Church Speaks No Evil

``He took advantage of our innocence, our virtue and our parents' trust.''
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Jonathan Martin
Staff writer

Boys at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin parish knew there was something different about their priest.

The Rev. Patrick G. O'Donnell took them on off-road rides in his Willys Jeep. He took keen interest in their sports. He had a great stereo.

But two former Assumption students said O'Donnell also ordered the middle school-aged boys to strip naked, or to their jock straps, and sponge off on the half-court line of the parish's gym, while he watched.

The Roman Catholic priest rarely prayed with them, but did show them pictures of adults in sexual positions.

He also invited small groups to overnight outings. Bedded down in sleeping bags, the boys would suddenly feel the priest's hand down their underwear, former students said.

More than a dozen men, who were boys at parishes served by O'Donnell during the 1970s and 1980s, are breaking a long-held silence to allege molestation or sexually motivated "grooming" behavior by the priest.

In recent interviews with The Spokesman-Review, eight men -- as well as their family members and lawyers -- described a pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior that began during O'Donnell's first year in the priesthood, in 1971, and continued through his last in active ministry, in 1986.

Based on conversations with classmates, they believe at least four dozen schoolboys from five Spokane and three Whitman County parishes may have been molested or approached sexually by O'Donnell.

None of the allegations involve rape, nor is there any record of molestation complaints after 1985.

Bellevue attorney Tim Kosnoff, who is preparing to file a lawsuit against O'Donnell and the Spokane Catholic Diocese, believes O'Donnell is the most prolific child abuser in recent regional church history.

``It has the most number of bishops who knew of the pattern, the most number of dioceses affected,'' said Kosnoff, who specializes in clergy sex abuse cases. ``I think this is potentially the biggest, and has the biggest outrage.''

Criminal action on decades-old allegations of abuse is possible. Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas has talked with one man willing to testify, should Douglas find a legal way around the statute of limitations.

One man, who killed himself in 1990, cited alleged abuse by O'Donnell in a suicide note. Spokane Diocese officials acknowledged last week there may be another such case.

O'Donnell could not be reached for comment. He did not return phone calls to his Bellevue home or business last week, nor a message left at a home in Coeur d'Alene he is building.

Most of the men interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said they're coming forward because O'Donnell was systematically moved by the diocese after allegations grew, and because O'Donnell has prospered since leaving ministry, with few visible consequences for his actions.

``He took advantage of our innocence, our virtue and our parents' trust,'' said a 41-year-old North Idaho man, who said he was molested during a 1974 overnight trip with O'Donnell.

`A grave injury'

After notoriety over molestation allegations forced him from the priesthood, O'Donnell became a Bellevue psychologist, counseling teens and families. His brother is building O'Donnell a three-story home with a commanding view of Loff's Bay on Lake Coeur d'Alene.

As the son of a wealthy Spokane family, O'Donnell took no vow of poverty. He maintained a two-decked cabin cruiser on Lake Coeur d'Alene during his priesthood, and had access to a family cabin at Windy Bay.

O'Donnell was moved between seven parishes, and underwent two lengthy diocese-paid treatment sessions for sexual deviancy. The diocese missed, or ignored, multiple warnings that the treatment didn't work.

One priest refused to serve in the same parish as O'Donnell. And in 1980 -- a year after extended treatment -- three families confronted former Bishop Lawrence Welsh with allegations that O'Donnell molested three boys aboard his cabin cruiser on Lake Coeur d'Alene, the families say.

Welsh responded by moving O'Donnell to Rosalia.

The Rev. Steven Dublinski, the diocese vicar general, has received complaints of molestation from 10 individuals in the past five months, and two more alleging ``grooming'' behavior like the sponge baths at Assumption.

It's clear that ``a grave injury has been done to many people,'' said Dublinski. ``Whatever we can do to be of assistance to people who were hurt, we'd like to help them.''

With new understanding of the scope of potential victims, people are now questioning why there weren't more consequences for O'Donnell.

By the time he left Rosalia -- his last significant stint in ministry -- students joked about O'Donnell's practice of becoming sexually aroused while showering with Rosalia students, said Rusty McGuire, a Davenport attorney who graduated from Rosalia in 1982.

``It wasn't in any way a secret,'' said McGuire. ``Everyone knew he did this kind of stuff. But for some reason, nobody did anything.''

Trust broken

Foreshadowing a later career as a psychologist, O'Donnell offered to counsel troubled kids during the early 1970s.

Paul Jensen had already had several criminal scrapes when his mother dropped him off at O'Donnell's door at St. Mary's parish in the Spokane Valley.

During one counseling session, O'Donnell took the 14-year-old Jensen for ice cream. On the way back, stopped at a railroad crossing on Argonne, Jensen said O'Donnell reached over to grope his crotch.

Startled, Jensen hit the priest. ``He said he was trying to cheer me up,'' said Jensen, now 42.

Jensen ceased the counseling sessions, but didn't tell his mother why.

``In those days, you didn't say, `This priest tried to fondle me,''' he said. He kept the secret until reading a news article about O'Donnell last month.

O'Donnell, still at St. Mary's, also offered to advise a 13-year-old boy, Jim, after his stepfather died.

Jim said O'Donnell fondled his genitals twice, both times while the boy was hoisting weights overhead in his basement.

``He said he wanted to feel my muscles,'' said Jim, who didn't want his last name used.

Jim's sister, Diane Stone, thought it odd that O'Donnell seemed uninterested in ministering to her or another sister, but she trusted the priest.

