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Rev. Patrick O'Donnell

Another Big Election
by Paul Seebeck

The political season, with all of its divisiveness, returns to center stage next week in Washington, D.C. That's when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will elect a new president. First in line to attain this powerful position is Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, currently vice president of the USCCB. The bishops have a tradition in which the vice president usually succeeds the president, but Skylstad knows his election "is by no means certain."

It's a big election for the Catholic Church, as it will help determine how the church in the U.S. will deal with the ongoing sex abuse crisis. It may even determine whether the church will become more or less conservative. In the recent political elections, some American bishops stirred controversy by turning their backs on John Kerry, a Catholic, in favor of George W. Bush over the issue of abortion. Many moderate Catholics were outraged, as the war in Iraq didn't seem to factor into the thinking of those bishops who seemed to support Bush.

Skylstad is considered more reform-minded. He even issued a statement prior to the election that seemed to indicate he believes communion should not be withheld from politicians for their beliefs about abortion. "Though some of the reporting might suggest otherwise, it's my judgment that the great majority of United States bishops would not deny Communion to a Catholic politician at Mass," he wrote.

But if Skylstad fails to ascend to the office of president, it will likely be due to his involvement in the Spokane Diocese's own scandals over the sexual abuse of boys. When the child sex abuse scandal and coverup in Boston rocked the church in 2002, Skylstad emerged as a reasonable voice. He skillfully put himself at the forefront of efforts to change the church's response to the sex abuse crisis. Now he knows the issue even more personally, as his own diocese has been hit with lawsuits. As the scandal has continued, the schism between conservatives and liberals in the church has become more pronounced, as both sides are using the crisis to cry out for more radical change.

"Conservatives claim liberal laxity led to the sex abuse crimes, while liberals believe the oppression of gays and women is the root cause of the crisis," says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Both sides have been influenced by their preconceived ideological notions. Whether Skylstad becomes president next week is all wrapped into that."

Clohessy says SNAP is "very troubled" that Skylstad could get elected president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops next week. "Initially, some of us thought that a bishop's ideology might impact how they responded to the sex abuse crisis. But we discovered that penchant for power and secrecy trump theology and ideology every time," says Clohessy, who is considered a liberal Catholic. "Bishop Skylstad has an abysmal record dealing with abuse in his own diocese. His reaction to the sex abuse scandal in Spokane has been morally bankrupt."

In response to a series of lawsuits against the Diocese of Spokane, Skylstad has been presented with a slew of bad choices — along with a heap of bad publicity. At the moment, the diocese has said it may declare bankruptcy, as the Diocese of Portland has done, which means the claims of victims and their families currently bringing legal action would have to be sorted out by a federal bankruptcy judge.

New Testimony

SNAP will be out "in full force" next week in the nation's capital, drawing attention to Skylstad's relationship with Patrick G. O'Donnell Jr., one of Spokane's most notorious priests. Forced from ministry in the 1980s, O'Donnell abused — by his own admission — at least 30 boys. That admission came out in a recent set of depositions taken as part of the lawsuits, and which were first reported by the Spokesman-Review and Seattle Times. O'Donnell's testimony has provided critics like SNAP with more information — which, they believe, suggests that Skylstad failed to intervene when he had the chance more than 20 years ago.

Some of the abuse occurred while O'Donnell was an associate pastor at Assumption Parish; Skylstad became head pastor of Assumption in 1974. That summer, O'Donnell was assigned to the parish and lived with Skylstad in a small rectory. According to a recent Seattle Times story, O'Donnell admitted he sexually abused several parish boys near Skylstad's sleeping quarters, where voices could easily be overheard.

From an early age, O'Donnell started to understand he was different. "I was unsure about why I wasn't particularly attracted to women," O'Donnell said in his testimony, which has been reviewed by The Inlander. "I started questioning it, I remember, by the end of my high school year. I was attracted to men, but I was somewhat attracted to teenagers, teenage boys."

