his office and the archdiocese are “working toward a better understanding of the problem and reporting procedures” and that prosecution of the archbishop or others who knew about the sex abuse problem would not occur if the action program developed by the archdiocese and district attorney is implemented.
The failure to report Laughlin’s problem did not seem to be an intentional violation of the law by the archbishop but “it’s fair to say there was an error in judgment,” Shrunk commented.
Criticisms also have been leveled against the archbishop for his judgment in retaining Laughlin in a pastoral role despite the priest’s 1981 admission of sex abuse, and for his decision in June of this year to transfer Laughlin to a new parish. Laughlin entered a guilty plea to sex abuse charges that were being secretly investigated by police only weeks after the transfer was announced.
There have also been complaints from clerics, and Father Theodore Frison said that “among clergy there is a great deal of dissatisfaction over the handling of the problem.” Power was in Rome and unavailable for comment.
The new diocesan programs include distribution of material to priests about the state reporting law and their obligation in reporting any child abuse of which they are informed outside of confession. Also included are counseling, in-service instruction for Catholic school principals, letters to schoolchildren about sex abuse, programs for the parish formerly served by Laughlin and expansion of a priest health panel to areas of psychological and emotional programs. Diocesan priests also are developing a professional code of ethics.
The court ordered Laughlin to pay the costs of counseling and treatment for his young victims, and Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth D. Steiner said the archdiocese will assume those costs and is making settlements with some of the families involved.