The public may never know how many Catholic priests sexually abused children in Eastern Washington. Nor will parishioners know how their money is being spent, despite being asked to contribute $10 million to settle sex-abuse claims.
Perhaps most alarming, however, is that priests accused of sexual abuse remain within the diocese ministry.
Because of sealed court records and an unusual arrangement that one lawyer touted as an “alternative judicial system,” the full disclosure long demanded by victims in the Spokane Catholic Diocese’s long-running bankruptcy case may never happen.
All sides in the case – including Bishop William Skylstad, committees representing sex-abuse victims and parish representatives – agreed to this unique setup, which allows victims to present accusations of abuse to an independent claims reviewer who will decide if an accusation has merit and how much money should be paid. No information about those payouts, including the names of priests on whom claims were paid, will be made public in court filings, attorneys involved in the settlement agreement say.
The effect of the arrangement is more than just an esoteric legal matter. The diocese has so far named eight priests who it says have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Yet a review of approximately half of the confidential claims filed in the case, which were obtained by The Spokesman-Review, shows at least 38 priests and others associated with the church have been accused. Besides the eight priests named by the diocese, the list includes at least three priests still active in the ministry. Some on the list are outside the diocese or Jesuits, and thus outside the jurisdiction of the diocese.
But under the terms of the $48 million settlement, the veracity of those claims will not be disclosed.
The Spokesman-Review has filed a motion in Bankruptcy Court asking for formal access to claims and related filings, plus records of the amounts paid on claims, in the interest of public safety and public disclosure. The Spokesman-Review has never sought to publish the names and other identifying information of alleged victims and has asked that such information be redacted from the claims it seeks.
The “alternative judicial system” mandating that all information contained in the claims be kept secret came as a surprise to some victims who are part of the settlement, which garnered a unanimous vote of approval.
“We still haven’t achieved our ultimate goal, which is to get the truth out,” said Michael Shea, a victim and member of a bankruptcy group representing other claimants. “We’re talking about all the priests that were accused by victims.”
He now worries that the confidentiality provisions may undermine the vow of many victims to ensure full disclosure and policy changes to protect children.
Diocese attorneys Shaun Cross and Greg Arpin, however, said most of the confidentiality requirements were at the insistence of victims.
Said Cross: “So long as the process was acceptable to the victims going through the process, it was acceptable to the diocese.”
Joe Shickich, an attorney representing one group of victims in the bankruptcy case, has said victims were assured of absolute confidentiality when filing their claims.
Former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer has been named independent claims reviewer under the process agreed to by the parties. She is charged with determining whether a claim has merit and how much the victim should be paid.
But Cross said Pflaumer’s decisions have “no binding effect legally on the truth of the allegations.” The diocese’s own review board retains authority on whether a priest has been “credibly accused,” said Cross and Arpin. Jim Stang, an attorney representing a group of victims, said the problem may boil down to whether “credibly accused” is a term of legal art.
The diocese has used it during the past several years to determine whether it would disclose the names of priests suspected of sexually abusing children.
Stang, however, said, “I’m certainly not going to let the church put their patina on that. If Kate Pflaumer, the former U.S. attorney in Seattle, says something happened with a priest and there is an exchange of money, it would be hard to argue his name should not be publicized.” Stang was one of the attorneys who helped craft the settlement and claims process.
He added that any victim dissatisfied with a diocese decision to not publicly acknowledge an abusive priest’s name has the right to bring a grievance with Judge Williams.
Michael Ross, a victim outspoken in criticizing the diocese, said he would be sickened if the plan he and all other victims voted for becomes a tool to keep secrets in exchange for cash.
“Unbelievable,” he said.
Dozens of allegations
In late March 2002, Skylstad reported there were just a handful of sex-abuse issues in the Spokane Diocese. Most were older, settled cases that the bishop said would remain private.
Within months of that statement to his own financial board, Skylstad and the diocese were swamped with dozens of allegations involving many priests, according to newspaper reports.
When the diocese filed for bankruptcy in December 2004, it faced legal actions from 59 people claiming abuse. Today the total number of abuse claims exceeds 180 – a number that Skylstad told a judge recently was more than he “ever dreamed of.”
Among the claims, for example, is a woman who accused Skylstad of sexually abusing her in the early 1960s. The bishop denies the allegation and a private investigator he hired said Skylstad was innocent. A lawyer who once represented the woman dropped her as a client.
Yet parishioners may never know if Pflaumer rules the claim credible and orders payment.
Bankruptcy claims are nothing more than assertions until they are vetted by the court, or in this case, the independent reviewer.
Skylstad and at least two other priests who are active in the ministry are accused of abuse in claims. Priests Daniel Wetzler and Paul Vevik are fighting the accusations.
Their attorney, Tim Cronin, called the accusations false.
Vevik, now at Mary Queen Parish in Spokane, told Cronin he doesn’t even recognize the name of his accuser and denies the allegation that he assaulted a person in a restroom of Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral in 1978.
