"You have to believe in what is true," says 79-year-old Rita Flynn. "I am learning not to be fooled anymore."
One of the original whistle-blowers in Spokane's sex abuse scandal, and the mother of 11 children, Flynn is holding a letter dated July 29, 1976. Written to her daughter -- the now 53-year-old Genn Rollins -- it sheds light on how events unfolded more than 25 years ago that finally led to the removal of Associate Pastor Patrick O'Donnell from Assumption Parish. Until now, recollections of those involved have been spotty -- even Bishop William Skylstad, who served as head pastor at Assumption from 1974-76, says "he can't remember" the details surrounding O'Donnell's removal because they happened "so long ago."
Flynn's daughter says finding that letter was a "watershed moment" in her family's long struggle with Rita's attempts to get O'Donnell removed and later to get people to believe her story.
"It confirms that what my mom has been saying, based on her memory, is true," says Rollins.
Much of Spokane is vaguely aware of some of the details of the sex abuse scandal that occurred here. The 87 complaints of alleged sexual abuse by priests in our region since 1950, which includes 25 men who have come forward about O'Donnell, have been faithfully reported by the Spokane Diocese. More than $1 million has been spent on lawyers, public relations and a few settlements with victims. Facing pending and continuing litigation, the Diocese has filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming it had no other options. Meanwhile, coverage of the scandal has shifted away from the victims and the abuse toward the financial crisis facing the church. In the pews, parishioners are upset and looking for someone to blame. Sometimes that means priests; often, it's attorneys; and from time to time, even the victims of abuse and whistle-blowers like Flynn have been blamed for the fallout from the scandal.
"Darling Genn," the letter begins. "So much has been happening, little Gavin is really sick with the measles."
In the first two pages of the letter, Flynn shares precise details about the family (seven of their 11 children were still living at home in 1976) before she reveals her real reason for writing: "The most important thing happening is that Father Pat has struck again."
"My ex-husband Jim found out that one of our son's friends had been abused by Father Pat," recalls Flynn "Jim tends to have a rough temper and blew his stack."
Jim Flynn knew that his ex-wife had already met with Skylstad twice in 1975. (The couple separated in 1976.) Rita says she had warned Skylstad about both O'Donnell's "cleansing of the genitals ritual" with boys on the Assumption track team, and about "Father Pat's boys stripping and streaking together on prayer retreat weekends." Now Jim Flynn wanted to take action.
"On Monday morning," the letter continues, "Dad showed up here filled with righteous indignation and loathing for the church's way of avoiding dealing with those rotten priests. With all the kids present he said he knew that Skylstad and the bishop would merely slap Father Pat's wrist, turn him loose, and the poor guys who had been seduced would be the ones sneaking around scarred and soiled instead."
Rita knew there was some truth in what her ex-husband was saying. After all, Jim was a psychologist in private practice; in fact, his office space was in the Chancery, the Diocese's headquarters. Jim Flynn was also a confidant to then-Bishop Bernard Topel. Part of his job was to counsel seminarians and priests.
"After Dad left us," Flynn's letter states, "he returned home and called Monsignor Donnelly at Assumption. Dad said he wanted to talk to Father Pat about his homosexual attacks on young boys and wanted a phone number to reach him. The monsignor refused, saying he didn't want to interrupt Pat's vacation with his family. Dad said if he damn well didn't move fast to dump Pat immediately, he would start gossip going in the city of Spokane that would ruin the entire diocese. Dad called me and told me what he said and added that as soon as he could talk to Pat, he would tell him he would go to every Mass Pat said and give a sermon. He left it up to me to imagine what the sermon would be like. He said, 'I'll scare the sh** out of him so he'll never say another Mass in Spokane.'"
After talking to her husband, Flynn says she called Skylstad, who by then was no longer at Assumption but had become Chancellor of the Diocese. She told him about Jim's threats and that the abrupt removal of Father Pat was essential.
Within days, O'Donnell was gone from Assumption, sent away to Seattle for what would later be revealed to be treatment for what his superiors feared was sexual deviancy. Even as O'Donnell was being removed from the parish, Msgr. John Donnelly called the boy who had been abused, along with Flynn's 15-year-old son, Sean, into the rectory.
"He told us, 'You might've heard your dad called us, threatening to tell everyone, by giving his own homily,'" recalls the 45-year-old Sean Flynn. "Then he said, 'You know, your dad is really an angry man."
Sean Flynn says it felt like Donnelly was putting down his dad and elevating himself -- as if he, the priest, knew better than his own father. "It confirmed everything I knew in my gut," Sean says, "that I would never trust a priest again in my life."
Donnelly lives in a retirement home now. He is 74 and suffers from Parkinson's Disease. He says he remembers Jim Flynn's "diatribe" but can't remember whether that was linked to his decision to remove O'Donnell or to his conversation with the boys.
"I do remember talking to them," Donnelly says. "It's confidential, because of the circumstances. I respect their privacy."
Eventually Jim Flynn went silent. To this day, the family isn't certain what happened to the righteous fury of his anger toward the church. They only remember him saying, "We've got to quit talking about this!"
Terry Flynn, their 49-year-old daughter, still hears the voice of her father from her childhood, during that time of great stress and tension: "Just shut up about it!"
Rita Flynn now believes her ex-husband was threatened by those in the church, who perhaps worried that he knew too much. Jim Flynn declined our request for an interview. He is suffering from poor health, and struggles because of the lack of "clarity of memory" that he would so desperately like to have, to tell his side of the story.
By 1979, as things were calming down, O'Donnell was transferred back to the Spokane Diocese and assigned to serve as pastor at the Holy Rosary Parish in Rosalia, Wash. Flynn remembers getting a call from Skylstad, who was then bishop in Yakima, asking her to give Bishop Lawrence Welch information about O'Donnell. Yet when he was asked about that conversation in deposition testimony, Skylstad said, "I don't remember any specific conversation with Rita."
Flynn is dumbfounded as she stares at both the legal testimony in front of her and her letter written so long ago. She says it brings to mind an alleged victim of Father Pat O'Donnell in Rosalia, who allegedly committed suicide because of his abuse.
"How did Skylstad forget?" she wonders. "Why did he never mention that I had spoken to him?"
"It takes a long time for someone to earn mother's distrust," says Flynn's oldest daughter Maureen, but that's just what happened.
"It was such a difficult thing for me to believe the bishop I knew would actually fail to tell the truth," says Rita Flynn. "From the very beginning of my report to him of the 'genital cleansing,' he had already known all about Pat O'Donnell's pedophilia. It's stunning. There were so many boys hurt, abused and scarred, and he knew. He totally had me fooled."
Still, Flynn is grateful for all that has happened to her, as one of the original whistle-blowers in the Spokane sex abuse scandal.
"I've changed considerably," she says, "I'm finally free of them -- the hierarchy. It seems like such a gift, the freedom that God gives. I go to Mass every morning, not because I feel an obligation or because the bishop says to go. I go because I'm a friend of the Lord. I really like spending a quiet hour with Him."
Publication date: 04/15/05