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Originally published May 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 13, 2009 at 12:44 PM

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Trial begins against Seattle Archdiocese as priest faces two abuse victims

Patrick O'Donnell, one of the state's most notoriously abusive priests, is testifying this week in a trial accusing the Seattle Archdiocese of not doing enough to protect two boys from O'Donnell when he served in Seattle in the late 1970s. It's one of only a handful of such lawsuits to go to trial nationwide and the first to go to trial against the Seattle Archdiocese.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Some 30 years after they were molested by one of the state's most notoriously abusive priests, the two men faced their abuser for the first time in decades Tuesday in a King County courtroom.

They listened, mostly stoically, as Patrick O'Donnell, a former priest from the Spokane Roman Catholic Diocese, took the stand, detailing some of his long history of abusing boys.

At one point in his testimony, O'Donnell leaned to the side of the witness stand and looked directly at the two men. "I'm extremely sorry," he said. "I don't expect forgiveness."

While one did not react outwardly to the apology, the other fought back tears.

O'Donnell was the first witness in a trial accusing the Seattle Archdiocese of not doing enough to protect children from the priest when he served for two years in Seattle in the late 1970s.

Opening statements in the trial were delivered Tuesday.

It's one of only a handful of such lawsuits to go to trial nationwide in recent years and the first to go to trial against the Seattle Archdiocese. The vast majority of cases have resulted in out-of-court settlements.

At issue in the trial is not whether O'Donnell is guilty — he's admitted to abusing the plaintiffs.

Rather, it's about whether and when the Seattle Archdiocese knew about O'Donnell's history, and whether the archdiocese was liable for the priest's actions when he served at Seattle's St. Paul Church from 1976 to 1978.

The Seattle Archdiocese says it knew nothing of O'Donnell's abusive history and that the Spokane Diocese was in charge of O'Donnell, even during the time he was in Seattle.

The Spokane Diocese had sent O'Donnell here for sexual-deviancy treatment. Some six weeks after he arrived, the Seattle Archdiocese allowed him to serve as associate pastor at St. Paul's, in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. While in Seattle he also earned a doctoral degree at the University of Washington.

The plaintiffs' lawyers say that Spokane church leaders informed the Seattle Archdiocese about O'Donnell's history. They say the Seattle Archdiocese was negligent, allowing a "fly by night" transfer and not doing background checks.

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Seattle church leaders didn't do enough to warn parishioners that O'Donnell was a danger to children, plaintiffs' attorney Timothy Kosnoff said in his opening statement. He further contended that bishops in the two dioceses had arranged to send the priest to Seattle to prevent a scandal in Spokane.

Lawyers for the Seattle Archdiocese vehemently disagreed.

They say the archdiocese was never told about O'Donnell's history, nor that he was being treated for a sexual attraction to boys. The archdiocese said it believed O'Donnell had come to Seattle simply to attend graduate school.

Former Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen will be in court later this week to testify that the bishop in Spokane never told him anything, even though they were lifelong friends.

"He is dismayed that trust was broken," said Seattle Archdiocese attorney Michael Patterson in his opening statement. "He will look you in the eye. He did not know."

Patterson contended that the fault lies with the Spokane Diocese and the Roman Catholic Sulpician order that ran a seminary O'Donnell attended — both of which knew about O'Donnell's troubled history.

The two plaintiffs are now middle-aged, one burly and mustachioed, the other thin and balding.

One wiped away tears as Kosnoff recounted graphic details of the abuse they endured when they were 12 and 13.

"Each of us only gets one childhood," Kosnoff told the jury, and because of the abuse his clients suffered during theirs, both need years of professional help to overcome psychological problems.

The two plaintiffs listened as O'Donnell, now 66, with gray hair and slight stature, took the stand, admitting to abusing at least 30 boys. The total could be double that number, O'Donnell conceded, but he doesn't remember them all.

The approximately 60 claims against him in the Spokane Diocese played a large role in that diocese's decision to file for bankruptcy five years ago.

On the stand, O'Donnell admitted to frequently taking boys on outings on his boat, encouraging boys to shower naked and go skinny-dipping with him, and fondling them. But he denied performing oral sex on more than one boy, though numerous boys have accused him of that.

He also denied ever raping any boy, though several have accused him of that as well, including one of the plaintiffs, who looked upset by O'Donnell's denial.

Patterson, the Seattle Archdiocese attorney, told the plaintiffs: "We feel your pain and Mr. O'Donnell should be in jail for what he did."

But the Seattle Archdiocese is not responsible, he said. Patterson also questioned whether the men's troubles are really the result of the abuse that happened three decades ago.

The plaintiffs will testify later.

After O'Donnell completed sexual-deviancy treatment, he returned to Spokane, where he served in several more parishes and continued to molest boys.

He was removed from ministry in the mid-1980s, but has not yet been defrocked. He later worked as a psychologist in Bellevue, treating teens and adults, until the state investigated him in 2002. He surrendered his psychology license two years later.

He was never prosecuted because the criminal statute of limitations has expired. He is living in La Conner, Skagit County.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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