The political season, with all of its divisiveness, returns to center stage next week in Washington, D.C. That's when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will elect a new president. First in line to attain this powerful position is Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, currently vice president of the USCCB. The bishops have a tradition in which the vice president usually succeeds the president, but Skylstad knows his election "is by no means certain."
It's a big election for the Catholic Church, as it will help determine how the church in the U.S. will deal with the ongoing sex abuse crisis. It may even determine whether the church will become more or less conservative. In the recent political elections, some American bishops stirred controversy by turning their backs on John Kerry, a Catholic, in favor of George W. Bush over the issue of abortion. Many moderate Catholics were outraged, as the war in Iraq didn't seem to factor into the thinking of those bishops who seemed to support Bush.
Skylstad is considered more reform-minded. He even issued a statement prior to the election that seemed to indicate he believes communion should not be withheld from politicians for their beliefs about abortion. "Though some of the reporting might suggest otherwise, it's my judgment that the great majority of United States bishops would not deny Communion to a Catholic politician at Mass," he wrote.
But if Skylstad fails to ascend to the office of president, it will likely be due to his involvement in the Spokane Diocese's own scandals over the sexual abuse of boys. When the child sex abuse scandal and coverup in Boston rocked the church in 2002, Skylstad emerged as a reasonable voice. He skillfully put himself at the forefront of efforts to change the church's response to the sex abuse crisis. Now he knows the issue even more personally, as his own diocese has been hit with lawsuits. As the scandal has continued, the schism between conservatives and liberals in the church has become more pronounced, as both sides are using the crisis to cry out for more radical change.
"Conservatives claim liberal laxity led to the sex abuse crimes, while liberals believe the oppression of gays and women is the root cause of the crisis," says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Both sides have been influenced by their preconceived ideological notions. Whether Skylstad becomes president next week is all wrapped into that."
Clohessy says SNAP is "very troubled" that Skylstad could get elected president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops next week. "Initially, some of us thought that a bishop's ideology might impact how they responded to the sex abuse crisis. But we discovered that penchant for power and secrecy trump theology and ideology every time," says Clohessy, who is considered a liberal Catholic. "Bishop Skylstad has an abysmal record dealing with abuse in his own diocese. His reaction to the sex abuse scandal in Spokane has been morally bankrupt."
In response to a series of lawsuits against the Diocese of Spokane, Skylstad has been presented with a slew of bad choices -- along with a heap of bad publicity. At the moment, the diocese has said it may declare bankruptcy, as the Diocese of Portland has done, which means the claims of victims and their families currently bringing legal action would have to be sorted out by a federal bankruptcy judge.
SNAP will be out "in full force" next week in the nation's capital, drawing attention to Skylstad's relationship with Patrick G. O'Donnell Jr., one of Spokane's most notorious priests. Forced from ministry in the 1980s, O'Donnell abused -- by his own admission -- at least 30 boys. That admission came out in a recent set of depositions taken as part of the lawsuits, and which were first reported by the Spokesman-Review and Seattle Times. O'Donnell's testimony has provided critics like SNAP with more information -- which, they believe, suggests that Skylstad failed to intervene when he had the chance more than 20 years ago.
Some of the abuse occurred while O'Donnell was an associate pastor at Assumption Parish; Skylstad became head pastor of Assumption in 1974. That summer, O'Donnell was assigned to the parish and lived with Skylstad in a small rectory. According to a recent Seattle Times story, O'Donnell admitted he sexually abused several parish boys near Skylstad's sleeping quarters, where voices could easily be overheard.
From an early age, O'Donnell started to understand he was different. "I was unsure about why I wasn't particularly attracted to women," O'Donnell said in his testimony, which has been reviewed by The Inlander. "I started questioning it, I remember, by the end of my high school year. I was attracted to men, but I was somewhat attracted to teenagers, teenage boys."
According to O'Donnell's testimony, there was never a time, in seminary or the priesthood, when he didn't wrestle with his sexual attractions. But in the deposition's bombshell, he alleges that his pattern of abusing boys didn't begin until after he was abused by another priest, Reinard Beaver. "Beaver fondled my genitals. The touching was unwanted," said O'Donnell (he was in his 20s at the time). "It just felt weird." Eventually Beaver was forced out of the ministry because of accusations of molesting numerous boys. He is also the subject of a lawsuit against the Spokane Diocese.
