Abuse lawsuits divide victims
By Virginia De Leon
January 30, 2005
Some say money symbolizes justice, but many have chosen not to sue
It wasn’t where you’d expect to find him. But there he was on a Sunday morning in September 2002, sitting in a pew during Mass at a Catholic parish in north Spokane.
It was the first time in years Randy Coston had gone to church.
So it was ironic, perhaps, that he chose to go to Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – the church where he was molested by a priest when he was 14. It was also where his good friend, Tim Corrigan, and other classmates were sexually abused by Patrick O’Donnell.
Coston started going back to Mass soon after Corrigan killed himself after seeing the priest’s photo in the newspaper. His friend’s suicide forced him to confront his own suffering; it also compelled him to seek solace in God.
“I wanted to regain a sense of faith and decipher everything I was going through,” Coston said, explaining why he returned to the parish, where he now sends his two kids to parochial school.
Dave Magart had the opposite reaction when he returned to the Catholic church of his childhood. