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Former priest apologizes to victims in court

Plaintiffs allege diocesan cover-up of abuse

Ian Ith And Janet I. Tu Seattle Times

SEATTLE – A former Spokane priest with a long history of sexually abusing boys took the witness stand Tuesday in King County Superior Court and apologized for his behavior.

“I’m extremely sorry,” said Patrick O’Donnell, leaning over the witness stand to look at a man who claims the former priest sexually abused him as a boy after being transferred to a Seattle parish from Spokane. “I’m terribly apologetic and sorry I did anything to hurt you. I feel awful I violated your trust. I’m terribly sorry. I don’t expect forgiveness.”

Now 66, with gray hair and of slight stature, O’Donnell admitted that in the course of a lifetime he had molested at least 30 boys. It could even be double that amount, he conceded, but he doesn’t remember them all.

“It was so depressing and not helpful for me to stay alive,” he said to explain his lack of memory. “It was one of those things I couldn’t change even if I wanted to.”

Settling lawsuits stemming from O’Donnell’s rampant sexual abuse decades ago was a major contributor to the Spokane Diocese’s decision five years ago to seek bankruptcy protection.

O’Donnell is expected to retake the witness stand today.

He acknowledged Tuesday that as a priest in Seattle, where he’d been sent in 1976 for sexual deviancy treatment, he spent more time with adolescent boys than with adults. He agreed that he sought out boys for sexual gratification.

But he denied certain allegations, such as actual rape.

The Seattle Archdiocese contends that it had no official oversight of O’Donnell during that time because he was officially under the watch of the Spokane Diocese.

The vast majority of lawsuits filed across the country involving abusive priests have resulted in out-of-court settlements. The one that began Tuesday in Seattle is among just a few nationwide to go to trial.

“Each of us only gets one childhood,” attorney Timothy Kosnoff told the jury Tuesday in his opening statement, describing the abuse as horrific.

One of the two plaintiffs, now middle-aged, wept and wiped away tears as Kosnoff recounted graphic details of the rapes the men say they endured from O’Donnell, whom they met while they attended St. Paul’s Church in Seattle with their families.

As a result, Kosnoff said, both his clients need years of professional help to overcome psychological problems, which include lifelong isolation, anger and inability to live happy family lives. Both men blame their alcohol abuse, relationship troubles and sexual dysfunctions on the psychological scars left by O’Donnell’s abuse.

The trial is not about whether O’Donnell is innocent or guilty – both sides agree that he committed terrible acts of molestation and sexual violence against many boys during his career as a priest. The issue, rather, is whether and when the Seattle Archdiocese knew about O’Donnell’s history, and whether the archdiocese is liable for his actions when he served at St. Paul Church from 1976 to 1978.

The two plaintiffs further allege that Seattle and Spokane church leaders worked together to cover up O’Donnell’s abuses in Spokane.

The attorney for the Seattle Archdiocese, Michael Patterson, told jurors in his opening statement that the evidence will show that the Seattle Archdiocese never knew about O’Donnell’s history of sexual abuse and that it was Spokane’s responsibility to watch over him.

“Mr. O’Donnell should be in jail for what he did,” Patterson said. “We’re not here to deny abuse … we’re here because we believe we were not responsible for what happened” to the two plaintiffs.

But Patterson questioned whether the men’s troubles are the result of the abuse that happened three decades ago. He promised the diocese would produce experts to show that the men have a host of other problems that contribute to their woes – not the least of which is substance abuse.

And he noted that the first time either ever told a doctor about any problems related to O’Donnell’s abuse was in 2005 – after lawsuits against the Catholic Church and O’Donnell started piling up.

After O’Donnell completed sexual-deviancy treatment, he returned to Spokane, where he served in several more parishes and continued to molest boys.

He was removed from ministry in the mid-1980s and later worked as a psychologist in Bellevue, Wash., treating teens and adults, until the state investigated him in 2002. He surrendered his psychology license two years later.

He was never prosecuted because the criminal statute of limitations has expired. He is believed to be living in La Conner, Skagit County.

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