New abuse suit filed

Friday, January 31, 2003

New abuse suit filed
Former Roman Catholic priest, diocese named

Virginia de Leon
Staff writer

The suit also names the Catholic Diocese of Spokane as a defendant for failing to protect children from a priest described by attorneys as "a lifelong child molester and sexual predator of young boys."

This is the second lawsuit against both O'Donnell and the diocese. The first, filed in late September, was on behalf of 10 former altar boys and Catholic students in the diocese.

The two lawsuits -- filed in Spokane County Superior Court by Seattle-area lawyers Timothy Kosnoff and Michael Pfau -- are the largest allegations of clergy sexual abuse in the history of the diocese. Except for the initials of the victims, the second lawsuit is nearly identical to the first.

"We're not doing this just for us, we're doing it for the future, for children who might be abused," said Steve Barber, who was an altar boy in the early 1970s at St. Mary's and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin -- two Spokane parishes where O'Donnell worked as an associate pastor.

"I'm doing something that I wish an adult would have done for me as a child. ... The man severely damaged my life."

John Bergman, O'Donnell's attorney, declined to comment on the suit.

The lawsuit accuses the Diocese of Spokane of moving O'Donnell among several parishes despite knowledge of his criminal behavior toward boys. It also states that diocesan officials failed to report O'Donnell's crimes to law enforcement, parents and others in the community.

The complaint points to Bishop William Skylstad's role in the alleged cover-up. Skylstad was head pastor of Assumption during part of the time O'Donnell worked there from 1974 to 1976. It was at Assumption where O'Donnell allegedly groomed and sexually abused four of the plaintiffs, according to the suit.

"Skylstad was informed by victims and parents from Assumption parish about O'Donnell's inappropriate sexual contact with children," states the lawsuit.

In previous interviews with the newspaper, Skylstad said he passed on one allegation of "inappropriate bathing behavior" by O'Donnell to then-Bishop Bernard Topel. He emphasized, however, that he was not aware of the abuse until long after it happened.

"There is an assumption that the bishop knew everything," Skylstad said during a Dec. 31 interview. "But even in very intimate family circumstances, people are not aware of what's going on."

During the same interview, Skylstad did acknowledge that six priests -- including O'Donnell -- have admitted to him that they abused children. Those men have been removed from the ministry.

The Rev. Steve Dublinski, the diocese's vicar general, hadn't seen a copy of the lawsuit Thursday and declined to comment on the allegations.

"We deeply regret the fact that people have been victimized, that members of our church have been harmed and damaged," Dublinski said. "We need to respond as best as we can to their needs."

Steve and Terry Barber, along with Norton, spoke about their experiences during a news conference Thursday outside the Spokane County Courthouse. The other seven plaintiffs have been identified only by their initials on the lawsuit.

The men said they found the courage to speak with support from their attorneys and six other victims -- some coming forward for the first time.

They included Bill Bordwell of Chewelah, who said he was abused by James O'Malley when he was 14; and Mike Shea of Spokane, a former altar boy at St. Augustine who said he plans to file a lawsuit against Reinard Beaver. The two priests were among the six named by the bishop last year.

"Picture a great big glass ball," said Shea, whose devout Catholic family sent him and his six siblings to Catholic schools. "This ball is my life. Beaver had the ball in his hand and he dropped it on the rocks and shattered it."

O'Donnell allegedly molested the Barber brothers at Mount St. Michael's seminary, during a camping trip at Priest Lake and in North Idaho, where O'Donnell had a boat and cabin.

Steve Barber was 13 and Terry Barber was 14. They said they know of at least two dozen O'Donnell victims, but believe there are dozens more.

Norton said he was 12 years old when O'Donnell molested him in Rosalia. O'Donnell, who worked at Holy Rosary Parish from 1980 to 1985, bought him and other boys alcohol, allowed them to drive his car and took them on boating trips in North Idaho, Norton said.

"He lured us," he said. "He gained everybody's trust and had free rein."

The conservative atmosphere of the farm community he grew up in contributed to Norton's silence. The 34-year-old didn't talk about the abuse he endured for four years until he told his first wife 11 years ago.

On Thursday, Norton stood in front of TV cameras with a photo of himself as a boy.

"I want to urge other victims to come forward," he said. "It's time to come out and let the healing begin."

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