Even while still at seminary, O'Donnell says he began to abuse boys. He confessed this to his spiritual director, who referred him to a psychiatrist in Seattle. After four individual sessions, he went to group counseling with three psychologists who worked for the seminary. Upon his graduation, a seminary document reported that "O'Donnell has made good progress with therapy. He has gained some self-confidence." He was ordained in 1971 and was assigned by the Spokane Diocese to positions that gave him access to boys. While serving at St. Peter's in Spokane, he was an assistant director of Catholic Youth Ministries and was also named liaison to the local Boy Scouts of America. O'Donnell admitted to molesting several boys during his early assignments.
In 1972, O'Donnell started individual therapy. His psychiatrist recommended that he go to Denver to see a hypnotherapist for a couple of weeks. "I have the feeling the goal was to change my sexual orientation," said O'Donnell, who said he remained "uncured." In June 1973, he was transferred to St. Augustine's, then landed at St. Mary's in Veradale in September, where he allegedly abused two boys. A year later, he became associate pastor at Assumption.
In 1976, O'Donnell was finally removed from Assumption. The church claims he went on sabbatical "for personal reasons and further studies." According to court records, O'Donnell was sent by Bishop Topel for sexual deviancy treatment. "I remember Dr. Herb Dreiblatt using some aversion-type therapy, to think of something negative, if I would think of being around teenagers," O'Donnell testified. "As I recall, it's something like thinking of something very unhealthy, like feces or something."
While undergoing treatment, O'Donnell, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Washington, admits he was still "molesting children." He returned to Spokane in 1979, living at the Our Lady of Lourdes rectory doing post-doctorate studies and family counseling. He also worked as a counselor at Morning Star Boy's Ranch.
In 1980, he was assigned to the Holy Rosary Parish in Rosalia, Wash., where one of his alleged victims later committed suicide. A second suicide -- related to O'Donnell's days at Assumption -- has also been cited in lawsuits. In 1981, O'Donnell began seeing another therapist. In 1984, the State Department of Licensing suspended his psychology license. In the summer of 1985, O'Donnell left Rosalia and moved to St. John Vianney in the Spokane Valley. When parishioners learned of the psychology board's action, he was removed from that parish, too. By November 1985, O'Donnell went into counseling. Some of his clients were priests. Finally in December 1986, after O'Donnell's problems became public in newspaper articles, Bishop Welch removed O'Donnell from active ministry. Today, the Diocese of Spokane is attempting to have O'Donnell formally defrocked, which requires a Vatican order.
A Question of Timing
O'Donnell's testimony indicates that he still isn't free of his sexual attraction towards teenage boys. And the Diocese of Spokane certainly isn't free of Patrick O'Donnell: His tenure as a priest could cost the diocese into the tens of millions of dollars.
And now, as Bishop Skylstad aims for the top job in his calling, he is still haunted by O'Donnell. Skylstad has said that he did act when problems were brought to his attention. In fact, he referred the matter to his superior, Bishop Topel, who soon after removed O'Donnell from Assumption.
But Assumption parishioner Rita Flynn has testified that she told Skylstad about O'Donnell in 1975 -- a year before he was removed. She testified that O'Donnell made the 8th-grade boys at Assumption do a "cleansing of the genitals" ritual. "I told Father Skylstad exactly what my son Packy told me," Flynn's court testimony reads. Packy had told Flynn's 7th grade daughter, "there was no chance she could join the track team because it was boys only, and they had to 'cleanse' themselves after track practice." Flynn recalled Skylstad saying he would talk to O'Donnell. Calling her later that afternoon, she recalled him saying, "Rita, Father Pat said he had nothing but normal relationships with these boys." Incredulous, Flynn said she asked, "And you believe him?"
Even now, Flynn is stunned at the memory of Skylstad giving that kind of credence to O'Donnell's excuses. "Do you think it's normal?" she remembers asking Skylstad. Flynn says that Skylstad responded, "Rita, it's for not me to say." About a month later, Flynn claims, she was back in Skylstad's office telling him about how "Father Pat had the guys strip when they would go on prayer weekends."
O'Donnell's own testimony seems to back up Flynn's, as he recalled that Skylstad only went to Bishop Topel after Flynn's husband, Jim, got involved. Legal documents provided by the diocese show that Skylstad sought guidance from Topel about two complaints against O'Donnell and then followed the bishop's instructions. In the lawsuits against the diocese, exactly when Skylstad went to Topel has become a major issue.
When asked for details by the Seattle Times, Skylstad responded that "I wish I could recall more clearly conversations and events that happened three decades ago. I am deeply sorry that I cannot."
The leadership at SNAP is not impressed: "I think it is pure, pathetic spin," says Clohessy. "Some public relations advisor said, 'Plead ignorance -- maybe that will work.' "
Whether the American bishops agree, however, will be settled in next week's election.