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Originally published Thursday, May 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Archdiocese defends vetting of former priest

On the second day of testimony in a case against the Seattle Archdiocese, church lawyers tried to advance their stance that the archdiocese knew nothing of an abusive priest's troubled history in Spokane when they allowed him to serve temporarily in Seattle in the late 1970s. The other side tried to show that the archdiocese had — at best — only a lax system in place for vetting visiting priests.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The former priest at the center of a trial against the Seattle Archdiocese finished his testimony Wednesday, and before leaving the witness stand began to say again he was sorry for the many sexual abuses he had committed years ago.

"I would like to apologize as much as I can," said former Spokane priest Patrick O'Donnell, before Judge Paris Kallas cut him off and dismissed him.

O'Donnell — who had sat alone during the trial and wandered the courthouse hallways alone during recesses — left the courtroom quickly.

On the second day of testimony, church lawyers tried to advance their stance that the archdiocese knew nothing of the priest's troubled history in Spokane when it allowed him to serve temporarily in Seattle in the late 1970s.

The archdiocese says, and O'Donnell corroborated, that he kept his abuses — — and the fact that the Spokane bishop had sent him to Seattle for sexual-deviancy treatment — secret from many, including those in the archdiocese and at the University of Washington, where he pursued a doctorate.

The other side tried to show that the archdiocese did no background checks on the priest and had — at best — only a lax system in place for vetting visiting priests.

Two men are suing the Seattle Archdiocese, saying it didn't do enough to protect them from O'Donnell, who has admitted to molesting both men when they were children attending St. Paul Church in Rainier Beach. O'Donnell, who served there from 1976 to 1978, apologized to them Tuesday.

A central issue in the trial is whether and when the Seattle Archdiocese knew about O'Donnell's abusive history and whether it should be held liable for what he did to the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs' attorneys called to the stand the Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan, now pastor of St. James Cathedral, who had served in the 1970s and 1980s on a board that vetted the suitability of priests for parish posts.

Plaintiffs' attorney Michael Pfau contended it was odd the only written record in the archdiocese indicating higher-ups had discussed O'Donnell's arrival was a short blurb in the minutes of the personnel board on which Ryan served.

The blurb did not say why O'Donnell was coming to Seattle or how long he would stay — information normally given about visiting priests, Pfau contended. Nor did O'Donnell arrive in Seattle with a letter from his bishop saying he was fit to serve.

Ryan said the Spokane bishop had given verbal approval of O'Donnell's fitness. And he attributed the lack of written records in part to then-Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen's style, which he described as more pastoral and less by-the-book.

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The exchanges between Pfau and Ryan got testy at times, with Pfau, for instance, asking Ryan: "Is a child molester a priest in good standing?"

Ryan replied a priest in good standing could be someone who is permitted to serve in the archdiocese, but has moral failings and is undergoing treatment.

Pfau asked him the same question again.

"Is my explanation inadequate?" Ryan asked.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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