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A priest's confession

Three decades after Father Thomas Laughlin abused dozens of Portland boys, the once-powerful priest returned this week to face his victims


Sunday, March 13, 2005
ASHBEL S. GREEN - Portland, Oregonian

James Clarizio remembered the Rev. Thomas Laughlin as a giant, a man with a voice that filled a church, a man who once declared, "I am God," a man to obey when he ordered young Jimmy to take off his clothes and climb into the priest's bed.

When Clarizio, 39, walked into a law firm's conference room Tuesday morning, he clutched his childhood fear of that man, even though he had not seen him in a quarter century.

But sitting at a green table was someone who appeared quite different.

"He was a frail old man in an ill-fitting suit with too wide of a tie whose voice did not even sound the same," Clarizio said.

Clarizio and more than a dozen other former altar boys have accused Laughlin of abusing them. They reached financial settlements with the Portland Archdiocese, but last fall several of them sued Laughlin.

The men didn't expect to get money from the former priest. Instead, the lawsuit gave them a certain amount of control over a man who had held so much power over them. They wanted to force Laughlin to return to Oregon for the first time since he left in disgrace 21 years ago. They wanted this moment: sitting across the room from Laughlin as their lawyer made him confess to the damage he did to dozens of boys.

As Clarizio and two other former altar boys -- Steve Smoley and another man -- took their seats, their fears still lingered. Laughlin had admitted abusing children in the past but not the three men sitting across from him.

What if he tried to hurt them again by denying it or claiming he didn't remember?

What if he called them liars?

What if finally facing up to the man who ravaged them as children didn't make them feel any better as adults? After years, the arrest

Thomas Laughlin's arrest in June 1983 dealt a serious blow to the Portland Archdiocese.

Laughlin admitted to police that he had molested a half-dozen boys in Portland. As the scandal broke, many parents in All Saints were incensed to hear that families had complained about Laughlin over the years, yet church officials left him in a position to molest their children.

At the time, pedophile priests were almost unheard of, so Laughlin's conviction was particularly embarrassing in Portland. And Laughlin was no ordinary priest.

By his own account, he was close to the city's Catholic business and political elite. He was a prodigious fund-raiser whom many within the church thought would be elevated to bishop one day.

For the archdiocese, Laughlin's arrest brought unwelcome attention from law enforcement. During the police investigation, a nun, a priest and several parents said they reported concerns about Laughlin to then-Archbishop Cornelius Power years earlier. But no one within the church informed child welfare officials, even though state law required clergy to report child abuse claims.

After Laughlin's arrest, Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk met with Power and church lawyers, who said that the courts had not decided whether clergy could be required to report to civil authorities.

"I said: 'Do you want the lead case to be State v. Power?' " Schrunk recalled. "That started the dialogue."

As painful as Laughlin's fall was, it resulted in some good. After meeting with Schrunk, the archdiocese says it began reporting accusations to civil authorities and confronting accused priests.

Plaintiffs' attorneys are unconvinced that church officials reformed their practices. But of more than 200 abuse claims leveled against the Catholic church in Oregon in recent years, only a handful involved alleged conduct by priests after Laughlin's arrest.

In contrast, priest abuse scandals erupted around the country for nearly two decades before the crisis toppled a cardinal and forced bishops to adopt a national zero-tolerance policy.

"I think it's fair to say that (Laughlin's arrest) was a watershed event for the archdiocese," church spokesman Bud Bunce said this week.

But Laughlin's arrest did not force a serious evaluation of past abuse. For many years, Laughlin appeared to be an aberration rather than a harbinger of a larger problem.

Beginning in 2000, the scope of that problem started becoming apparent. And it cost the church and its insurers more than $50 million by last summer when the Portland Archdiocese took the historic step of seeking bankruptcy protection.

That move -- far more painful than the arrest of Laughlin two decades earlier -- halted the litigation against the church but not the lawsuit filed by Clarizio and the other former altar boys. The power of acknowledgement

Clarizio sat by the window in the conference room, listening to Laughlin admit that he molested several altar boys in Corvallis, even before he was moved to All Saints in Portland.

But Laughlin said he didn't remember who they were.

Clarizio said he looked over at Steve Smoley, a former altar boy at St. Mary's parish in Corvallis. Smoley, sitting about six feet away next to his wife, looked furious, Clarizio said.

Smoley said he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"He doesn't remember?" Smoley thought. "He doesn't remember after seven years of abuse? He doesn't remember Steve Smoley?"

Their attorney, Michael Morey, said he rolled his chair back and asked Smoley whether he should prompt Laughlin.

