Possible conflict seen in work Satterberg did for archdiocese

Monday, October 15, 2007 - Page updated at 07:04 AM


King County Interim Prosecutor Dan Satterberg

Democratic challenger Bill Sherman

Possible conflict seen in work Satterberg did for archdiocese

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times religion reporter

Until recently, King County Interim Prosecutor Dan Satterberg served as a legal resource for a board that was helping the Seattle Archdiocese revise its policy for handling reports of sex abuse by priests.

Satterberg, who is running as a Republican for King County prosecuting attorney, said his role was to make sure any policy complied with state law and that the archdiocese notified prosecutors and police immediately when an accusation came in.

It's a role that an attorney for many victims in the church's sex-abuse scandal says gives at least the appearance of a conflict of interest - although others disagree.

Seattle attorney Timothy Kosnoff said the basis for his contention dates back to 2002, when he sent a letter to the King County Prosecutor's Office asking it to look into the cases of 49 priests identified by the archdiocese as having been accused of abusing minors, dating back to 1950.

The prosecutor's office declined. Satterberg, who was chief of staff at the time, wrote in a letter to Kosnoff that the office had no evidence that church officials had violated a mandatory reporting law, so there was no legal basis to go after church records.

That makes Kosnoff wonder if Satterberg's role as a legal resource to the archdiocese's board played a part in that decision.

"I'm not saying it's cause and effect. But it causes one to ponder that," he said. "It was inexplicable to me why the prosecutor's office didn't investigate the Seattle Archdiocese, particularly by 2003 after what was known about what had occurred nationally" in the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandals.

Even if the 49 cases exceeded statutes of limitation, "it still would have been worthwhile to convene a special inquiry judge to gather the facts, to find out to what extent this was a problem in the diocese, how many priests were involved, what the patterns were - whether there was a cover-up," Kosnoff said.

Kosnoff, along with another attorney he works with often, has won about $70 million in settlements in the Catholic Church sex-abuse cases.

Kosnoff supports Bill Sherman, Satterberg's Democratic opponent in the Nov. 6 race, because Sherman is for the elimination of criminal and civil statutes of limitation on child sexual-abuse cases. Kosnoff has not donated to Sherman's campaign.

John Shuster, a spokesman for the Seattle chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, agrees with Kosnoff's position.

"I just don't like the idea that a government official who's supposed to be totally impartial would be a resource to the institution that covered up for so many pedophiles and didn't report as much to the police as they should have over the years," Shuster said.

Satterberg began serving as legal resource for the archdiocese's board around 2003, after church officials approached then-King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and asked him "to appoint a resource to make sure we were following state law to the letter," said archdiocesan spokesman Greg Magnoni. Maleng selected Satterberg.

His role, Satterberg said, was "to make sure that the criminal authorities were notified by the archdiocese before any action by the archdiocese that might have tipped off the suspect."

Satterberg stepped down from that position when he became interim prosecutor. Another attorney in the King County Prosecutor's Office now serves in that role.

Retired King County Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll, who had served as chairman of a Seattle Archdiocese board that reviewed the cases of 13 priests accused of sexual abuse, said the question of Satterberg's role "didn't come up at the time."

Carroll, who endorses Satterberg in the prosecutor race, declined to give an opinion on whether the situation gave the appearance of a conflict of interest. But, he said, "I don't see it as a case of wrongdoing by Dan Satterberg."

Carroll's case-review board was different from the policy-review board for which Satterberg served as legal resource.

Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, served on both boards. She also endorses Satterberg in the prosecutor race.

Berliner said she didn't regard Satterberg's role as a conflict, saying he didn't vote on any policies or procedures, nor did he participate in the reviews of any cases.

Robert Aronson, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in legal ethics, also says there didn't appear to be a conflict.

If Satterberg's role had been to review specific cases and advise the archdiocese about whether to call civil authorities, and then he was asked to pursue the case as a prosecutor, then it would be a conflict, said Aronson, who endorses neither candidate.

But "if his role was solely to give policy advice, where he never saw specific cases, then I don't see any conflict."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or [email protected]

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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