A Priest's Confession
Three Decades after Father Thomas Laughlin Abused Dozens of Portland Boys,
the Once-Powerful Priest Returned This Week to Face His Victims
By Ashbel S. Green
The Oregonian [Portland OR]
March 13, 2005
James Clarizio remembered the Rev. Thomas Laughlin as a giant, a man with
a voice that filled a church, a man who once declared, "I am God,"
a man to obey when he ordered young Jimmy to take off his clothes and
climb into the priest's bed.
When Clarizio, 39, walked into a law firm's conference room Tuesday morning,
he clutched his childhood fear of that man, even though he had not seen
him in a quarter century.
But sitting at a green table was someone who appeared quite different.
"He was a frail old man in an ill-fitting suit with too wide of a
tie whose voice did not even sound the same," Clarizio said.
Clarizio and more than a dozen other former altar boys have accused Laughlin
of abusing them. They reached financial settlements with the Portland
Archdiocese, but last fall several of them sued Laughlin.
The men didn't expect to get money from the former priest. Instead, the
lawsuit gave them a certain amount of control over a man who had held
so much power over them. They wanted to force Laughlin to return to Oregon
for the first time since he left in disgrace 21 years ago. They wanted
this moment: sitting across the room from Laughlin as their lawyer made
him confess to the damage he did to dozens of boys.
As Clarizio and two other former altar boys -- Steve Smoley and another
man -- took their seats, their fears still lingered. Laughlin had admitted
abusing children in the past but not the three men sitting across from
What if he tried to hurt them again by denying it or claiming he didn't
What if he called them liars?
What if finally facing up to the man who ravaged them as children didn't
make them feel any better as adults?
After years, the arrest
Thomas Laughlin's arrest in June 1983 dealt a serious blow to the Portland
Laughlin admitted to police that he had molested a half-dozen boys in
Portland. As the scandal broke, many parents in All Saints were incensed
to hear that families had complained about Laughlin over the years, yet
church officials left him in a position to molest their children.
At the time, pedophile priests were almost unheard of, so Laughlin's conviction
was particularly embarrassing in Portland. And Laughlin was no ordinary
By his own account, he was close to the city's Catholic business and political
elite. He was a prodigious fund-raiser whom many within the church thought
would be elevated to bishop one day.
For the archdiocese, Laughlin's arrest brought unwelcome attention from
law enforcement. During the police investigation, a nun, a priest and
several parents said they reported concerns about Laughlin to then-Archbishop
Cornelius Power years earlier. But no one within the church informed child
welfare officials, even though state law required clergy to report child
After Laughlin's arrest, Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk
met with Power and church lawyers, who said that the courts had not decided
whether clergy could be required to report to civil authorities.
"I said: 'Do you want the lead case to be State v. Power?' "
Schrunk recalled. "That started the dialogue."
As painful as Laughlin's fall was, it resulted in some good. After meeting
with Schrunk, the archdiocese says it began reporting accusations to civil
authorities and confronting accused priests.
Plaintiffs' attorneys are unconvinced that church officials reformed their
practices. But of more than 200 abuse claims leveled against the Catholic
church in Oregon in recent years, only a handful involved alleged conduct
by priests after Laughlin's arrest.
In contrast, priest abuse scandals erupted around the country for nearly
two decades before the crisis toppled a cardinal and forced bishops to
adopt a national zero-tolerance policy.
"I think it's fair to say that (Laughlin's arrest) was a watershed
event for the archdiocese," church spokesman Bud Bunce said this
But Laughlin's arrest did not force a serious evaluation of past abuse.
For many years, Laughlin appeared to be an aberration rather than a harbinger
of a larger problem.
Beginning in 2000, the scope of that problem started becoming apparent.
And it cost the church and its insurers more than $50 million by last
summer when the Portland Archdiocese took the historic step of seeking
That move -- far more painful than the arrest of Laughlin two decades
earlier -- halted the litigation against the church but not the lawsuit
filed by Clarizio and the other former altar boys.
The power of acknowledgement
Clarizio sat by the window in the conference room, listening to Laughlin
admit that he molested several altar boys in Corvallis, even before he
was moved to All Saints in Portland.
But Laughlin said he didn't remember who they were.
Clarizio said he looked over at Steve Smoley, a former altar boy at St.
Mary's parish in Corvallis. Smoley, sitting about six feet away next to
his wife, looked furious, Clarizio said.
Smoley said he couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"He doesn't remember?" Smoley thought. "He doesn't remember
after seven years of abuse? He doesn't remember Steve Smoley?"
