Priest Suit Reveals Brothers' Secrets
Michael and Tom Virnig Join Plaintiffs Accusing an Ex-Priest of Abuse, but Neither Sibling Knew of the Other's Pain until Now
By Ashbel S. Green
June 30, 2002
Michael and Tom Virnig were not the sort of brothers who kept secrets from each other.
Michael looked up to Tom, who is two years older than him. Among the family's six brothers and sisters, "Tommy and I have been the closest."
But Michael Virnig, now 35, kept a big secret from his older brother: A priest repeatedly sexually abused him, he says, when he was an altar boy at All Saints Catholic Church in Northeast Portland from 1979 to 1981.
It turns out Tom kept the same secret about himself -- until last month.
Michael and Tom Virnig are among six plaintiffs who joined a lawsuit Friday in Multnomah County Circuit Court accusing Thomas Laughlin, an ex-priest living in New Mexico, of sex abuse.
The suit names the Archdiocese of Portland and brings to 11 the number of pending claims involving Laughlin, who was kicked out of the priesthood after being convicted of sex abuse in 1983. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic Church in Oregon the past few years accusing priests of abuse. Laughlin remains the only priest in Oregon to have been convicted of sexual abuse.
The suit seeks $4 million for each plaintiff.
Bud Bunce, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said he had not seen the suit and could not comment.
Michael Virnig, who lives in Los Angeles, started thinking about Laughlin earlier this year during media coverage of the priest sex-abuse scandal in Massachusetts.
"When all this news broke in January, with everything going on back East, it very much started to affect me," he said.
He knew Laughlin had been convicted and sent to a home for priest abusers. But he discovered in a newspaper article that Laughlin lived in an apartment on a church pension and was passing himself off as a priest to a community that had no idea of his past.
"It angered me to the point that I felt like I needed to do something about it," he said.
In the article, Virnig read the name of Michael Morey, a Lake Oswego attorney who represents several men who are suing the Portland Archdiocese over Laughlin. Virnig called Morey, who confirmed that Laughlin was in New Mexico.
Shortly thereafter, Morey received a call from Tom Virnig, who recently moved to Washington.
"It was apparent to me that neither had talked to each other," he said. But because of attorney-client privilege, Morey had to keep both secrets.
"I was really concerned about how I was going to handle that issue," Morey said.
Tom Virnig solved the dilemma.
On May 14, Michael was in a Texas airport when his cell phone rang. In tears, Tom said he had to tell him something. It was about Laughlin. Tom, a former altar boy himself, wasn't specific, but Michael knew. He said he couldn't talk about it in the airport but called Tom the next day and told him Laughlin had molested him, too.
"We haven't really talked since then," Michael said.
Morey said Tom Virnig did not want to discuss his case.
But amid Michael's complex emotions, one thing is clear: "My anger is at the people that knew about this that let it happen all these years," Virnig said.
Morey said Laughlin's was not a case of an abusive priest who flew under the radar.
In 1970, then-Archbishop Robert Dwyer called Laughlin before him after a complaint, and the priest admitted the abuse, Morey said.
But he remained at St. Mary's Parish in Corvallis for two years before more families reported him, Morey said.
After another admission by Laughlin, Dwyer moved him to All Saints in 1972, but the parish didn't know about his past, Morey said.
And nothing changed. Parents at All Saints reported Laughlin a number of times between 1976 and 1979, and again in 1981. The new archbishop then, Cornelius Power, also did nothing, Morey said.
A parent's complaint to police led to Laughlin's arrest and conviction in 1983, Morey said.
"There is probably no more graphic example of outrageous institutional toleration and cover-up of the abuse of children by a priest than the circumstances involving the Portland Archdiocese and Father Thomas Laughlin," he said.
Bunce said Dwyer died in 1976; Power died in 1997.
"It makes it very difficult to get all of the clear answers, particularly when the bishops he's making allegations against are dead," Bunce said.
You can reach Tony Green at 503-221-8202 or by e-mail at Tonygreen@news.oregonian.com
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.