According to O'Donnell's testimony, there was never a time, in seminary or the priesthood, when he didn't wrestle with his sexual attractions. But in the deposition's bombshell, he alleges that his pattern of abusing boys didn't begin until after he was abused by another priest, Reinard Beaver. "Beaver fondled my genitals. The touching was unwanted," said O'Donnell (he was in his 20s at the time). "It just felt weird." Eventually Beaver was forced out of the ministry because of accusations of molesting numerous boys. He is also the subject of a lawsuit against the Spokane Diocese.

Even while still at seminary, O'Donnell says he began to abuse boys. He confessed this to his spiritual director, who referred him to a psychiatrist in Seattle. After four individual sessions, he went to group counseling with three psychologists who worked for the seminary. Upon his graduation, a seminary document reported that "O'Donnell has made good progress with therapy. He has gained some self-confidence." He was ordained in 1971 and was assigned by the Spokane Diocese to positions that gave him access to boys. While serving at St. Peter's in Spokane, he was an assistant director of Catholic Youth Ministries and was also named liaison to the local Boy Scouts of America. O'Donnell admitted to molesting several boys during his early assignments.

In 1972, O'Donnell started individual therapy. His psychiatrist recommended that he go to Denver to see a hypnotherapist for a couple of weeks. "I have the feeling the goal was to change my sexual orientation," said O'Donnell, who said he remained "uncured." In June 1973, he was transferred to St. Augustine's, then landed at St. Mary's in Veradale in September, where he allegedly abused two boys. A year later, he became associate pastor at Assumption.

In 1976, O'Donnell was finally removed from Assumption. The church claims he went on sabbatical "for personal reasons and further studies." According to court records, O'Donnell was sent by Bishop Topel for sexual deviancy treatment. "I remember Dr. Herb Dreiblatt using some aversion-type therapy, to think of something negative, if I would think of being around teenagers," O'Donnell testified. "As I recall, it's something like thinking of something very unhealthy, like feces or something."

While undergoing treatment, O'Donnell, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Washington, admits he was still "molesting children." He returned to Spokane in 1979, living at the Our Lady of Lourdes rectory doing post-doctorate studies and family counseling. He also worked as a counselor at Morning Star Boy's Ranch.

In 1980, he was assigned to the Holy Rosary Parish in Rosalia, Wash., where one of his alleged victims later committed suicide. A second suicide — related to O'Donnell's days at Assumption — has also been cited in lawsuits. In 1981, O'Donnell began seeing another therapist. In 1984, the State Department of Licensing suspended his psychology license. In the summer of 1985, O'Donnell left Rosalia and moved to St. John Vianney in the Spokane Valley. When parishioners learned of the psychology board's action, he was removed from that parish, too. By November 1985, O'Donnell went into counseling. Some of his clients were priests. Finally in December 1986, after O'Donnell's problems became public in newspaper articles, Bishop Welch removed O'Donnell from active ministry. Today, the Diocese of Spokane is attempting to have O'Donnell formally defrocked, which requires a Vatican order.

A Question of Timing

O'Donnell's testimony indicates that he still isn't free of his sexual attraction towards teenage boys. And the Diocese of Spokane certainly isn't free of Patrick O'Donnell: His tenure as a priest could cost the diocese into the tens of millions of dollars.

And now, as Bishop Skylstad aims for the top job in his calling, he is still haunted by O'Donnell. Skylstad has said that he did act when problems were brought to his attention. In fact, he referred the matter to his superior, Bishop Topel, who soon after removed O'Donnell from Assumption.

But Assumption parishioner Rita Flynn has testified that she told Skylstad about O'Donnell in 1975 — a year before he was removed. She testified that O'Donnell made the 8th-grade boys at Assumption do a "cleansing of the genitals" ritual. "I told Father Skylstad exactly what my son Packy told me," Flynn's court testimony reads. Packy had told Flynn's 7th grade daughter, "there was no chance she could join the track team because it was boys only, and they had to 'cleanse' themselves after track practice." Flynn recalled Skylstad saying he would talk to O'Donnell. Calling her later that afternoon, she recalled him saying, "Rita, Father Pat said he had nothing but normal relationships with these boys." Incredulous, Flynn said she asked, "And you believe him?"

