National Catholic Register

News

Lawyers Target Religious Order

BY WAYNE LAUGESEN

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

June 24-30, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/19/07 at 10:00 AM

 

SPOKANE, Wash. — Decades-old sexual abuse allegations have cost the Diocese of Spokane $48 million, being paid out this year in a bankruptcy settlement.

But lawyers are nowhere near done suing.

They want the Sulpicians to pay next, because the Catholic religious order educated Patrick O’Donnell, the ex-priest most commonly accused of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Spokane.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers say seminary officials at the Sulpicians’ now-defunct St. Thomas Seminary near Seattle knew O’Donnell was attracted to boys in their early teens before recommending his ordination to Bishop Bernard Topel, then bishop of Spokane and now deceased.

Seattle-based plaintiffs lawyer Tim Kosnoff said he doubts the Diocese of Spokane would be stuck with a $48 million settlement today if seminary leaders and psychologists they hired had reported O’Donnell’s deviancy before he became a priest.

“They were in a position to stop it — to nip it in the bud,” said Kosnoff, who is not Catholic. “I don’t believe Bishop Topel would have knowingly taken this terrible albatross of a pedophile priest, and hung it around his neck, had he known what the Sulpicians were handing him.”

O’Donnell, who was removed from active priesthood in 1986, has been named as defendant in more than half the 140 sexual abuse allegations brought against the Diocese of Spokane. Statutes of limitations protected him from criminal charges, and today he resides in La Conner, Wash.

Kosnoff doesn’t know how large a judgment his clients will get if his lawsuits stick, but he won’t rule out the possibility of an even larger judgment or settlement than resulted from his suits against the Diocese of Spokane.

“I don’t know a lot about the Sulpicians, but I do know they educate more diocesan priests than any other religious order, they have seminaries on five continents,” Kosnoff said.

The Associated Sulpicians of the United States had asked a state trial judge to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that plaintiffs lack proof that seminary directors knew O’Donnell was a pedophile. The state court rejected the Sulpicians’ motion, and in May the Division 1 Court of Appeals in Seattle declined a request that it review the lower court decision.

“That means our case will go forward,” Kosnoff said.

O’Donnell began studies at St. Thomas Seminary in 1967, and was ordained in June 1971. He has testified in depositions that he was open with his spiritual director about his interest in sexual contact with young teenage boys, and was given psychological and psychiatric treatment that was intended to cure him.

More than 140 people have claimed damages against the Diocese of Spokane.

Lawrence Greenwald, a Baltimore lawyer defending the Sulpicians, said he can’t discuss details of the religious order’s defense, but said former seminary officials dispute having knowledge of O’Donnell’s deviancy.

Greenwald said a successful suit against the Sulpicians may leave other religious orders, those charged with priestly formation, open to similar lawsuits if someone claims seminary officials had knowledge of a seminarian’s sexual deviancy even 30 or 40 years ago. Kosnoff agreed, and would like to see more religious order seminaries held accountable if it’s discovered they knowingly advanced pedophiles toward priesthood.

“I’m not aware of any other cases like this, but I think this case may determine whether others are brought and move forward,” Kosnoff said. “Why would anyone at a seminary recommend a man with pedophiliac tendencies for ordination to the priesthood? Why not give the bishop a warning instead of a recommendation?”

David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, said he’s pleased the courts have chosen to allow Kosnoff’s lawsuit to proceed against the Sulpicians.

“It’s always valuable when victims seek to hold the decision makers accountable, and not just the predators,” Clohessy said. “That’s what will deter recklessness and deceit. The predators are sick, driven and compulsive men who don’t think rationally about consequences. But the men who have risen to the ranks of bishops, chancellors and vicars general are rational men and they do ponder consequences.”

Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs, Colo., attorney who specializes in defending churches against sexual abuse allegations, said trying to place blame for what seminary leaders knew or should have known at a now-defunct seminary in the 1960s is an odd maneuver the courts would consider only in cases involving the Catholic Church.

“Go to every large law firm in this country, and ask every single lawyer if they are litigating cases from the 1960s,” Nussbaum said. “They will all say No, unless it’s a case involving the Catholic Church. This is unprecedented. The courts are doing whatever they can to facilitate civil cases against the Catholic Church. We’re seeing a diminishment of constitutional standards simply because the courts want to see these cases go forward.”

Nussbaum said each state has its own law respecting confidential discussions with clergy, including the seal of the confessional, and priests cannot be forced to disclose information of any kind obtained under the seal. A review of clergy confidentiality laws of all 50 states can be found on Nussbaum’s website, churchstatelaw.com/statestatutes/clergycommunications.asp. Each state protects the confidentiality of any communication between any cleric and any person.

If one confesses murder to any cleric in any state, the cleric cannot be compelled to testify. The laws are so broadly written that this would pertain to any form of communication, no matter how informal, so long as the conversation was in the context of the cleric’s professional capacity.

Maryland law, for example, reads: “A minister of the Gospel, clergyman, or priest of an established church of any denomination may not be compelled to testify on any matter in relation to any confession or communication made to him in confidence by a person seeking his spiritual advice or consolation.”

Texas law reads: “A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a member of the clergy in the member’s professional character as spiritual adviser.” It goes even further, extending this privilege to the representatives of deceased clerics and spiritual advisers.

In some states, the cleric may testify if he has the consent of the person who made the confession, sought advice or merely confided a secret over lunch. In a few states, the cleric may make a unilateral decision to violate the secrecy of the communication.

In many states, a priest, nun, minister, rabbi, recognized practitioner of Scientology, etc., is forbidden from testifying to information gleaned in private communication with a person, and is in fact considered “incompetent to testify,” regardless of any permission that may be granted by the person who confessed.

In Washington state, any member of the clergy is forbidden from testifying about the content of a confession or conversation unless the person who revealed the information grants permission.

The protection goes far beyond the confessional and would cover the confidential and routine conversations between a seminarian and his spiritual adviser. The law reads: “A member of the clergy or a priest shall not, without the consent of a person making the confession, be examined as to any confession made by him or her in his or her professional character, in the course of discipline enjoined by the church to which he or she belongs.”

“If part of the case is that his spiritual director knew about this, and conferring with a spiritual director is part of being in the seminary, then the privacy of those conversations would be protected by the same statute,” Nussbaum said.

Similarly, Nussbaum said, conversations O’Donnell may have had with psychologists or psychiatrists would have remained confidential because of statutes protecting patient/client confidentiality.

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.