|Accused Priest's Lawyer Argues Mistaken Identity
By Ashbel S. Green
The Oregonian [Oregon]
May 3, 2007
Attorney Dan Gatti's voice cracked as he told the jury a story Wednesday about a Catholic priest who drove a teenage boy from a state reform school to a funeral in 1975.
On the way, the priest pulled the car onto a gravel road, stopped and threatened to put the boy in an isolation cell if he didn't provide oral sex, Gatti said.
"We're going to finish what I asked you to do," Gatti accused the priest of saying.
The lawyer for the priest agreed that a Catholic priest drove the boy to the funeral — a different Catholic priest.
Tom Cooney Sr. said the Rev. Michael Sprauer stands falsely accused of sexually abusing more than 15 boys at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in the 1970s. Cooney told a Multnomah County court jury that a witness will testify that one of the accusers tried to get him to go along with a scam to falsely accuse the priest.
"All you have to do is say the priest is a 'rapo,' " Cooney said the witness will say.
The jury heard opening statements Wednesday in the first Catholic priest sex-abuse case ever to go to trial in Oregon.
Randy Sloan, Norman Klettke and Robert Paul are the first of 15 former MacLaren inmates to bring to trial their accusations against Sprauer, a well-respected Salem-area priest who served 30 years as a state prison chaplain.
The 15 plaintiffs have settled their cases against the Portland Archdiocese, which recently won approval of a $75 million plan to emerge from bankruptcy. The Archdiocese settled with about 175 people who said they were abused by clergy or other church officials.
But the settlement with the Archdiocese didn't prevent the plaintiffs from pursuing their accusations against Sprauer and the state of Oregon, which employed the priest at MacLaren.
Gatti told the jurors that conditions at MacLaren were terrible in the 1970s. He said his clients were being held in isolation when Sprauer came into their cells. But what appeared to be attempts to console the young offenders quickly turned to abuse.
"It was teenagers who were vulnerable," Gatti said. "It happened over and over and over again."
Gatti acknowledged a basic conflict: his clients remember being abused before Sprauer arrived at MacLaren in the fall of 1972 or after he left in the winter of 1975. But Gatti said that experts will testify that memories of childhood sexual abuse are often murky.
In the end, Gatti said, "this is a story about who is telling the truth."
Bill Tharp, who presents the state, said Sprauer is telling the truth.
"The abuse did not happen," Tharp said.
Tharp picked away at the claims of each plaintiff, where they said they were when and other inconsistencies.
"There gets to be a time when it's just not feasible," Tharp said. "It is our position that the plaintiffs are not telling the truth."
Ashbel "Tony" Green: 503-221-8202; firstname.lastname@example.org
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