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Friday, September 27, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Diocese, priest sued in sex cases

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ten people have filed a civil suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane and Patrick G. O'Donnell, a priest who served in Spokane parishes in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

The suit accuses O'Donnell of sexually abusing minors in Spokane and Seattle and in the Whitman County towns of Rosalia, Oakesdale and Garfield. It also accuses the Spokane Diocese of allowing him to work in parish after parish after receiving numerous complaints about the priest.

The suit, filed yesterday in Spokane County Superior Court on behalf of nine alleged victims and the widow of a 10th seeks unspecified damages and accuses the Spokane Diocese of ignoring years of complaints about O'Donnell, who was forced out of active ministry in 1985.

Most recently, O'Donnell, who received his psychology license in 1980, was treating patients 12 and older for the Cascade Behavioral Medicine Clinic in Bellevue.

The telephone number for the Cascade clinic appears to have been disconnected, and former patients say he has closed his practice.

Repeated attempts to reach O'Donnell yesterday were unsuccessful. Spokane Bishop William Skylstad declined to comment on the suit yesterday, saying it was inappropriate for him to talk about an active lawsuit.

Yesterday's suit also accuses the diocese and O'Donnell of being responsible for the suicide last month of a man who is named in the lawsuit only by initials, T.C.

T.C., who left behind a wife and three children, "suffered profound, irreparable and devastating psychological injuries of such severity and causing such intense and prolonged pain that he could no longer endure," according to the lawsuit.

Another couple had filed a complaint in the Spokane Diocese in August, alleging that their oldest son was molested by O'Donnell in the late 1970s. That son later committed suicide.

The suit also contends that Skylstad knew O'Donnell had molested children before O'Donnell was transferred to Spokane's Assumption Parish in 1974. Skylstad, currently vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was head pastor at Assumption then.

While he wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, Skylstad did say yesterday that he wasn't aware of any molestation by O'Donnell before O'Donnell arrived at Assumption. Skylstad also said he reported an incident involving O'Donnell to the bishop a few years later, which resulted in the bishop sending O'Donnell to Seattle for therapy.

O'Donnell was ordained in Spokane in 1971 and quickly became known for working with kids, taking them on boating trips and ski outings and serving as the church's Boy Scout liaison. After an allegation of misconduct arose in 1976 at Spokane's Assumption parish, then-Bishop Lawrence Welsh sent O'Donnell to Seattle for 2-½ years of sexual-deviancy treatment.

While in Seattle, he earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Washington and celebrated Mass at St. Paul's Parish in Rainier Beach.

After completing treatment in Seattle, Welsh transferred O'Donnell back to Spokane, where, according to the suit, he worked as a counselor and psychotherapist to youths at Morningstar Boys Ranch in Spokane.

The suit accuses Welsh of transferring O'Donnell from parish to parish after parents complained to the bishop that the priest was abusing their children.

Many of the complaints accuse O'Donnell of molesting boys he took on outings.

The Washington Board of Psychological Examiners, which licenses and regulates psychologists, is looking into an unspecified number of complaints filed in the Spokane Diocese in the past few months against O'Donnell.

In 1984, the psychology licensing board sanctioned O'Donnell after determining he had molested two 13-year-old boys during an overnight boating trip on Lake Coeur d'Alene in 1980.

Those restrictions — including a prohibition on unsupervised contact with minor males in his practice — were lifted in 1986, and he was allowed to resume his practice unsupervised.

If the current allegations are substantiated, the board has several options, including suspending or revoking O'Donnell's license.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

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