From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Bishop Skylstad initiates parish forums to address sexual abuse, to begin healing and reconciliation

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the Oct. 3, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Bishop Skylstad spoke to members of the media after the open forum at Assumption Parish, Spokane, Sept. 26. (IR photo)

In a sometimes tense, often emotional, but always candid meeting at Assumption Parish in Spokane Sept. 26, Bishop William Skylstad spoke to members of a Catholic community which experienced first-hand the tragedy, pain, and long-lasting repercussions of sexual misconduct by a priest.

Father Mike Savelesky, pastor of Assumption, introduced Bishop Skylstad and Father Steve Dublinski, vicar general of the Spokane Diocese.

“Usually the bishop comes here to celebrate Eucharist,” Father Savelesky said. On Sept. 26, however, he came “out of pastoral concern for the people of God, for parishes in the diocese, particularly here at Assumption. This forum gives the bishop the chance to speak to us as a shepherd, as a pastor.”

Over 100 people gathered, most parishioners, to hear Bishop Skylstad address the history of Father Pat O’Donnell, who served as an associate pastor at Assumption in the mid-1970s. They came to listen, and to speak themselves – to ask questions, to share stories; in some cases, share outrage; in others, to cry.

O’Donnell has been accused of being a serial child molester while functioning as a priest of the Spokane Diocese.

In addition to the Assumption visit, Bishop Skylstad also has traveled to similar forums held at Sept. 25 at Holy Rosary Parish, Rosalia, and in August at Assumption Parish, Walla Walla. A fourth is scheduled for Oct. 8 at St. John Vianney Parish, Spokane.

“The purpose of my coming is quite obvious,” said the bishop. “Pat O’Donnell was assigned here. There were victims in this parish. Part of my pastoral ministry is to go to those parishes where significant abuse has occurred, to listen, to begin the process of healing and reconciliation.”

The bishop expressed his own sorrow, over and over again, regarding the tragedy of sexual abuse.

“I want to express to the parish and the parishioners, and especially to victims and their families, my profound apology and request for forgiveness, on my behalf and on behalf of the church. On behalf of our diocesan family, I am very, very sorry,” he said.

The bishop discussed his own history with the parish – he was pastor himself at Assumption when O’Donnell was first assigned there, and in fact reported to the late Bishop Bernard Topel that parents had spoken to him about “inappropriate behavior in the gym” involving Father O’Donnell.

“Shortly after, I was asked to be chancellor of the diocese,” and left Assumption, he said. His successor as pastor, Msgr. John Donnelly, reported to Bishop Topel “a very clear act of sexual abuse” by Father O’Donnell. At that point Father O’Donnell was relieved of his duties and sent to Seattle for therapy. During that time in therapy Bishop Skylstad was appointed Bishop of Yakima and moved out of the Spokane Diocese.

Sending the priest away for therapy was not uncommon. The professional recommendation two or more decades ago was that with proper treatment, an offender could return to ministry, with close monitoring.

“Now, we know quite differently,” the bishop said. “We didn’t realize (then) the depth of the illness and malady.”

The bishop pointed out that the Spokane Diocese has had a policy on sexual abuse since 1988. Part of that policy calls for immediate counseling assistance to any victim who comes forward.

“Somehow the rumor got started that (victims) had to go to Catholic Charities and the (counseling) report went to the bishop,” he said. “That’s completely false. I’ve always strongly recognized the right of the victim to choose the counselor of their choice.”

The diocese has a policy of “zero tolerance” for years, he said. Anyone accused is immediately removed from ministry. The policy identified specific behaviors which would not be tolerated on the part of those ministering on behalf of the diocese.

“I’m proud of these policies we’ve had,” he said. “We’ve followed them religiously.”

Bishop Skylstad returned to the Spokane Diocese in 1989 as apostolic administrator, and was named bishop in 1990. “Since I came back to the diocese, we have had no current abuse by a priest in these last 13 years. The cases that have surfaced have been quite a bit older,” he said.

Bishop Skylstad explained that while Pat O’Donnell has not functioned as a priest since he left the Spokane Diocese in the mid-1980s, he is still, technically, a priest. He has not asked to be defrocked – removed from the clerical state. That probably will happen in time, said Bishop Skylstad. “I suspect Pat will agree to doing that,” he said.

“I’m very sorry for what has happened,” Bishop Skylstad said, and repeated the words: “I’m very sorry.”

The situation “eats at my heart as it does yours. I promise, to the best of my ability and my ministry, to address this.

“Maybe this moment, painful and as hard as it is, will help us break the cycle” of abuse.

As people rose to speak, some expressed outrage; some asked questions; some made accusations.

The bishop answered questions as he was able. Unfortunately, some information either does not exist or he was not privy to the decisions as they were being made. Both his predecessor bishops in Spokane have since died. On more than one occasion he was forced to answer, “I don’t know that. The bishop (who would have known) is dead.”

But he emphasized, over and over again, that the diocese is “committed to reporting those instances (of abuse) immediately to civil authorities. That’s a commitment of the Church.”

The bishop and Father Dublinski both discussed aspects of the present diocesan policy for dealing with instances of sexual misconduct, repeatedly emphasizing that victims are immediately offered counseling by therapists of their own choosing.

Father Dublinski replied to one question regarding diocesan files. The diocesan attorney, he said, “has turned over everyone we know who has been an abuser,” meeting with prosecutors in both Spokane and Kootenai counties.

Although one person accused diocesan employees of removing important materials from priests’ files, Father Dublinski said that the only individuals with access to that material were himself as Vicar General and Bishop Skylstad. No other diocesan employees or volunteers could meddle with the contents of files on priests.

Others spoke of their own commitment to remain with the church, to work toward a solution, a better, stronger, safer future for everyone, especially children.

“We’re here because we love our church,” said one participant. “We love our priests. We’ve been hurt. For some people this hurt will never go away. But we’re here to keep our church going, despite evil priests.”

Another said, “I’m not going to leave the church. We’re going to find a way through this. We’re going to work our way through.” The assembly applauded.

“The wrong has been done,” Bishop Skylstad concluded. “I apologize. I’m very sorry, profoundly sorry. I believe strongly this is a time of grace and opportunity.... God bless you, and goodnight.”

Inland Register archives

© The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved