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Vestal: Dad essential in making church address abuse

Did Spokane just lose its greatest man?

Terry Corrigan’s son thinks so. And you have to grant that Corrigan – who died Saturday in a heart-rending accident – cleared a massive trail in Spokane. He grew up here, graduated high school and college here, started one business and developed another, helped raise four kids, was active in his church, kept close ties to childhood friends, kept especially close ties to his best childhood friend – his wife of almost 50 years – and then, faced with an explosive personal tragedy, he chose the path of greatest resistance: He took up the fight against the church that had been his religious home for more than 60 years.

Terry Corrigan was “Catholic to the bone,” said Michael Corrigan, his son. But faced with the revelations that his sons had been molested as kids by the family priest, rocked by the suicide of one son, and confronted with the church’s shameful history of shuffling and hiding molesters, Terry and his wife, Ann, kept their faith but left the church.

He worked on the lawsuits that eventually forced the Spokane Diocese into bankruptcy, stepped out as a vocal public critic of the church and became active in helping the victims of child sex abuse.

“It was a huge event in his later life, and it really redefined who he was as a man,” said Michael, who also was abused as a boy and who became the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “They didn’t just stop going and shrink away. They became active. They stood up to it.”

Corrigan died Saturday after he was accidentally struck by a car in his garage. His family members describe him as a man of quiet resolve, a natural leader with a patient style and a dedication to principle, and a generous giver who was always helping friends and neighbors.

Corrigan moved here with his family as a child and never left – Spokane to the bone. He grew up in northwest Spokane near a family whose boys became his fast friends. Those boys had a sister, Ann, who figures prominently in this story.

“I think he loved her since she was 16,” said Cheryl Corrigan, who was married to Terry and Ann’s son Tim.

He went to Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University, studying business and working at the hamburger stand his father had opened and named for him – Terry’s. He and his dad opened the Steer Inn near the Y in the late 1950s, an important chapter in Spokane’s hamburger history.

In 1961, he married Ann, and they had four kids – Michael, Tim, Karen, and Colleen – whom they raised at their North Side home. Terry worked long hours at the Steer Inn, alongside his father.

“We thought that was the greatest thing ever,” Michael said. “It’s almost like your Dad runs an amusement park.”

So the kids were disappointed, naturally, when Terry and his father sold the Steer Inn in 1972. Terry studied for his insurance and securities license, and went into business as broker.

People describe Terry as a patient, even-tempered leader who was always helping others, whether it was his neighbors with their snowy sidewalks or someone from the local network of sex abuse victims. Family members say he would often turn up with a small loan at the right time. Inspired by TV’s Galloping Gourmet, he became a great cook. Every summer he took a backpacking trip with his childhood friends – his brothers-in-law – to go fishing.

And the Corrigans lived their religion. They went to church on Sundays, at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Terry and Ann gave out communion and served on church boards. They sent two cards a year to every priest in the diocese – on their birthdays and their ordination anniversaries.

The kids grew up. Terry worked on, volunteered at the church, went on walks with Ann, welcomed their grandchildren.

The time bomb never ticked.

On Aug. 29, 2002, Tim Corrigan opened The Spokesman-Review. There was a photo of Patrick O’Donnell, an Assumption priest in the 1970s who was being accused of abuse. Tim told his wife he’d been abused by O’Donnell; later that day, he committed suicide.

As awful as that was, it was just the beginning. Michael came forward and said O’Donnell had molested him, too. Then more victims and more – O’Donnell admitted to abusing 30 kids and was accused of abusing more than twice that many. Lawsuits against the diocese mounted, and eventually the diocese paid $48 million to 180 sex-abuse victims and declared bankruptcy.

Worst for the Corrigans, though, was the emerging picture of how the church had handled the problem and how feebly it tried to make amends in recent years. It became clear that church leaders had shuffled abusers from parish to parish and ignored the crimes against children.

At Assumption, where O’Donnell preyed in the 1970s, the senior pastor at the time was William Skylstad, who eventually became the bishop and recently ended his term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Some parishioners and victims have said they warned Skylstad about O’Donnell, to no avail; Skylstad has said he wasn’t aware of the abuse.

For a few years, the Corrigans tried to stay in the church, but they grew more and more troubled by the response of the hierarchy and the laity. Catholic to the bone began to feel like the wrong thing to be.

“We first grieved for our son, Tim, then we came to grieve for the loss of faith in the church we’ve loved our entire lives,” Terry Corrigan said in an interview with the Seattle Times in 2004. “Some day I may be able to forgive O’Donnell. But I don’t know if I can ever forgive those involved in the cover-up.”

The story of Terry Corrigan is another reminder, if we need one, that there are two kinds of morality: the kind that wears the right clothes, and the kind that does the right thing.

“It wasn’t the church where I got my morals,” Michael said. “It was from my parents.”

Ultimately, that is where the measure of greatness lies. Between parents and children. If you could hear Michael and Cheryl talk about Terry Corrigan, you would have no doubt: He was a great father.

“Ever since he died, I’ve been telling people he was the greatest man in Spokane,” Michael said. “I’ve never met his equal.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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