Their attorney, Michael Morey, said he rolled his chair back and asked
Smoley whether he should prompt Laughlin.
"And I said, 'Damn straight,' " Smoley said.
Morey rolled back to the table and locked eyes with Laughlin and hooked
his thumb toward Smoley.
"See the bald-headed guy behind me? His name is Steve Smoley. Do
you remember him?"
Smoley said Laughlin glanced at him and said yes. Not only that, Laughlin
recited the precise time frame that he had molested Smoley.
"And that was it," Smoley said. "It was a fleeting moment,
but it was an admission that he remembered. He didn't forget me."
Morey said he continued questioning Laughlin about All Saints, where the
priest was transferred in 1972 after parents accused him of sexual abuse.
Morey said Laughlin conceded that he molested more than one altar boy
at a time on a regular basis. Morey said he wanted Laughlin to admit how
many boys he had molested.
How about four dozen boys, Morey asked.
Laughlin responded, I'm not sure if it's that many.
How about three dozen?
Morey said the former priest said, I just don't remember.
At one point, Morey said he asked Laughlin whether the three archbishops
he served under knew about the abuse. Laughlin said they knew but thought
it was a spiritual problem that could be fixed. The attorney said Laughlin
placed part of the blame on the archbishops, saying they should have kept
him away from children.
Morey said he chose not to ask the former priest about Clarizio because
he didn't want Laughlin to say that he did not remember him.
Clarizio said it would have been too painful.
"I didn't want him to reject me," he said, "and I didn't
want him to lie and say, 'You're lying, Jimmy. How can you be trying to
hurt me? What are you doing to me? Why are you trying to do this to me?'
"I was afraid he would say all of those things, and I'm glad that
Accusations at Central Catholic
Laughlin came to Oregon in 1948 fresh out of the seminary.
In addition to parish assignments, he taught at Central Catholic High
School in Portland for 17 years. Laughlin had hoped to become principal
of the school, but in 1965, a boy reported that the priest had molested
The archdiocese sent Laughlin to a church in St. Helens, then to St. Mary's
in Corvallis a year later. Six years later, the archdiocese heard more
complaints of sexual abuse when it moved Laughlin back to Portland.
At All Saints in the Laurelhurst neighborhood, Laughlin amassed power,
becoming the president of the priest's Senate, a leading fund-raiser for
the archdiocese and a close acquaintance of powerful businessmen.
One former altar boy who sued Laughlin in the 1980s said the priest frequently
took him out to dinner using the credit card of a prominent Portland resident.
But his abuse of boys did not go unnoticed. Several parents said they
complained, as did various church officials. After Laughlin's arrest,
the Rev. Gregory A. Gage reminded Archbishop Power in a scathing letter
that he'd warned church officials about Laughlin. "I guess you might
call this an 'I told you so' letter," Gage wrote.
Despite the complaints, Laughlin's career was on track until a former
alter boy walked into the Portland Police Bureau and accused the priest
of molesting him.
When confronted by detectives, Laughlin admitted molesting the boy and
a half-dozen others. As part of his June 1983 plea bargain, Laughlin could
avoid jail time if he reported to a priest rehabilitation center in New
But Laughlin made an ill-fated detour, taking a former altar boy with
him to the Grand Canyon, where another former parishioner recognized the
priest and called home.
That cost Laughlin six months in jail. Meeting up with the same altar
boy in San Diego a few years later cost him the priesthood.
Waiting for him to leave
At every break during the deposition, which was closed to the public,
the former altar boys left the room before Laughlin. But when the deposition
ended at 2:30 p.m., "we decided that we would sit until he left the
room," Clarizio said.
There was an awkward stillness while Laughlin and his lawyer, Karen O'Kasey,
"Then she kind of taps him on the shoulder -- taps him on the arm
-- and says, OK, and they get up and shuffle out of the room," Clarizio
Laughlin flew back to his home in Omaha, Neb., that day.
Smoley and his wife returned home to Florence, where they have a landscaping
business. Clarizio said he is starting a woodworking business in Mexico.
"Now another chapter has ended," Smoley said. "We've seen
him. We've empowered ourselves by this experience, and now we're moving
Their image of Laughlin is far different from that of their childhood
-- the big, powerful, influential man who knew everyone in Portland. He's
now far removed from the trappings of power and influence he enjoyed,
"He's old now," Clarizio said. "I don't think he's been
walking around on a golf course enjoying the good life. I got the sense
that this is a man who sits down and eats some TV dinners and watches
TV in a little living room and is alone."