"And I said, 'Damn straight,' " Smoley said.

Morey rolled back to the table and locked eyes with Laughlin and hooked his thumb toward Smoley.

"See the bald-headed guy behind me? His name is Steve Smoley. Do you remember him?"

Smoley said Laughlin glanced at him and said yes. Not only that, Laughlin recited the precise time frame that he had molested Smoley.

"And that was it," Smoley said. "It was a fleeting moment, but it was an admission that he remembered. He didn't forget me."

Morey said he continued questioning Laughlin about All Saints, where the priest was transferred in 1972 after parents accused him of sexual abuse.

Morey said Laughlin conceded that he molested more than one altar boy at a time on a regular basis. Morey said he wanted Laughlin to admit how many boys he had molested.

How about four dozen boys, Morey asked.

Laughlin responded, I'm not sure if it's that many.

How about three dozen?

Morey said the former priest said, I just don't remember.

At one point, Morey said he asked Laughlin whether the three archbishops he served under knew about the abuse. Laughlin said they knew but thought it was a spiritual problem that could be fixed. The attorney said Laughlin placed part of the blame on the archbishops, saying they should have kept him away from children.

Morey said he chose not to ask the former priest about Clarizio because he didn't want Laughlin to say that he did not remember him.

Clarizio said it would have been too painful.

"I didn't want him to reject me," he said, "and I didn't want him to lie and say, 'You're lying, Jimmy. How can you be trying to hurt me? What are you doing to me? Why are you trying to do this to me?'

"I was afraid he would say all of those things, and I'm glad that he didn't." Accusations at Central Catholic

Laughlin came to Oregon in 1948 fresh out of the seminary.

In addition to parish assignments, he taught at Central Catholic High School in Portland for 17 years. Laughlin had hoped to become principal of the school, but in 1965, a boy reported that the priest had molested his brother.

The archdiocese sent Laughlin to a church in St. Helens, then to St. Mary's in Corvallis a year later. Six years later, the archdiocese heard more complaints of sexual abuse when it moved Laughlin back to Portland.

At All Saints in the Laurelhurst neighborhood, Laughlin amassed power, becoming the president of the priest's Senate, a leading fund-raiser for the archdiocese and a close acquaintance of powerful businessmen.

One former altar boy who sued Laughlin in the 1980s said the priest frequently took him out to dinner using the credit card of a prominent Portland resident.

But his abuse of boys did not go unnoticed. Several parents said they complained, as did various church officials. After Laughlin's arrest, the Rev. Gregory A. Gage reminded Archbishop Power in a scathing letter that he'd warned church officials about Laughlin. "I guess you might call this an 'I told you so' letter," Gage wrote.

Despite the complaints, Laughlin's career was on track until a former alter boy walked into the Portland Police Bureau and accused the priest of molesting him.

When confronted by detectives, Laughlin admitted molesting the boy and a half-dozen others. As part of his June 1983 plea bargain, Laughlin could avoid jail time if he reported to a priest rehabilitation center in New Mexico.

But Laughlin made an ill-fated detour, taking a former altar boy with him to the Grand Canyon, where another former parishioner recognized the priest and called home.

That cost Laughlin six months in jail. Meeting up with the same altar boy in San Diego a few years later cost him the priesthood. Waiting for him to leave

At every break during the deposition, which was closed to the public, the former altar boys left the room before Laughlin. But when the deposition ended at 2:30 p.m., "we decided that we would sit until he left the room," Clarizio said.

There was an awkward stillness while Laughlin and his lawyer, Karen O'Kasey, spoke quietly.

"Then she kind of taps him on the shoulder -- taps him on the arm -- and says, OK, and they get up and shuffle out of the room," Clarizio said.

Laughlin flew back to his home in Omaha, Neb., that day.

Smoley and his wife returned home to Florence, where they have a landscaping business. Clarizio said he is starting a woodworking business in Mexico.

"Now another chapter has ended," Smoley said. "We've seen him. We've empowered ourselves by this experience, and now we're moving on."

Their image of Laughlin is far different from that of their childhood -- the big, powerful, influential man who knew everyone in Portland. He's now far removed from the trappings of power and influence he enjoyed, Clarizio said.

"He's old now," Clarizio said. "I don't think he's been walking around on a golf course enjoying the good life. I got the sense that this is a man who sits down and eats some TV dinners and watches TV in a little living room and is alone."

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Ashbel "Tony" Green: 503-221-8202; tonygreen@news.oregonian.com

©2005 The Oregonian

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