Stone, who has a different last name from her brother, traces the molestation to Jim's lifelong battles with alcohol. ``Jim really trusted Pat, and that was blown,'' she said. ``I've never seen that trust come back.''

Then-Bishop Bernard Topel abruptly shifted O'Donnell from St. Mary's in 1974 to Assumption, without the customary explanation to parishioners.

`Died-in-the-wool molester'

Monsignor John Donnelly said he unwittingly stepped into a mess created by O'Donnell when he was assigned to Indian Trial's Assumption parish in 1976.

Several students told Donnelly that a friend had been molested aboard O'Donnell's boat.

After confirming the story with the boy, Donnelly immediately called the new chancellor, William Skylstad, who had previously served with O'Donnell at Assumption, and Bishop Topel. Skylstad is now bishop of the Spokane Diocese, and a leading figure in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Move O'Donnell, or I won't stay at Assumption, Donnelly demanded.

Donnelly, in an interview last week from a Spokane retirement home, said he then confronted O'Donnell.

``I could generally say, his response seemed to be typical of died-in-the-wool molesters,'' Donnelly said. ``He didn't see anything really wrong with it. I couldn't believe it.''

Within months, O'Donnell was sent to get ``aversion therapy'' with a Seattle doctor and to live at St. Paul's parish, said the Rev. John Steiner of the Spokane Diocese.

That therapy is designed to associate pain -- such as an electrical shock, or a breath of ammonia -- with a specific fantasy, said Dan Jones, director of psychological services at Appalachian State University.

It was most commonly used at universities with a religious affiliation, to stop homosexual behavior, he said.

``The success rate is pretty low,'' he said. ``There's really no treatment that is well documented to work with pedophilia.''

Dublinski, the vicar general, said Topel sent several letters to then-Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen ``requesting a conversation'' about O'Donnell. There is no record of a response, but diocese officials feel Hunthausen knew of O'Donnell's history.

While in Seattle, O'Donnell met the Gonzaga Preparatory football team's bus, on the way to the 1977 state championship game. Some members of the team said they'd been molested by O'Donnell while at Assumption, and were shocked when he greeted them warmly.

``I saw him on the sidewalk and felt a stone coldness,'' said one former team member, who said he was molested by O'Donnell. ``It was predatory.''

`We'll take care of it'

Within a year of O'Donnell's return to Spokane from treatment in 1979, three prominent Catholic families met with Topel's successor, Lawrence Welsh, to complain that the treatment didn't work.

O'Donnell had invited three boys to his cabin cruiser for the weekend, stopping along the way to stock up on Twinkies and doughnuts, two of the boys said.

During the day, O'Donnell insisted the boys swim naked off his boat, and hosted a strip poker game in the evening.

Anchored in a bay in the late evening, O'Donnell fondled two of the boys in the front V-berth, persisting even as the boys pushed his hands away, according to two boys on the trip. He then moved to the back of the boat, where he fondled a third, they said.

One of the boys, now a 35-year-old Spokane businessman, said he became so uncomfortable he threw up off the back of the boat. O'Donnell immediately stopped to help the boy.

After hearing of O'Donnell's advances, the boys' parents' asked Welsh to take some action.

``The bishop said, `We'll take care of it','' said one parent who was at the meeting. ``That's when we found out he was transferred to Rosalia.''

Two of the boys later testified at a Washington State Department of Licensing board's inquiry into O'Donnell's violation of psychology rules.

Although the board found the boys' story credible, it only restricted his license for a year, and failed to forward a complaint to prosecutors, as required by the state's mandatory reporting law.

Graduation chaplain

O'Donnell's charismatic leadership drew new parishioners to Rosalia's Holy Rosary church, particularly families with kids, said Joanne Gfeller, a longtime church member.

He ingratiated himself with adults -- Catholic and not -- by volunteering as middle school boys basketball coach, photographing high school games and dining at families' homes.

He also routinely began offering trips to his lake cabin and boat. One man, a non-Catholic who met O'Donnell through parishioners' kids, said the priest groped him during a trip in 1980.

He then stayed silent as dozens of other boys were told to skinny dip at O'Donnell's cabin over the next five years.

``I know he was touching other kids,'' the man said. ``There was times I should have stepped up and didn't. I feel responsible.''

McGuire, the Davenport attorney, as well as others, believe dozens of boys were molested, but keep it secret out of shame.

By 1984, stories of the naked swimming and O'Donnell's shower room behavior reached then-Rosalia Mayor Ken Jacobs, whose two boys took frequent trips to the cabin.

Even after the stories emerged, O'Donnell was invited to be chaplain at Rosalia Middle School's graduation, and took the entire middle school class of 1984 to his cabin for a day.

``When I found out he had a problem, I was so mad at him, but I was more mad at the Catholics,'' said Jacobs, who is also mayor now. ``They knew he had a problem, then knew he was taking kids to the lake for whatever reason.''

In 1985, O'Donnell was suddenly transferred to the Spokane Valley's St. John Vianney parish, where members, learning of his troubles elsewhere, demanded that he leave after three months.

Within two years, he established his Bellevue psychology practice. Although he was stripped of his ministerial credentials, he remains a priest.

``I can't tell you the feeling of betrayal we all felt, not only by him but by the bishop at the time,'' Gfleller said. ``No one told us when they sent him that he had a problem.''

The parish, she said, is still waiting for an apology.

Jonathan Martin can be reached at (509)459-5484 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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