' A Real Charmer 'Part II

Even if O'Donnell hadn't looked to that particular topic for his dissertation, he would have studied ways of fostering trust, as psychologists generally do, Hillowe says. "Transference" is one phenomenon he would likely have been exposed to, whereby, as Hillowe explains, "the feelings the patient had or wanted to have toward a parent become transferred to the therapist, without the patient exercising judgment as to whether the therapist is worthy of such trust."

WHATEVER O'DONNELL learned in his studies would have added to a gift he already had--inspiring confidence among both kids and adults. In his early days as a priest in Spokane, he was picked by the Spokane diocese to serve first as the associate director, then the acting director, of the Catholic Youth Ministry. The Boy Scouts regional council put him on its board, and the Spokane Police Department had him as a chaplain. Wherever he went, by all accounts, he developed a large following of kids. His two years at St. Paul's in Seattle, from 1976-78, were no exception. Jim Biteman, a youthful-looking man with a goatee and slightly spiky brown hair, remembers those years. He says O'Donnell got to know him and other boys from the parish school by offering to teach them racquetball at the athletic center at Seattle University. Afterward, the priest would shower with the kids, according to Biteman. "That was part of the deal with him."

Soon, Biteman says, O'Donnell was taking small groups of boys for sunset cruises on Lake Washington in a 35-foot boat that he kept moored at a Rainier Beach yacht club. "He would make a suggestion that it was a nice night for a swim. Of course, nobody had brought their swimsuits. He would tell us to go completely naked. He would sit in the back of the boat and encourage us to jump in and get out, jump in and get out."

O'Donnell became a friend of Biteman's family. Biteman says that one night, when he was in eighth grade, the same year that O'Donnell was pulling him out of classes for "research," the priest came to Biteman's house for dinner. Tired, Biteman says he retired early to his bedroom, only to hear O'Donnell knock on the door sometime later. "He came in and sat on the edge of the bed and asked if he could give me a massage." In the course of the massage, Biteman says, the priest briefly fondled him. Biteman says he was stunned and quickly rolled over. He says the incident was not repeated, and he didn't tell anybody until other alleged victims started coming forward in recent months.

Meanwhile, O'Donnell's psychological studies (through UW's education, rather than psychology, department) were proceeding apace. In the fall of 1977 and early in 1978, he did a six-month internship at the Highline-West Seattle Mental Health Center, where he counseled both kids and adults, dealing with issues including preadolescent and adolescent problems, according to his application, which is on file with the state psychological board. A glowing letter of recommendation by his supervisor there noted his skill at "setting appropriate therapist-client limits on the therapeutic relationship."

In August 1978, he received his doctorate. O'Donnell returned to Spokane with a clean bill of health from his Seattle therapist, who nonetheless recommended continued treatment to prevent a relapse, according to the Spokane diocese.

It would be surprising if O'Donnell had indeed been rehabilitated, given what we know about pedophilia. "It is considered to be extremely difficult to cure," says psychologist Hillowe, explaining that such sexual proclivities are deeply entrenched. The Spokane diocese, however, was confident enough to give him a new position as a priest, while sending him to a local therapist it frequently used for clergy. At the same time, O'Donnell worked as a therapist at a family-counseling center in Spokane.

IN THE FALL OF 1979, O'Donnell applied for a state license as a psychologist. Should the Department of Licensing, which preceded the Department of Health as the regulatory agency for the profession, have ferreted out O'Donnell's disturbing background? "Certainly, the profession does everything it can to screen out everyone with risk factors," says Douglas Wear, executive director of the Washington State Psychological Association. He points out that by the time candidates apply for a license, they have gone through the rigorous process of getting into a doctoral program and have been subject to "a great deal of scrutiny" in pre- and postdoctoral work experiences.

O'Donnell supplied more than one enthusiastic letter of recommendation from those experiences. Supervisors from the Spokane counseling center where he worked wrote that he was "a credit to the profession of psychologist" and that he "rates among the very best." O'Donnell passed oral and written licensing examinations, though he failed the written test the first time. A scrawled note on the evaluation sheet of one oral examiner is a testament to O'Donnell's way with people. It read, simply, "a real charmer."

True, the application process at that time might be considered lax by today's standards. Applicants did not have to fill out the one-page form used today, which asks if they have any relevant medical conditions and whether they have ever been treated for pedophilia. (Such self- disclosure, obviously, is far from fail-safe, and even a yes answer to those questions triggers an individual evaluation rather than automatic disqualification.)

Nor was there a criminal-background check when O'Donnell applied, as there is today. But even if there had been, it would have turned up nothing, because he had no record of involvement in criminal proceedings.

The state could be reasonably excused for failing to detect anything amiss in an application by a candidate who was entitled to call himself "a priest in good standing" and whose supervisor was the bishop of Spokane. The state's subsequent actions are much harder to fathom.

In 1984, a complaint came to the Department of Licensing about O'Donnell's behavior with two 13-year-old boys on a boating trip four years prior. They were not patients, though O'Donnell had become a licensed psychologist only months before. A disciplinary committee convened by the department investigated. Its findings of fact are reminiscent of the episode described by Biteman. Late at night in the sleeping area of a cabin cruiser, O'Donnell offered to massage the two boys--and ended up fondling them until the boys rolled over. The next day, he took a swipe at one of the boy's bathing suits while wrestling, and O'Donnell went nude himself while the boys watched him swing over the water and drop in.

"The taking of indecent liberties with a person less then 14 years of age is a class B felony," noted the disciplinary committee in its findings of fact. Yet the disciplinary committee made no mention of referring the case to prosecutors as it issued only a temporary sanction: a deferred suspension while, for two years, O'Donnell was to practice under supervision and to refrain from unsupervised contact with boys younger than 17.

