Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane was among a group of Roman Catholic leaders who traveled to Rome in April to brief the pope on the child sex abuse scandal rocking the U.S. church.
Five months later, Skylstad’s leadership is in question after revelations that a former priest in the Spokane Diocese with ties to Skylstad had a long history of abusing boys.
An attorney for the boys says Skylstad and his predecessor bishops failed to protect children from the Rev. Patrick G. O’Donnell in the 1970s and 1980s.
Skylstad was a priest in Spokane during some of that time but was not elevated to bishop until 1990, after O’Donnell had left.
However, O’Donnell had worked with Skylstad as his associate pastor at Assumption parish in Spokane, and the two priests had shared living quarters in 1974-76.
“He knew children were being abused and he said nothing,” said attorney Tim Kosnoff, who is preparing to file a lawsuit against O’Donnell and the Spokane Diocese.
“A person who has exhibited such poor judgment in the past cannot be trusted to lead the church in any capacity out of this morass it’s in,” he said.
Skylstad said he did not notice much unusual in O’Donnell’s behavior during the time they worked together.
In the past, victims of sexual abuse did not come forward, Skylstad said. Even now, most of the people making allegations against O’Donnell remain anonymous.
Eight men, who were boys at Catholic parishes in the Spokane Diocese during the 1970s and 1980s, have alleged that O’Donnell molested them or participated in sexually motivated “grooming” behavior. The allegations became public through news articles.
The victims contend the behavior began during O’Donnell’s first year as a priest, in 1971, and continued through 1986, his last year of active ministry, the Spokesman-Review reported.
During that time, the newspaper reported, O’Donnell was moved among seven parishes and underwent two lengthy diocese-paid treatment sessions for sexual deviancy.
O’Donnell, who now has a private psychology practice in Bellevue, did not return numerous phone calls for comment from The Associated Press.
The state Board of Psychological Examiners, which licenses and regulates psychologists, has been investigating at least six complaints filed with the Spokane Diocese against him.
Support for Skylstad remains strong, especially since the O’Donnell case involves allegations before Skylstad became bishop, said Patrick McCormick, a religious studies professor at Gonzaga University.
“I think people will judge him mainly by how he deals with it,” McCormick said. “He’s committed to doing it in a public forum.”
Skylstad, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has made several high profile appearances on network television to discuss the national crisis since returning from Rome.
At a meeting of the conference in Dallas, U.S. bishops decided to “review the role of bishops themselves” and assure “oversight” of bishops “in the context of the present crisis.”
The job of creating a process to carry out that mission was given to a committee of seven bishops led by Skylstad, who is in line to become president of the conference in 2004. The panel will report to the bishops’ meeting Nov. 11-14.
The eight men who talked to the Spokane newspaper said they were coming forward because O’Donnell was moved from parish to parish by the Spokane Diocese and had prospered in Bellevue since leaving ministry.
Kosnoff, who said he has not received any complaints from the Bellevue area regarding sex abuse, contends the Spokane cases are particularly egregious.
“Spokane is a small diocese,” Kosnoff said. “Folks went directly to the bishop … they were told to mind their own business and not ruin the reputation and career of this priest.”
There is no evidence that police or state social workers were ever alerted, Kosnoff said.
Skylstad has scheduled public meetings with parishioners at Assumption church in Spokane and in Rosalia next week to discuss the crisis.
“We’re trying to be responsible,” Skylstad said.
Some victims have contacted the diocese and have been offered counseling, Skylstad said.
He cautioned that the molested boys are not necessarily the only victims. Pedophilia is an illness and many abusers cannot stop themselves, he said.
“Unfortunately society demonizes those who are abusers,” Skylstad said. “They are human beings as well, and live with their own brokenness.”