Church Sex Abuse Trial Opens in Seattle

May 14, 2009

Two men sexually abused by a Catholic priest in the 1970s sat in court — one weeping silently, one stone-faced — as their lawyer asked a jury to hold the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese accountable for some of the darkest moments of their lives.

Their tormentor, former Spokane priest Patrick G. O’Donnell, 66, who now lives in La Conner, Wash., testified in King County Superior Court that he couldn’t remember how many boys he abused — “I’m pretty sure it was 30, maybe more'” — but did recall both of those in court and their families.

The two have refused settlement offers, and theirs is the first sex abuse lawsuit to go to trial against the archdiocese, which has settled more than 200 cases out of court and has fewer than 20 claims pending, said Michael Patterson, a lawyer for the archdiocese.

The case for unspecified damages could turn on testimony by retired Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, 87, who has been summoned as one of the highest ranking Roman Catholic clergymen to testify in an abuse case against the church.

At issue is whether Hunthausen and other archdiocesan officials were told that O’Donnell molested boys repeatedly before he was abruptly moved to Seattle from Spokane for deviancy treatment in 1976 and whether he was properly monitored before he returned to Spokane in 1978.

“Was this a case of plain negligence on the part of the Seattle Archdiocese … or is this a case of something darker happening?” the men’s lawyer, Timothy Kosnoff, asked the jury.

As photos of the two men as young teens appeared on a courtroom screen, O’Donnell admitted abusing them in his boat and elsewhere when he was at St. Paul Parish in a working-class neighborhood in south Seattle in 1976-78.

He said he showered with teenage boys after racquetball, swam naked with them in Lake Washington and engaged in sexual touching, oral sex and masturbation.

“I’m extremely sorry,” he said, looking directly at the two men in court.

One of the men dabbed his eyes with a tissue, as he had when Kosnoff described the abuse in his opening statement to the eight women and four men on the jury.

The other sat stonefaced, alternately hunching forward with his hands clasped in front of him on the table and leaning back with his right hand resting on his leg, fingers curling and uncurling slowly.

Both have been battled problems with alcohol and other drugs and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Kosnoff said.

The wife and sons of the first man are observant Mormons, but he cannot bring himself to participate in their or any other religious life, Kosnoff said.

“He has few friends. He remains a loner. When he wants to relax, he goes to a sports bar and drinks,” his lawyer said. “For years he has been unable to have sexual relations with his wife.”

The second man lives alone.

“He still cannot summon up the thought of being intimate with a woman,” Kosnoff said. “The image of what Father O’Donnell did to him comes up instead.”

Patterson said the archdiocese would present expert testimony that other problems, rather than abuse by O’Donnell, were to blame for the men’s physical, mental and emotional problems.

Patterson told the jury no one in the archdiocese knew O’Donnell was sent to Seattle to be treated for sexual deviancy after unsuccessful efforts with four counselors, or that anything was amiss while he was at St. Paul.

Everyone in a position of authority in the church in Seattle, from the pastor at St. Paul on up, believed O’Donnell was in town to study for a Ph.D. in education at the University of Washington, a degree he earned shortly before returning to Spokane.

“It’s easy to get caught up in sexual abuse and forget what the case is about,” Patterson said. “What are the facts and what is the evidence?”

O’Donnell was a central figure in the bankruptcy filing of the Spokane Diocese in 2004. Of 176 complaints filed in that case, 66 were against him, more than any other priest. The bankruptcy has been settled for $48 million, which the diocese has promised to raise through donations and the sale of assets.

O’Donnell testified he was at Assumption Parish in Spokane when he repeatedly molested the son of a police officer in 1976. The boy later told a friend, who told his parents. The other boy’s mother already had been complaining about O’Donnell’s behavior to no effect. This time the other boy’s father threatened to blow the whistle in church unless something was done.

Within a day or two, Bishop Bernard Topel ordered O’Donnell to leave town and in barely a week O’Donnell headed west.

Kosnoff and Patterson agreed that Topel, now deceased, and Hunthausen were especially close friends and professional colleagues going back to when Topel taught at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., and Hunthausen was a student.

Kosnoff said it was inconceivable that Spokane diocesan officials failed to inform the Seattle archdiocese of O’Donnell’s problems, even though no document has been found to show that was done.

Topel also had a close relationship with O’Donnell, who began mowing his lawn as a young teenager not long after Topel became bishop, and Hunthausen was “absolutely perplexed, astonished” that he was never informed of the reason O’Donnell was sent to Seattle, Patterson asserted.

“Archbishop Hunthausen has adamantly denied that Bishop Topel told him anything about Mr. O’Donnell’s conduct,” the archdiocese lawyer added. “He will look you in the eye and he will tell you that he did not know.”

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