Parishioners Rocked by Sex-Abuse Cases
Three Priests Worked at One Church; Most There Remain Steadfast in Faith
By Virginia de Leon
Spokesman Review [Spokane WA]
October 26, 2002
The emotions range from anger and disappointment to embarrassment and disbelief.
Parishioners of St. John Vianney were reeling this week after learning of the allegations that six Spokane-area Catholic priests had sexually abused minors.
Three of the men worked at the Spokane Valley church: Patrick O'Donnell was there for a few months before he left the ministry in 1985; Theodore Bradley was assistant pastor from 1967 to 1969; and James O'Malley served as pastor from 1969 to 1980.
A few people have left the Catholic Church as a result, but the vast majority have stayed.
"Our church has endured and will endure these bad times," said Irene Zimmer, a longtime parishioner who has raised her 10 children in the Catholic Church. "It's distressing but this hasn't shaken my faith.
"I feel that the church is going to come through, that it will become stronger and better after this."
During a meeting with Bishop William Skylstad earlier this month, parishioners at this church - named for the patron saint of confessors and priests - expressed outrage over the secrets that the church has kept for decades.
One man, who had been a Catholic for 42 years, stopped going to Mass in April because of the scandal. A woman who attended the meeting asked the bishop, "How can we (as parents) pass on our love and trust of the church when we wonder where the integrity and moral fiber is? When we feel our generation has been sacrificed to predators?" Another woman told the bishop that she contemplated leaving the church, but decided to stay and fight.
"We are the church," she told the crowd.
When the bishop finally released the names this week of six Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse of minors, the news fell like a bomb for longtime parishioners at St. John's. So did news of an alleged sex crime involving the late Bishop Lawrence Welsh, reported Friday in The Spokesman-Review.
They were especially shocked to see O'Malley's name on the list and now want more details about the allegations. O'Malley, who was removed from ministry in 1989 after working at St. Paschal's in the Spokane Valley, now lives in Ireland.
"Father O'Malley was and is a wonderful and good pastor," said Winnie Doohan, a St. John Vianney parishioner for 40 years. "We loved him. We've known him for years and never would have suspected anything."
Some parishioners at St. Mary of the Rosary in Chewelah had a different view of O'Malley. A number of residents there report being fondled and kissed by the priest when they were in school or serving as altar boys. Shortly after complaints reached the bishop in Spokane, O'Malley was reassigned.
The allegations against O'Donnell didn't surprise anyone at the parish, she said, but others who attend daily morning Mass with Doohan also expressed disbelief about O'Malley.
Her four children attended St. John Vianney's school and never said anything inappropriate about the man, she said. She and her husband have even traveled to Ireland three times to visit the priest.
"Until I know the circumstances, I would never say a word against the man," said Doohan. "We don't know what happened. I will not accuse him or feel badly about him until I know what happened."
Though the diocese released the names of the six accused priests this week, it did not provide any details of the allegations.
Joan Nolan, who joined the parish in 1966, also wants more information.
"These priests have to be held accountable," she said. "We have to recognize them for who and what they are - predators. In the same way (serial killer) Robert Yates was a predator of prostitutes, these priests are predators of children."
Nolan, a current member of St. Mary's who still maintains her ties to St.
John Vianney, is relieved that Skylstad released the priests' names.
The church hierarchy made mistakes, she said, but it can regain people's trust by "getting this out in the open."
Jim O'Connell, a St. John Vianney parishioner since 1970 whose youngest son was baptized by O'Malley, wishes the church could have been more honest with its members, who now feel deceived.
The Catholic Church's theology remains sound, he said, but as ub politics and the corporate world, the church has to deal with humans who make mistakes.
While O'Connell doesn't doubt the church's ability to overcome this scandal, he fears that the younger generation of Catholics will become cynical and leave the church. He also worries about the reputation of the thousands of other priests who have devoted their life to service and are now suspect because of the misconduct of a few.
"It may take a generation for the church to recover from this," he said.
"Once we get beyond this, we must keep our sights on the fact that a large majority of the priests live exemplary lives and are still trying to do their best."
Like other teens in St. John Vianney's youth group, 17-year-old Jill Burgard was shocked to hear the news, but it didn't lead her to question her faith or consider leaving the church.
"Sure, the priests are there, but my faith is in God," said the senior at University High School who traveled to Toronto this summer to see Pope John Paul II.
The six names released by the bishop hit Gerry Manfred like a blow to the stomach. O'Malley baptized all four of Manfred's children. O'Donnell once took Manfred's kids out for a boat ride. He had a great deal of respect for Bradley and served as an altar boy at St. Rose of Lima in Cheney for Arthur Mertens, another of the six on Skylstad's list. The late Bishop Welsh confirmed his children.
"I continue to ask God, 'Why, why why?"' said Manfred, who prays and reads the Bible every day. "But who am I to say? Who am I to judge?" He's not excusing the priests, he said, but being a Catholic for him isn't about the bishop.
"It's very personal," he said. "I answer to God, not the church hierarchy. It's about me living the life that God wants me to live."
St. John's pastor, the Rev. Tyrone Schaff, plans to address the issue during Mass this Sunday, the anniversary of the new church building's dedication.
He'll mention it during the announcements and perhaps during the homily.
"There's a ton of people out there who are absolutely shocked because their experience with these individuals (Bradley and O'Malley) has been positive, healthy and wholesome," said Schaff.
The parish has continued to pray for the victims, for reconciliation and healing, he said.
"In all this difficulty, there's promise of a new life for the church."
Staff writer Kevin Taylor contributed to this report.
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