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Originally published May 12, 2009 at 11:11 AM | Page modified May 12, 2009 at 9:37 PM

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"I'm extremely sorry ... I don't expect forgiveness.," former priest tells victims of long-ago sexual abuse

Former Spokane priest Patrick G. O'Donnell apologized to sexual-abuse victims on the first day of a trial against the Seattle Archdiocese that began Tuesday in King County Superior Court. It's one of only a few such lawsuits nationwide to go to trial rather than settle out-of-court.

Seattle Times staff reporters

A former priest with a long history of sexually abusing boys took the witness stand in King County Superior Court this afternoon and in a polite, matter-of-fact tone apologized for molesting dozens of boys.

It was the first time in more than three decades that the two men now suing the Seattle Archdiocese over their abuse by Patrick O'Donnellhad seen the former priest in person.

At one point in his testimony O'Donnell leaned over the witness stand to look at one of the men.

"I'm extremely sorry," he said. "I'm terribly apologetic and sorry I did anything to hurt you. I feel awful I violated your trust. I'm terribly sorry. I don't expect forgiveness."

The man O'Donnell addressed did not react outwardly to the apology. But the other man fought back tears and struggled to maintain his composure when O'Donnell denied some of the specific, graphic allegations of the way he had abused the man when the man was a teen.

Now 66, with gray hair and of slight stature, the former Spokane priest admitted that in the course of a lifetime he had molested at least 30 boys. It could even be double that amount, he conceded, but he doesn't remember them all.

"It was so depressing and not helpful for me to stay alive," he said to explain his lack of memory. "It was one of those things I couldn't change even if I wanted to."

O'Donnell is expected to retake the witness stand Wednesday.

O'Donnell acknowledged that as a priest in Seattle, he spent more time with adolescent boys than with adults. He agreed that he sought out boys for sexual gratification.

But he denied certain allegations, such as actual rape, which upset the plaintiff who has accused O'Donnell of raping him aboard O'Donnell's boat on two occasions.

Most of O'Donnell's testimony, though, was fairly procedural today, as attorneys for the two men who were abused by O'Donnell as children try to establish that when O'Donnell came to Seattle in 1976 from Spokane, he was quickly given full rights and responsibilities as a parish priest at St. Paul's Church in the Rainier Beach neighborhood.

The attorneys appear to be trying to demonstrate that Seattle church officials did nothing to alert anyone at St. Paul or warn families there that O'Donnell might have been dangerous.

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They are also attempting to show that Seattle officials, including then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, now retired, were responsible for granting O'Donnell permission to practice as a priest there. At one point, O'Donnell agreed with attorney Michael Pfau that O'Donnell was "part of the fabric and history of St. Paul's Parish."

Pfau asked O'Donnell if it was fair to say that but for the Seattle Archdiocese allowing him to be a priest at St. Paul's, he never would have met the two men and others he molested.

"Yes," O'Donnell said.

The archdiocese contends that it had no official oversight of O'Donnell at all during that time because he was officially under the watch of the Spokane Diocese.

The trial is unusual in that the vast majority of lawsuits filed across the country involving abusive priests have resulted in out-of-court settlements. The one that began here today is among only a few to go to trial nationwide and the first to go to trial against the Seattle Archdiocese.

Earlier today, one of the two attorneys for the plaintiffs said both clients were horrifically abused by O'Donnell — and they have the Seattle Archdiocese to thank for the resulting lifetimes of pain, psychological trouble and loneliness.

"Each of us only gets one childhood," attorney Timothy Kosnoff told the jury in his opening statement.

They need the truth of what happened to be able to move on. The search for complete truth has called us here to this moment."

One of the two plaintiffs, now middle-aged, wept and wiped away tears as Kosnoff recounted graphic details of the rapes the men endured from O'Donnell, whom they met while they attended St. Paul's Church in Seattle with their staunchly Catholic families.

The abuse happened despite "the yellow signs of danger flashing strong and bright" before the Seattle Archdiocese that O'Donnell was a danger to children, Kosnoff said.

As a result, Kosnoff said, both his clients need years of professional help to overcome psychological problems, which include lifelong isolation, anger and inabilities to live happy family lives.

Both men blame their alcohol abuse, relationship troubles and sexual dysfunctions on the psychological scars left by O'Donnell's abuse.

Kosnoff said they are "two men who each had something priceless stolen from them at critical stages of their childhood development."

O'Donnell has been accused in numerous lawsuits of molesting altar boys, students and Boy Scouts decades ago. Settling the many abuse claims against him played a large part in the Spokane Diocese's bankruptcy filing five years ago.

The trial is not about whether O'Donnell is innocent or guilty — both sides agree that he committed terrible acts of molestation and sexual violence against many boys during his career as a priest.

The issue, rather, is whether and when the Seattle Archdiocese knew about O'Donnell's history, and whether the archdiocese is liable for his actions when he served at St. Paul Church from 1976 to 1978.

The Spokane Diocese had sent O'Donnell to Seattle for sexual-deviancy treatment. Six weeks after he arrived, he was allowed to start serving as associate pastor at St. Paul's. While in Seattle, he also earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Washington.

The two plaintiffs say it was during this period that O'Donnell abused them. They say — and at least one Spokane Diocese official has also said — that Spokane church leaders had told the Seattle Archdiocese all about O'Donnell's history.

The two plaintiffs further allege that Seattle and Spokane church leaders worked together to cover up O'Donnell's abuses in Spokane.

Kosnoff promised to show documents — and perhaps more important, he said, a mysterious lack of documents — to demonstrate a behind-the-scenes complicity in allowing O'Donnell to act as a parish priest despite his known history of abusing boys.

The attorney for the Seattle Archdiocese, Michael Patterson, told jurors in his opening statement that the evidence will show that the Seattle Archdiocese never knew about O'Donnell's history of sexual abuse and that it was Spokane's responsibility to watch over him.

"Mr. O'Donnell should be in jail for what he did," said Patterson. "We're not here to deny abuse ... we're here because we believe we were not responsible for what happened" to the two plaintiffs.

But Patterson questioned whether the men's troubles are really the result of the abuse that happened three decades ago. He promised the diocese would produce experts to show that the men have a host of other problems that contribute to their woes — not the least of which is substance abuse.

And he noted that the first time either ever told a doctor about any problems related to O'Donnell's abuse was in 2005 — after lawsuits against the Catholic Church and O'Donnell started piling up.

He also pointed out that all the people who would have direct knowledge of what the Seattle Archdiocese knew of O'Donnell in 1976 are dead — except Hunthausen, the now retired archbishop.

Now 87 and retired in Montana, Hunthausen will come to Seattle to testify that the bishop in Spokane never told him anything, even though they were lifelong friends.

"He is dismayed that trust was broken," Patterson said. "He will look you in the eye. He did not know." 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, and 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 believed to be living in La Conner, Skagit County.

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

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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