Suit Alleges Childhood Sexual Abuse by Priest
Incidents Occurred at Deaconess Medical Center, Lawsuit States
By Virginia de Leon
March 13, 2003
The mother never understood what happened to her son — how a sweet 12-year-old could grow up into a troubled man with drug problems and a personality like Jekyll and Hyde.
Pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place last year, when he revealed a shocking secret.
He was sexually abused, he told her. A priest who was also his drug counselor at a Deaconess Medical Center care unit allegedly molested him in 1985.
The victim — identified only by the initials "C.C." — filed a lawsuit Wednesday against his alleged perpetrator, Ronald Lane Fontenot.
Fontenot, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana, was suspended from his duties in 1983 after being accused of child sexual abuse.
In late 1984 or early 1985, he moved to Spokane, where he had previously spent two semesters doing graduate course work at Gonzaga University. Fontenot lived at the Jesuit House on the GU campus for some time and eventually got a job as a counselor in the Nancy Reagan Care Unit, a drug- and alcohol-treatment facility for adolescents at Deaconess.
It was there he met his victims — teenage boys including "C.C.," who was 12 years old when he was molested. He's now 31 years old.
Fontenot was known to the boys as "Huggy Bear."
In 1986, Fontenot was caught after five boys reported the abuse to parents and police. The priest pleaded guilty in court to one count of third-degree statutory rape involving a 15-year-old boy, as well as four misdemeanor counts of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.
Fontenot served a one-year term in the Spokane County Jail. Now 56, he lives in Houston, Texas, and goes by the name Jean Paul Fontenot. It isn't known if he has been defrocked. He couldn't be reached for comment this week because his phone has been temporarily disconnected.
The lawsuit filed by "C.C." in Spokane County Superior Court also names other defendants: the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, Empire Health Services, (which operates Deaconess), CompCare Inc., and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette.
"If these organizations had been responsible from the very beginning, Ronald Lane Fontenot would not have had a clear avenue to come to Spokane and destroy the lives and futures of the young men he was allowed to molest," wrote the victim's mother, who asked not to be identified to protect her son's identity.
"You can't imagine our pain," she said.
This isn't the first civil suit filed against Fontenot and the other defendants.
In July 1986, six boys identified as "John Does" and their parents each filed a lawsuit in Spokane. The suits were settled in August 1989, with each family receiving an average of $86,000.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane was originally named as a defendant in that suit, but was removed by summary judgment and was exonerated of any liability.
"C.C." was not a plaintiff in the 1986 lawsuits.
"He wants to get help," his mother said. "He wants a future." Her son filed the lawsuit as a way to heal and receive psychological counseling, she said. Their family also hopes that other victims will come forward.
Fontenot was a known pedophile in Louisiana, according to the lawsuit and newspaper articles published in 1985 and 1986.
He and another priest, Gilbert Gauthe, were accused of molesting some of the same children. Gauthe admitted to sexually abusing 37 altar boys and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but Fontenot escaped criminal charges in Louisiana by going to the House of Affirmation in Massachusetts — a church-run treatment center for clerics suffering from substance abuse and other problems.
Despite its knowledge of Fontenot's behavior, the Diocese of Lafayette protected him by allowing him to go to Spokane and move about the country unsupervised, the current lawsuit claims. The diocese also failed to report Fontenot to law enforcement or warn the Jesuit House of Spokane of his "dangerous nature," it stated.
Officials from the Diocese of Lafayette did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The lawsuit also claims that Deaconess and CompCare were negligent in their screening, investigation, selection and supervision of Fontenot.
The priest worked at the care unit from July 1985 to Jan. 28, 1986. According to articles published during that time period, Fontenot was asked to resign after two boys complained about his sexual advances. The resignation came before Deaconess officials learned that Fontenot had been suspended by the Diocese of Louisiana.
Deaconess officials in 1986 told The Spokesman-Review that they had checked his references and found nothing adverse.
Janice Marich, spokeswoman for Empire Health, which operates Deaconess, could not comment on the lawsuit Wednesday because she and the attorney had yet to see a copy. She acknowledged that similar lawsuits had been settled in 1980s and noted that Deaconess no longer houses the Nancy Reagan Care Unit or any similar treatment service.
The lawsuit also asserts that the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, which operates the Jesuit House on the Gonzaga campus, is liable for the abuse. It says the people at Jesuit House "knew or should have known of the dangerous sexual propensities of Fontenot."
In a February 1986 article published in The Spokesman-Review, the Rev. Frank Costello, then head of Jesuit House, said Fontenot told him he was between assignments and asked if he could live at Jesuit House for a few months. He was not active in ministry during that time.
Costello also said he learned about the Louisiana allegation against Fontenot in June 1985. Fontenot — who isn't a Jesuit — hadn't taken the job at Deaconess yet. Fontenot left Gonzaga before accepting the position. Costello told the newspaper that he had no reason to tell anyone about the allegations.
"It was not passed on by me," he told a reporter in 1986, "but I was never consulted in his job opportunities. Nobody from Deaconess contacted me."
On Wednesday, Gonzaga spokesman Dale Goodwin, speaking on behalf of Costello said, "We have no association with (Fontenot) ... When the actions occurred, he was living in an apartment near Deaconess," not at the Jesuit House.
C.C.'s mother was overcome with guilt when she learned what had happened to her son. She had sent him to the care unit all those years ago after he got caught at school with marijuana, she said. She trusted the treatment center, she said, and believed the people there would help her son.
"We put him right into the lion's cage," she said. "The whole thing put him on such a self-destructive course."
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