A Catholic religious order that trained former priest Patrick O’Donnell can be sued by dozens of sexual abuse victims who contend the group knew O’Donnell was a pedophile and should not have recommended him for the priesthood, an appeals court has decided.
The Associated Sulpicians of the United States had asked that two lawsuits be dismissed on the grounds it cannot be held responsible for O’Donnell’s predations against children.
That motion to dismiss was initially rejected by a state court, and the state Division 1 Court of Appeals in Seattle declined a request from the religious order that it review the lower court decision.
“The trial court here was navigating legal territory largely uncharted in Washington,” the appeals decision said Friday. “Its decision is a logical extension of existing law and does not constitute obvious or probable error.”
The court action was brought by alleged victims of O’Donnell against the now-defunct St. Thomas Seminary in the Seattle suburb of Kenmore, Wash.
The seminary was operated by the Sulpicians, an order devoted to training priests.
Tim Kosnoff, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said this is the first time in the state that a seminary is being held accountable for promoting a child molester for ordination as a priest.
In all, there are 33 lawsuits filed by O’Donnell victims against the Sulpicians, who are based in Baltimore, Kosnoff said. The order was given a chance to participate in the recent clergy sex abuse bankruptcy settlement agreement with the Spokane Catholic Diocese, but refused.
In court depositions related to several pending lawsuits prior to the Spokane Diocese bankruptcy filing, O’Donnell admitted to molesting dozens of young boys.
“The Sulpicians … are now facing enormous liabilities because they challenged the legal basis of their liability and have lost,” Kosnoff said.
Leaders of the Sulpicians did not return a telephone message seeking comment.
At the seminary, each student was assigned a “spiritual director,” a priest who oversaw the student’s development and acted as a confessor, court documents said.
O’Donnell has testified in depositions that he was open with his spiritual director about his interest in sexual contact with children and his struggle with his sexual orientation, the opinion said.
He also participated in group therapy, of which the seminary was aware.
Lawyers for the seminary contended the spiritual director, identified in documents only as Father Basso, could not have shared with others what O’Donnell told him in confession. Thus there is no proof that seminary directors knew O’Donnell was a pedophile, they argued.
The faculty of the seminary voted to recommend O’Donnell for the priesthood. O’Donnell served as a priest from 1971 until 1985. At least 65 boys have accused him of sexually abusing them, court records showed.
O’Donnell, 64, led a parish in Spokane and worked as a Boy Scouts chaplain, a youth director for the diocese and director of a diocesan youth basketball league.
He has been accused of abusing boys between 1970 and 1985 in various locations including the Seattle area, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, where he often took boys on retreats.
The statute of limitations barred criminal charges against O’Donnell.
He was removed from active ministry in 1985, and became a child and family psychologist in Bellevue.
O’Donnell voluntarily forfeited his license to practice psychology in January 2004, after the state Health Department received complaints that he had sexually assaulted two boys in 1976.
The two lawsuits in question in the appeals court decision were filed in 2005, contending O’Donnell told seminary officials he had molested boys there between 1968 and 1971.
The seminary sent O’Donnell to sexual deviancy counseling but did not prevent his becoming a priest, the lawsuits allege.
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