Skylstad Denies Claim of Sex Abuse in 1960s
Woman's filing part of bankruptcy case

By John Stucke and Virginia De Leon
March 9, 2006

A woman has accused Catholic Bishop William Skylstad of sexual abuse more than 40 years ago in Spokane, a claim that triggered a report to the Vatican and a firm denial from the bishop.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Skylstad, now president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he has not violated the vow of celibacy he took 47 years ago.

The claim was filed Dec. 27 by a woman who said she was under the age of 18 between 1961 and 1964 – the time period she alleges that Skylstad sexually abused her at St. Patrick's Parish and at Gonzaga. It's unclear whether she means Gonzaga University or Gonzaga Prep.

The claim, as well as the alleged victim's name, remains hidden from public scrutiny by a court order covering all such filings in the Catholic Diocese's bankruptcy case.

New Jersey attorney Stephen Rubino is representing the woman, who now lives in Europe. He said Wednesday that lawyers representing other sex abuse victims referred her case. Rubino is nationally recognized for his work on clergy sex abuse litigation and said he anticipates spending two to three months vetting her allegations.

Bankruptcy claims are legal documents. Filing a fraudulent claim can carry federal penalties including fines of up to $600,000 and a five-year prison term.

The bishop acknowledged the woman's claim during a regional meeting of parishes last week, according to a participant in the meeting.

Skylstad said in a statement Wednesday that Italian Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope's diplomatic envoy to the United States, has been alerted to the claim against him.

Alleged victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse in Eastern Washington have until Friday to file claims in the church bankruptcy case. The number of people alleging abuse had surpassed 135 as of Wednesday morning, diocese attorney Greg Arpin said.

The claim against Skylstad is the first and only allegation against Spokane's Catholic leader, Arpin said.

Of the 135 alleged victims, 75 are considering a $45.7 million settlement offer from the bishop.

The remaining 60 claims come from people who did not file lawsuits against the diocese or hire attorneys. That group has continued to grow in the weeks following advertisements purchased in national newspapers and magazines and letters sent to current and former Catholics of Eastern Washington asking for anyone who was sexually abused to file a claim by Friday.

Skylstad, who was in his late 20s during the time of the woman's claim, was a student at Gonzaga University from 1962 to 1966, but he had no apparent connection to St. Patrick's Parish in Hillyard. In fact, he was in Colbert, teaching math and physics to students attending Mater Cleri Seminary.

Arpin said the diocese is bound by a confidentiality order regarding all claims and would not elaborate further on the claim other than to say Skylstad "categorically denies" the accusations.

"Because of the potential emotional fragility of individuals who have suffered sexual abuse, the bankruptcy court has ordered that strict protocols of confidentiality be observed by all parties," Arpin read from a statement issued by the bishop.

Attorneys representing victims did not return phone calls or declined to answer questions regarding the validity of the claim or what ramifications it may have for the bankruptcy case.

Ford Elsaesser, an attorney representing the Association of Parishes, said the larger problem for Eastern Washington Catholics was the sheer number of claims being filed – 60 and counting – that are not covered by the bishop's $45.7 million settlement offer.

"We're just left asking 'How much is it going to cost us in the end?' " Elsaesser said.

Parish leaders fear the bankruptcy will cost more than $80 million, with most of the money collected from mortgaging or selling parish churches and schools. An appraisal completed this week estimates the value of parish property at about $80 million.

A press release from the diocese indicated that the report of the claim has been forwarded to the diocesan review board, a group assigned to assess sexual misconduct against priests and other diocesan employees accused of abuse.

According to the diocese's policies and procedures, as well as the "Charter for the Protection of Young People," a 2002 document created and approved by the American bishops, allegations of sexual misconduct or other inappropriate behavior are to be reported to the Office of the Bishop and to the coordinator responsible for addressing the needs of sexual abuse victims.

"In every case of alleged sexual abuse of a person who is a minor or vulnerable adult, the diocese will verify that the allegation has been reported to local law enforcement and to Child Protective Services of the Department of Social and Health Services, or file the report," according to the Diocese of Spokane's procedures, found on its Web site.

The accused individual must then be relieved of his duties with pay during the investigation. "A priest or deacon will be removed from ministry during the course of the investigation in accord with canon 1722, and professional assistance will be made available to him," the diocese's procedures say.

The allegation must then be reported to the review board, which works closely with both the bishop and the Rev. Steve Dublinski, vicar general of the diocese.

It's unclear whether Skylstad will relinquish any of his duties.

This policy was followed in 2002, when the bishop immediately removed the Rev. Dan Wetzler from ministry after someone accused the priest of sexual abuse. Wetzler denied the charge, but the bishop still contacted police and banned him from his priestly duties. Four days later, the review board examined the initial report and asked the diocese to conduct its own investigation.

Although the allegation dated back more than three decades, the diocese decided to hire a retired detective from the Seattle Police Department to look into the claim. Wetzler was exonerated three months later.

In a statement of "episcopal commitment," the nation's Catholic bishops also noted the need to keep each other accountable: "In cases of an allegation of sexual abuse of minors by bishops, we will apply the requirements of the Charter also to ourselves, respecting always Church law as it applies to bishops."

Since Skylstad is also the head of the USCCB, which is considered a moral compass for the more than 60 million American Catholics, it's important that the bishops abide by their rules, said David Clohessy, executive director of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"I hope this will be investigated thoroughly," he said. "If this is deemed true, it would be inexcusable that Skylstad took on this leadership position."

The diocese engaged in a high-stakes legal fight last summer when it argued – and lost – that parishes were separate from the diocese and could not be used to pay sex abuse claims in the bankruptcy.

Skylstad and his legal team's strategy have been sharply criticized following U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams' ruling that parish assets were held in trust for the benefit of the diocese.

Her ruling has been appealed to senior U.S. District Judge Justin L. Quackenbush.


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