The claim against Wetzler, a priest in the diocese ministry in Idaho, is the second time the same person accused him.
Wetzler was first accused in 2002. After the allegation, Skylstad immediately removed the priest from ministry and called police even as Wetzler denied the accusations. A diocese panel that reviews accusations urged Skylstad to conduct an independent investigation.
A retired Seattle police detective looked into the claim and Wetzler was cleared by the bishop three months later.
Other priests named in claims reviewed by The Spokesman-Review include the eight identified by the diocese, including Reinard Beaver, Theodore Bradley, Arthur Mertens, Patrick O’Donnell, Benno Oosterman, and the deceased Joseph Knecht, James O’Malley and Joseph Pineau.
There are also claims against the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, longtime director of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, who has said he was a strict disciplinarian but has denied sexually abusing boys. He reportedly paid for and passed a polygraph test.
The late Rev. Marvin LaVoy, founding director of Morning Star, has been named in claims. So have former Morning Star counselors James Clarke and the late William Condon.
Another former Spokane diocese priest, the deceased Joseph Sondergeld, has been named in claims. Despite money paid to settle at least one claim against Sondergeld in a different diocese, the Spokane Diocese has not listed his name among those credibly accused.
Others named in claims include August Ludwig, a deceased Marianist brother and former principal at De Sales High School in Walla Walla. The diocese has settled with at least five people who said they were sexually abused by Ludwig. The Rev. Joseph Mepingajira also was named in a claim that accused him of abusing a person in 1995 at Mater Dei, a Spokane institute that offers religious education. Berard Connelly, a Franciscan brother, was named in a claim that alleged he sexually abused a woman at Marycliff High School more than three decades ago.
There are many other priests accused in other claims, but complete names were not provided by those claimants.
‘Dirty little story’
Arpin insisted the diocese will fight the claims and defend priests it believes are falsely accused. He called the confidentiality issues in the case necessary and criticized The Spokesman-Review for pursuing the records and publishing the names of accused priests.
“I don’t think your editors are interested in the truth,” Arpin said. “I think you’re interested in a dirty little story. And I challenge them to let you print that.”
Spokesman-Review Managing Editor Gary Graham said the newspaper is doing its duty as a public watchdog.
“The relentless commitment to secrecy from the diocese and all of the lawyers involved continues to confound and distress us,” he said. “The settlement plan intentionally blocks the release of the names of the priests involved or accused of sexually abusing parishioners. It seems to us that the victims, the parishioners who have to pay for the multimillion-dollar settlement of claims, and the public have a legitimate reason to be adequately informed and warned about who these predators are, especially in the case of those who still may be serving the church.”
Said Graham, “We find it appalling that the settlement partners don’t recognize the serious public safety issue involved.”
Attorney Cross accused the paper of using bully tactics.
“I’m disappointed that The Spokesman-Review has chosen to go forward with this story despite the fact it has filed a motion in federal court to determine its right in regards to this kind of information,” Cross said. “And it appears to be making itself the judge and jury, in addition to the prosecutor, without waiting for the outcome of the court’s decision because it probably realizes it would lose in court.”
Objections to the newspaper’s motion for access to sealed court records will be filed by Wednesday, said lawyers for victims and the diocese.
Newspaper attorney Duane Swinton said bankruptcy, by its nature, is a very public process. Further, the diocese bankruptcy is unusual in that it affects more than the priests and victims involved, he said.
“This is a very sensitive issue that has occurred not just in Spokane, but throughout the nation – and that is the relationship of clergy to young people. In order to assure not only the members of the congregations, but of the public generally that (the diocese) has been responsible and proceeded to resolve its case correctly, that points to full disclosure.” Swinton added, the diocese “chose this process. A very public process. This wasn’t something they were forced into.”
Information passed along
In some instances, the diocese disseminated information from the claims that may have protected the public.
For example, the diocese provided the names of Jesuits to their administration, the Oregon Society of Jesus. Only priests who work for the Spokane Catholic Diocese are included in the bankruptcy process.
The Rev. John Whitney, provincial of the Jesuits, recalled this week that the diocese alerted the Society of Jesus to a claim naming Jesuit priest John J. Morse. The society already was investigating allegations that Morse had sexually abused children in Omak, Wash., and it removed Morse from ministry in Moses Lake.
The Jesuits already had known that former Gonzaga University President John P. Leary had sexually abused boys by the time the diocese forwarded information it collected.
Whitney later released information about how Leary, now deceased, was allowed to resign and flee Spokane to escape a police ultimatum that he leave town within 24 hours or face arrest.
Other Jesuits named in claims include the late Michael Toulouse, a Gonzaga High teacher who, when confronted about sexually abusing boys in Spokane, was shipped to Seattle University where he was accused of befriending Catholic families and molesting their children. Toulouse is now dead.