Defrocked Pedophile Priest Thomas Laughlin -- Who Admitted to Molesting Dozens of Boys in Oregon -- Has Died
By Aimee Green
March 28, 2013
Thomas Laughlin -- one of Oregon's most notorious pedophile priests who admitted to molesting dozens of boys over decades in parishes throughout the state -- has died after spending his last years living a quiet existence near family in Omaha, Neb.
Laughlin was known as an exceptionally charismatic priest and tremendous church fundraiser who hobnobbed with Portland's Catholic business and political elite -- someone many in the church thought could be bishop one day. But he also was the first priest molester to be criminally convicted in the Archdiocese of Portland.
At his 1983 sentencing hearing for sexually abusing two boys, the then-57-year-old priest pondered aloud a concern that he'd be remembered only as a child molester.
"I felt everything good I had done for 35 years would be forgotten, and I would be remembered only for the harm I had done to those I was sent to serve," he said.
Laughlin died on March 1, according to a letter sent to Portland-area clergy. He was 87.
The news is just now filtering out to some of his victims.
"He's in a place where he can't hurt anyone else, and that's a good thing," said a 46-year-old man who was molested from ages 11 to 13 as an altar boy under Laughlin's watch at All Saints Parish in Northeast Portland.
"He's getting what he deserves," the man said Wednesday.
Laughlin cost the church dearly in money and reputation.
He was among priest abusers who spurred an avalanche of lawsuits, causing the Portland archdiocese to seek bankruptcy protection in 2004. According to a 2007 report in the Catholic Sentinel, the archdiocese paid $20.7 million to 34 victims because of abuse by Laughlin. Only Maurice Grammond -- another pedophile priest -- cost the archdiocese more.
Parents and parishioners also learned the archdiocese had fielded many complaints about Laughlin's abuse, but kept transferring him without telling people why.
Laughlin grew up in Nebraska and arrived in Oregon in 1948, fresh out of the seminary. He taught at Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland for 17 years, but abruptly left in 1965 after a boy reported that Laughlin had molested his brother. The archdiocese sent Laughlin to a church in St. Helens, then to St. Mary's in Corvallis a year later.
Six years later, after hearing complaints of sexual abuse from Corvallis parents, the archdiocese sent Laughlin back to All Saints in Portland's Laurelhurst neighborhood -- where he went on to abuse more children during his tenure from 1972 to 1983.
It was only when a 17-year-old former altar boy walked into the Portland Police Bureau and told investigators that Laughlin molested him from ages 12 to 14 that Laughlin's crimes became public.
He pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to no jail time if he stayed away from children and attended a counseling center for pedophile priests in New Mexico. But on the way there, he met one of his older teen victims at the Grand Canyon and had sexual relations with him again.
A Multnomah County judge then sentenced Laughlin to a year in jail. He was removed from the priesthood in 1988.
Laughlin moved to New Mexico where he was accused of taking in a teenage boy from a broken home, then abusing him for five years in the late 1980s and 1990s, said Mickey Morey, a retired Wilsonville attorney who represented more than 20 of Laughlin's victims, including the New Mexico boy.
Some of Laughlin's victims said the former priest never directly apologized to them.
An Oregonian reporter found Laughlin in New Mexico in 2002 unwilling to talk about the molestation. But neighbors in his apartment complex said he still put on his black suit and Roman collar for special occasions and dinners. Unaware of his past, they referred to him as "Father Tom."
Morey remembers questioning Laughlin in 2005 during a deposition as three abuse victims sat in the room.
"It was just pathetic," Morey said this week. "There wasn't an ounce of repentance in that man, in my opinion. He was playing the doddering old man who couldn't remember and didn't want to admit to what he did."
A Portland woman, whose brother was abused by Laughlin, said the priest spurred a lot of anger that is sometimes misdirected at today's church.
"It's not the Catholic Church that we hate, it's the system they had in place at the time that was wrong," she said. "There are a lot of wonderful, wonderful people in the church that were hurt because of what (Laughlin) did."
The Oregonian isn't naming her to protect her brother's identity.
Laughlin spent the final years of his life in Omaha.
The Rev. Larry Gillick, a Jesuit priest at Creighton University, knew Laughlin for years and offered Laughlin spiritual counsel in his final days.
Gillick said he couldn't speak about those conversations, other than to say Laughlin lived a very private and quiet life over the last decade "in deep regret."
"He did not live a happy life," Gillick said. "But he was, in the very end, peaceful with God."
A small funeral Mass was held several days after Laughlin's death, attended mostly by relatives, according to a letter sent out to priests in the Portland archdiocese.
"In a sense, I suppose one could say that this at least partially closes a sad chapter in the history of our Archdiocese," wrote Monsignor Dennis O'Donovan. "Yet the hurt and pain of those who had been molested -- well, that perhaps continues. Let us certainly continue to pray for them, and may we pray that God's mercy touch(es) Tom also."