Spokane Deal Allows Secrets to Remain
By John Stucke - Spokesman Review
May 5, 2007
The public may never know how many Catholic priests sexually abused
children in Eastern Washington. Nor will parishioners know how their
money is being spent, despite being asked to contribute $10 million
to settle sex-abuse claims.
Perhaps most alarming, however, is that priests accused of sexual
abuse remain within the diocese ministry.
Because of sealed court records and an unusual arrangement that
one lawyer touted as an alternative judicial system,
the full disclosure long demanded by victims in the Spokane Catholic
Dioceses long-running bankruptcy case may never happen.
All sides in the case including Bishop William Skylstad,
committees representing sex abuse victims, and parish representatives
agreed to this unique set-up, which allows victims to present
accusations of abuse to an independent claims reviewer who will
decide if an accusation has merit and how much money should be paid.
No information about those payouts, including the names of priests
on whom claims were paid, will be made public in court filings,
attorneys involved in the settlement agreement say.
The effect of the arrangement is more than just an esoteric legal
The diocese has so far named eight priests whom it says have been
credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Yet a review of approximately half of the confidential claims filed
in the case, which were obtained by The Spokesman-Review, show at
least 38 priests and others associated with the church have been
accused. Besides the eight priests named by the diocese, the list
includes at least three priests still active in the ministry. Some
on the list are outside the parish or are Jesuits and thus outside
the jurisdiction of the diocese.
Some of those claims likely are false. Some are true. But under
the terms of the $48 million settlement, none of that information
will be disclosed.
The Spokesman-Review has filed a motion in Bankruptcy Court asking
for formal access to claims and related filings, plus records of
the amounts paid on claims, in the interest of public safety and
public disclosure. The Spokesman-Review has never sought to publish
the names and other identifying information of alleged victims and
has asked that such information be redacted from the claims it seeks.
The alternative judicial system mandating that all
information contained in the claims be kept secret came as a surprise
to some victims who are part of the settlement, which garnered a
unanimous vote of approval.
We still havent achieved our ultimate goal, which is
to get the truth out, said Michael Shea, a victim and member
of a bankruptcy group representing other claimants. Were
talking about all the priests that were accused by victims.
He is worried now that the confidentiality provisions may undermine
the vow of many victims to ensure full disclosure and policy changes
to protect children.
Diocese attorneys Shaun Cross and Greg Arpin, however, said most
of the confidentiality requirements were at the insistence of victims.
Said Cross, so long as the process was acceptable to the
victims going through the process it was acceptable to the diocese.
Joe Shickich, an attorney representing one group of victims in
the bankruptcy case, has said victims were assured of absolute confidentiality
when filing their claims.
Former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer has been named independent claims
reviewer under the process agreed to by the parties. She is charged
with determining whether a claim has merit and how much the victim
should be paid.
But Cross said Pflaumers decisions have no binding
effect legally on the truth of the allegations. The dioceses
own review board retains authority on whether a priest has been
credibly accused, said Cross and Arpin.
Jim Stang, an attorney representing a group of victims, said the
problem may boil down to whether credibly accused is
a term of legal art.
The diocese has used it during the past several years to determine
whether it would disclose the names of priests suspected of sexually
Stang, however, said, Im certainly not going to let
the church put their patina on that. If Kate Pflaumer, the former
U.S. Attorney in Seattle, says something happened with a priest
and there is an exchange of money, it would be hard to argue his
name should not be publicized. Stang was one of the attorneys
who helped craft the settlement and the claims process.
He added that any victim dissatisfied with a diocese decision to
not publicly acknowledge an abusive priests name has the right
to bring a grievance with Judge Williams.
Michael Ross, a victim who has been outspoken in criticizing the
diocese, said he would be sickened if the plan he and all other
victims voted for becomes a tool to keep secrets in exchange for
Unbelievable, he said.
In late March of 2002, Skylstad reported that there were just a
handful of sex abuse issues in his Spokane Diocese. Most were older,
settled cases that the bishop said would remain private.
Within months of that statement to his own financial board, Skylstad
and his diocese were swamped with dozens of allegations involving
many priests, according to earlier newspaper reports.
When the diocese first filed for bankruptcy in December 2004 it
faced legal actions from 59 people claiming abuse. Today the total
number of abuse claims exceeds 180 a number that Skylstad
told a judge recently was more than he ever dreamed of.
Among the claims, for example, is a woman who accused Skylstad
of sexually abusing her in the early 1960s. The bishop denies the
allegation and a private investigator he hired later said the church
leader was innocent. A lawyer who once represented the woman dropped
her as a client.
Yet parishioners may never know if Pflaumer rules the claim credible
and orders payment to the woman.
Bankruptcy claims are nothing more than assertions until they are
vetted by the court, or in this case, the independent reviewer.
Skylstad and at least two other priests who are active in the ministry
are accused of abuse in claims. Priests Daniel Wetzler and Paul
Vevik are fighting the accusations.
Their attorney, Tim Cronin, called the accusations false.