Even now, Flynn is stunned at the memory of Skylstad giving that kind of credence to O'Donnell's excuses. "Do you think it's normal?" she remembers asking Skylstad. Flynn says that Skylstad responded, "Rita, it's for not me to say." About a month later, Flynn claims, she was back in Skylstad's office telling him about how "Father Pat had the guys strip when they would go on prayer weekends."

O'Donnell's own testimony seems to back up Flynn's, as he recalled that Skylstad only went to Bishop Topel after Flynn's husband, Jim, got involved. Legal documents provided by the diocese show that Skylstad sought guidance from Topel about two complaints against O'Donnell and then followed the bishop's instructions. In the lawsuits against the diocese, exactly when Skylstad went to Topel has become a major issue.

When asked for details by the Seattle Times, Skylstad responded that "I wish I could recall more clearly conversations and events that happened three decades ago. I am deeply sorry that I cannot."

The leadership at SNAP is not impressed: "I think it is pure, pathetic spin," says Clohessy. "Some public relations advisor said, 'Plead ignorance — maybe that will work.' "

Whether the American bishops agree, however, will be settled in next week's election.

Ex-Boy Scout sues group, Spokane diocese
Saturday, October 19, 2002

SPOKANE -- A former Boy Scout is suing the organization and Spokane's Roman Catholic Diocese for alleged sex abuse involving former priest Patrick O'Donnell.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in Spokane County Superior Court alleges the Boy Scouts of America and the diocese knew that O'Donnell and former scoutmaster George Robey Jr. were dangerous pedophiles who worked together to prey on boys.

O'Donnell and Robey each sexually abused the boy and other victims during the early 1970s, the lawsuit contends.

The plaintiff was a young teenager at the time and a member of St. Mary's parish in the Spokane Valley, said attorney John Allison.

Robey, then scoutmaster of Spokane Troop 353, first abused the boy in 1972 and continued the victimization for years, the lawsuit says.

The boy "was subsequently passed on to (Robey's) co-serial pedophile O'Donnell," the lawsuit says. The diocese had assigned O'Donnell to act as a liaison to the Boy Scouts.

Robey committed suicide in 1982. O'Donnell is now a psychologist living in Bellevue.

The plaintiff was identified only as "John Doe" in an attempt to protect his privacy. His wife, "Jane Doe," also is a plaintiff.

The lawsuit was filed the same day that Spokane Bishop William Skylstad was at the Vatican to learn that Catholic leaders had rejected some elements of the U.S. Catholic Church's new sex abuse policy. Skylstad is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and has been involved in efforts to deal with the sex abuse crisis.

Skylstad could not be reached for comment on the new lawsuit. Chris Shelby, executive director of the Boy Scouts Inland Northwest Council, said he could not comment. A message left on O'Donnell's answering machine was not immediately returned.

The lawsuit contends that O'Donnell, who was an associate pastor at St. Mary's in 1973, molested the plaintiff in the church rectory.

Additionally, an incident happened in a locker room shower during a weekend Catholic Scout Retreat, the lawsuit says.

"The parish priest and the local scoutmaster were supposed to be the heroes and confidants in these young boys' lives," Allison said. "What happened here is an abuse of trust of the highest degree."

The lawsuit named Skylstad among the defendants. Skylstad was head pastor of Assumption parish, where O'Donnell was reassigned in 1974, and chancellor of the Spokane Diocese during the years of the alleged abuse.

Skylstad and other church officials failed to report O'Donnell's actions to the police and failed to warn parents, the lawsuit said.

"Defendant Skylstad possessed information that O'Donnell had previously sexually molested children, yet, as head pastor, placed no limitation on O'Donnell's access to children and negligently failed to adequately monitor, supervise and control O'Donnell," the lawsuit said.

This is the second lawsuit against O'Donnell and the diocese. Last month, 10 people filed suit alleging the church ignored O'Donnell's sexual abuse.