Such a sanction, at first, sounds stricter than it was. Then, as now, a supervisor was merely required to review case files periodically, not to be on hand during sessions with patients.

At the end of O'Donnell's two-year sanction, he was free to resume his practice as before. Like others in his field, Long Island psychologist Hillowe questions the wisdom of such a short sanction for a reputed pedophile. "Before someone like that should be allowed to practice, I would have to have evidence of some radical transformation," he says.

Curiously, one of the three members of O'Donnell's disciplinary committee, Anacortes psychologist Carroll Meek, now says she also finds the sanction inadequately short, though she has no recollection of how it was determined. "The information I had at the time was that people who have that type of condition do not change," she says, although there was disagreement in the field at that time.

AS RECENTLY AS 1994, more information about O'Donnell's background was brought to the attention of the state's regulatory agency, now the Department of Health's psychology board. A Spokane mother and former parishioner of O'Donnell's wrote a letter after hearing, to her amazement, that O'Donnell was still practicing in the state as a psychologist specializing in children. (Such a specialty is not confirmed by other documents; O'Donnell is described in the 1984 findings of fact as treating families as well as individuals.)

The woman, whose name had been removed from the record released to Seattle Weekly, described how, while still a parishioner of O'Donnell's at St. John Vianney near Spokane, she and other families there discovered why and how their priest had been disciplined by the state. Even after that process became part of the public record, O'Donnell had continued to work as a priest as well as a psychologist. As the families investigated further, she wrote, they learned of inappropriate behavior at their church, too: "The Parish Hall showers, which had been broken for 10 years, were suddenly fixed, and Pastor O'Donnell was showering there with the boys." The priest, she wrote, had also invited a mentally disabled boy to go boating with him, causing the families to worry about a repeat of earlier behavior.

The woman wrote that the concerned families met with higher-ups at the diocese, including the bishop, to voice their concerns. The diocese seemed supportive of O'Donnell, she wrote, but he soon left the priesthood.

Eloquently, the woman expressed her thoughts about the fact that O'Donnell remained a psychologist: "Again he has managed to move himself in a position of trust to vulnerable youth. Again he has been given the opportunity to create the perfect setup for self-gratification without any compassion with (sic) the families and children who entrust him with their feelings, emotions and future."

A glaring red flag, you would think, and one that offered numerous possibilities for follow-up. The woman invited a phone call, including her home and work phone numbers. She said there were others the psychological board could question--for starters, the bishop. The board had a unit of trained investigators at its disposal that could look into the matter, the same unit that is now investigating O'Donnell. What the board did in 1994, though, was wait two and a half months to respond with a letter to the woman that put the onus on her to supply names, dates, and witnesses. When that and two other letters the state sent her went unanswered, the matter was dropped.

Why didn't the board at least call the woman? "I typically did not call," says Terry West, the board's former program manager, now an administrator with the nursing unit of the Department of Health. "It's real hard to second-guess so many years later."

A memo in O'Donnell's file, however, shows that the board did consider another avenue. Written by a Department of Health attorney, the memo says it would be possible to draft a statement of charges against O'Donnell based on public-safety grounds--in other words, not on specific transgressions but on those that he might commit in the future. The memo adds, "Since such a prophylactic use of the [Uniform Disciplinary Act] would be controversial, the case should be carefully reviewed to decide the level of commitment and resources to be devoted to such an approach."

The decided level of commitment and resources apparently was zero. O'Donnell continued his Bellevue practice unchecked.

THERE IS NO evidence that the board's inaction had negative consequences. Nothing was heard again about O'Donnell until his story blew up in Spokane a few months ago, when alleged victims from his past came forward. Some can't help but wonder if O'Donnell has used his second profession to abuse. "As prolific as he was [at abusing kids] in his capacity as a priest, it seems unlikely to me that he all of a sudden stopped," says Michael Corrigan, a Spokane writer who is one of the plaintiffs. No doubt, the truth will emerge as the story continues to unravel.

Yet even if O'Donnell's behavior has been exemplary for at least the past 15 years, one must wonder: If a reputed pedophile is allowed to remain a psychologist--not once but twice--who else is slipping through?

[email protected]

The Rev. Patrick O'Donnell

Born: Oct. 20, 1942, Quincy, Ill.
1958-1967: Boy Scouts camp counselor.
1964: Bachelor of arts in psychology, Gonzaga University, Spokane.
1965-1967: U.S. Army Medical Service.
1970: Master of arts in counseling and guidance, Gonzaga University.
1971: Master of divinity, St. Thomas Seminary, Kenmore.
1976: Sent to Seattle for sexual-deviancy treatment, where he was appointed to St. Paul's parish.
1978: Internship, Highline-West Seattle Mental Health Center.
1978: Ph.D. in counseling psychology, University of Washington. Dissertation: "Evoking Trustworthy Behavior of Children and Adults in a Prisoner's Dilemma Game."
1979-1980: Therapist, Family Counseling Service, Spokane.
1980: Licensed as a psychologist by the State of Washington.
1984: State Department of Licensing defers suspension of psychology license after finding he committed "grossly immoral acts" involving two 13-year-old boys in 1980.
Mid-1980s-2002: Private practice psychologist, Bellevue.
1994: State chooses not to pursue another complaint that cites O'Donnell's history.
2002: O'Donnell and Spokane diocese sued by alleged victims, now adults.

SOURCES: Washington Department of Licensing, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane, personal résumé.

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