Vevik, now a priest at Mary Queen Parish in Spokane, told Cronin
he doesnt even recognize the name of his accuser and denies
the allegation that he assaulted a person in a restroom of Our Lady
of Lourdes Cathedral in 1978.
The claim against Wetzler, a priest in the diocese ministry in
Idaho, is the second time the same person has accused him.
Wetzler was first accused in 2002. After the allegation, Skylstad
immediately removed the priest from ministry and called police even
as Wetzler denied the accusations. A diocese panel that reviews
accusations urged Skylstad to conduct an independent investigation.
A retired Seattle police detective looked into the claim and Wetzler
was cleared by the bishop three months later.
Other priests named in claims reviewed by The Spokesman-Review
include the eight publicly identified by the diocese, including
Reinard Beaver, Theodore Bradley, Arthur Mertens, Patrick ODonnell,
Benno Oosterman, and the deceased Joseph Knecht, James OMalley
and Joseph Pineau.
There are also claims against the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, the
longtime director of Morning Star Boys Ranch, who has said
he was a strict disciplinarian, but has denied sexually abusing
boys. He reportedly paid for and passed a lie detector test.
The now-deceased Rev. Marvin LaVoy, the founding director of Morning
Star, has been named in claims. So have former Morning Star counselors
James Clarke, and the late William Condon.
Another former Spokane diocese priest, the deceased Joseph Sondergeld,
has been named in claims. Despite money paid to settle at least
one claim against Sondergeld in a different diocese, the Spokane
diocese has not listed his name among those credibly accused.
Others named in claims include August Ludwig, a deceased Marianist
brother and former principal at De Sales High School in Walla Walla.
The diocese has settled with at least five people who said they
were sexually abused by Ludwig. The Rev. Joseph Mepingajira also
was named in a claim that accused him of abusing a person in 1995
at Mater Dei, a Spokane institute that offers religious education.
There are many other priests accused in other claims, but complete
names were not provided by those claimants.
Arpin insisted that the diocese will fight the claims and defend
priests it believes are falsely accused. He called the confidentiality
issues in the case necessary and criticized The Spokesman-Review
for pursuing the records and publishing the names of accused priests.
I dont think your editors are interested in the truth,
Arpin said. I think youre interested in a dirty little
story. And I challenge them to let you print that.
Spokesman-Review managing editor Gary Graham said the newspaper
is doing its duty as a public watchdog.
The relentless commitment to secrecy from the diocese and
all of the lawyers involved continues to confound and distress us,
he said. The settlement plan intentionally blocks the release
of the names of the priests involved or accused of sexually abusing
parishioners. It seems to us that the victims, the parishioners
who have to pay for the multimillion-dollar settlement of claims,
and the public have a legitimate reason to be adequately informed
and warned about who these predators are, especially in the case
of those who still may be serving the church.
Said Graham, We find it appalling that the settlement partners
dont recognize the serious public safety issue involved.
Attorney Cross accused the paper of using bully tactics.
Im disappointed that The Spokesman-Review has chosen
to go forward with this story despite the fact it has filed a motion
in federal court to determine its right in regards to this kind
of information, Cross said. And it appears to be making
itself the judge and jury, in addition to the prosecutor, without
waiting for the outcome of the courts decision because it
probably realizes it would lose in court.
Objections to the newspapers motion for access to sealed
court records will be filed by Wednesday, said lawyers for victims
and the diocese.
Newspaper attorney Duane Swinton said bankruptcy, by its nature,
is a very public process. Further, the diocese bankruptcy is unusual
in that it affects more than just the priests and victims involved,
This is a very sensitive issue that has occurred not just
in Spokane, but throughout the nation and that is the relationship
of clergy to young people. In order to assure not only the members
of the congregations, but of the public generally that (the diocese)
has been responsible and proceeded to resolve its case correctly,
that points to full disclosure.
Swinton added, the diocese chose this process. A very public
process. This wasnt something they were forced into. They
In some instances, the diocese disseminated information from the
claims that may have protected the public.
For example, the diocese provided the names of Jesuits to their
administration, the Oregon Society of Jesus. Only priests who work
for the Spokane Catholic Diocese are included in the bankruptcy
The Rev. John Whitney, provincial of the Jesuits, recalled in an
interview this week that the diocese alerted the Society of Jesus
to a claim naming Jesuit priest John J. Morse. The Society already
was investigating allegations that Morse had sexually abused children
in Omak, Wash. Taken together, the Jesuits immediately removed Morse
from ministry in Moses Lake.
The Jesuits had already known that former Gonzaga University president
John P. Leary had sexually abused boys by the time the diocese forwarded
information it collected through its bankruptcy claims process.
Whitney later released information about how Leary, now deceased,
was allowed to resign his post and flee Spokane to escape a police
ultimatum that he leave town within 24 hours or face arrest.
Other Jesuits named in claims include the late Michael Toulouse,
a Gonzaga High School teacher who, when confronted about sexually
abusing boys in Spokane, was shipped to Seattle University where
he was accused of befriending Catholic families and molesting their
children. Toulouse is now dead.