More lawsuits are coming.

"We know there are more victims in this community," Allison said. "We must learn who knew of these horrible sins, and when they knew it."

Skylstad has acknowledged there are other priests who have been accused of abuse. Their names have not been released, despite pressure from a victims' group.

Priest's abuse still haunts diocese

August 24, 2002
Jonathan Martin

Patrick G. O'Donnell's departure from the priesthood in 1986 left a Catholic parish and the Spokane psychology community seething.

What galled them further was the way O'Donnell left.

Despite a documented history of child molestation, he faced no criminal charges and hadn't even been defrocked.

He's now a psychologist in Bellevue, and owns a $614,000 home in the swank Yarrow Point community on Lake Washington.

The Diocese of Spokane is bracing for the backlash from his time here. Six people have come forward in the past four months with previously unknown claims of abuse, including one in the last week.

Diocese officials are charting previous insurance coverage, in anticipation of lawsuits.

In a series of candid interviews this week, Bishop William Skylstad and his staff acknowledged the Spokane Diocese knew of multiple instances of alleged molestation before O'Donnell was sent from active ministry to sexual deviancy treatment in 1976.

And Skylstad said he'd be "surprised" if predecessors didn't know of subsequent molestations documented in a court order in 1980, after treatment had supposedly cured O'Donnell.

O'Donnell was serving at Holy Rosary parish in Rosalia at the time, and was then moved to St. John Vianney in the Spokane Valley, his last before leaving the priesthood.

Then-Bishop Lawrence Welsh banned him from ministering or marrying in the fall of 1985, after parishioners became aware of O'Donnell's troubled history.

However, the diocese declined to push the lengthy process of defrocking O'Donnell, which would eventually require the approval of the Vatican.

"In 1985, he wasn't removed for bad behavior," said the Rev. John Steiner, who has fielded abuse complaints for Skylstad. "He was removed for notoriety."

In discussing O'Donnell, the bishop and his staff peeled back layers of confidentiality that have led to allegations of coverup elsewhere in the country.

A new charter adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to deal with sexually abusive priests has helped, said Skylstad, vice president of the conference.

"One of the things that the charter has clearly stipulated is that we're transparent with what has happened," said Skylstad. "It's much better to go the transparency route than not."

O'Donnell didn't return multiple messages left at his home or Bellevue psychology practice, Cascade Behavioral Medicine Clinic.

According to one diocese official, O'Donnell is in the process of retiring from practice.

O'Donnell's apparently successful professional life angers Donna Trowbridge of Spokane, a friend of the O'Donnell family.

"Priests only having their hands slapped is outrageous," she said. "He's doing well, going to trips to Reno and Las Vegas, and not paying any price for his actions."

`A pied piper'
All of the complaints against O'Donnell are from the mid-1970s, when Skylstad served with him at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in north Spokane. Skylstad said he's referred none of the cases to prosecutors because of the length of time elapsed.

The diocese previously believed that there were three new O'Donnell complaints, until the estimate was revised upward Friday.

Several reports have come from families of the alleged victims, but Skylstad has counseled at least one individual personally. None has requested compensation, but Skylstad said the diocese was ready to offer counseling.

In preparation for possible lawsuits, the diocese is preparing a chart of its various insurers during the time of the alleged abuse, said Vicar General Steven Dublinski, Skylstad's chief administrator. The diocese currently has a little less than $1 million in "morality" insurance from the Catholic Mutual Group of Omaha for priest misconduct.

The new complaints are credible because they fit O'Donnell's pattern of taking kids on boating trips to Lake Coeur d'Alene and approaching them sexually, Steiner said.

"He was a pied piper with kids," Steiner said. "You wonder why a 40-year-old would want to play basketball all the time with 11-year-olds."

Clean bill of health
O'Donnell, a Spokane native, was ordained in 1971 after serving in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps during the Vietnam War.

He quickly earned a reputation as being excellent with kids. He served as the diocese's liaison with the Boy Scouts, according to the Official Catholic Directory.

