When sin runs deep: One Puyallup church, two priests, one awful legacy of child abuse
Twice in the past two years, a Catholic parish in Pierce County has found itself on a list of sin, scandal and modest compensation for great pain. It’s a list that no church wants to show up on.
Credible allegations of sexual abuse against two former priests led to financial settlements between abuse survivors and the Archdiocese of Seattle. The two served at All Saints Parish in Puyallup within a decade of each other. Both were accused of violating their sacred trust while assigned to the parish on 3rd Street Southwest.
And both men, now dead, won’t see the smidgen of accountability that’s being extracted a half century later.
The latest settlement involves William O’Brien, who began his priesthood in Seattle in 1925 and finished it in Puyallup 45 years later. His longest assignment was at All Saints from 1949 until he died in 1970. According to O’Brien’s unidentified accuser (or accusers), the abuse took place from 1960 to 1962.
The $250,000 settlement stemmed from a complaint filed last year and represents the second against O’Brien, archdiocese spokesperson Helen McClenahan told us. The first came in 1990 and centered on alleged abuse in the 1950s-60s. McClenahan said she couldn’t provide information about whether a settlement was reached in the first complaint because the archdiocese was unable to access its archived files this past week.
Resolution of the second O’Brien complaint was among four settlements disclosed April 16, totaling more than $1.3 million, to address the misdeeds of three Western Washington priests and a youth minister from the 1960s-80s.
The other priest believed to have committed abuse at All Saints was John Forrester, assistant pastor from 1975 to 1978. A $225,000 settlement was paid out in 2019.
That O’Brien and Forrester were assigned to the same congregation in such a short period means they served the same generation of Catholics, grew close to the same families.
Not knowing what secrets remain buried, and how deep the sin runs, is a heavy cross for one church to bear.
“We want to think it’s in the past, that it’s over, that these terrible cases were back then, and we can just move on from them,” Dispenza told us Tuesday. “But you can’t just move on. They are there, under the surface. It’s kind of like a scab covering up a wound. The wound is still there.”
Overcoming long-suppressed abuse can be a struggle, as the 80-year-old Dispenza knows from experience. When she was 7, she was abused and raped by a priest in Southern California. When she processed it and reported it at age 52, she initiated a high-profile case in which multiple victims ultimately came forward.
Today the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has some of the most open records on pedophile priests, thanks to the court-ordered release in 2013 of top-secret church files dating back decades.
We agree with Dispenza that Catholic leaders in our state should open their confidential clergy-abuse records. Shedding light on difficult stories, while respecting the right of victims to remain private, can redeem the past and help set a better course for the future.
A Seattle-based Catholic reform group, called Heal our Church, has boldly called for a Truth & Reconciliation Commission; it’s based on a model created by Nelson Mandela, the late South African president, to bring healing after the apartheid era.
Detailed clerical abuse records would be shared with lay members of the commission in an act of overdue transparency.
The Seattle archdiocese has taken good steps in recent years to break with a past marked by dirty secrets and vows of silence. In 2016, it released a list of credibly accused priests and religious brothers and sisters, now totaling more than 80 names associated with $90 million in settlements since 2006.
In March, Archbishop Paul Etienne met with Heal Our Church members for the first time and pledged to continue a respectful dialogue.
And we won’t discount the power of prayer. Etienne led a prayer service Wednesday evening at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral to observe Child Abuse Prevention Month.
But opening the secret files could help rebuild trust among parishioners from Puyallup to Port Townsend and beyond, in a way that cash settlements alone cannot.
It’s also consistent with the words of Jesus Christ: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17).