In 1976, Skylstad said he talked with Welsh about allegations emerging from Assumption parish.

Welsh decided to send O'Donnell to get treatment with a Seattle doctor, whose name was unavailable from the diocese. The diocese paid for the treatment, said Steiner.

While undergoing 21/2 years of treatment and living at St. Paul's parish, O'Donnell earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Washington.

O'Donnell returned with a "clean bill of health" from the doctor after undergoing therapy, said Steiner. Believing he'd been cured, Welsh put O'Donnell in Rosalia around 1980.

"That was a practice of the time," Skylstad said. "After going through a program, it was felt like someone could minister effectively and responsibly."

That now-discredited belief, said Skylstad, is what has gotten bishops in trouble around the country.

Tim Kosnoff, a Bellevue lawyer specializing in clergy abuse cases, said the Spokane Diocese should have known better, even then.

"Nobody but hacks in the field of psychiatry were saying these people can be safely put back into the field of ministry post-1975," said Kosnoff. "They're saying that now because they don't have anything else to say."

License suspended

In the late summer of 1980, just after being assigned to Rosalia, O'Donnell took two 13-year-old boys for an overnight trip to his boat at Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Over two days, O'Donnell repeatedly tried to undress and touch the boys' genitals, and suggested they swim nude, according to the findings of fact from the state psychology licensing board records.

After the trip, O'Donnell began seeing counselor Howard Hake for 16 months for "his sexual desires as they pertain to the adolescent male," according to the records.

Trowbridge and others believe Rosalia parishioners knew of his problem. Several members contacted this week declined to discuss O'Donnell's problems, but did say he was popular with schoolchildren.

While O'Donnell was still in Rosalia, the psychology licensing board, acting on a tip, found O'Donnell had violated its code of conduct during the 1980 outing. The board began its investigation in 1983 and O'Donnell's license was suspended in 1984 for one year. More serious punishment would have been likely if the boys had been his clients.

"It's unethical for any psychologist to have sex with even a consenting patient, let alone non-consenting adolescents," said Mary Weathers, who was then head of the Spokane County Psychology Association. "This was no-brainer stuff."

Skylstad said Welsh, who died in 1999, likely knew of the psychology board's action. But he said he hasn't consulted confidential files to determine what Welsh knew.

"I'm pretty familiar with this case," he said.

Despite the new abuse, Welsh moved O'Donnell to St. John Vianney in 1985. That wasn't a good idea, Steiner said.

"I told Welsh it was foolish to put O'Donnell in a parish with a school," he said.

Showering with boys
Parishioners quickly learned of O'Donnell's history, according to a letter sent to the psychology licensing board in 1994 by a female member of Vianney.

In the letter, the woman recounted how she learned in 1985 of O'Donnell's history through "a series of coincidences." The woman arranged a meeting between Welsh and two other couples concerned about O'Donnell, according to the letter.

The couples told Welsh of O'Donnell's behavior at Vianney -- fixing long-broken showers to bathe with boys, and inviting a developmentally disabled boy to a boating trip on Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Welsh told the group that O'Donnell had passed lie detector tests every six months, thereby justifying his appointment to Vianney, according to the letter.

The couples told Welsh they wanted O'Donnell removed; Welsh told the group that O'Donnell would only accept an appointment at a parish with a school.

O'Donnell was cut loose from Vianney and allowed to go work full-time in his private psychology practice in November 1985.

He remained there until a 1986 Spokesman-Review story detailed his history. That "notoriety" resulted in him being stripped of his ministerial credentials, Steiner said.

He soon went to Bellevue.

The Vianney parishioner, whose name was blacked out on the letter, found it appalling that O'Donnell was a practicing psychologist.

The state psychology board tried to check out the complaint, but couldn't find the woman, and closed its investigation, said Department of Health spokesman Tim Church.

There have been no subsequent complaints, he said.

"The news that Patrick O'Donnell ... is now practicing psychology in our state is disturbing to say the least," the St. John Vianney parishioner wrote


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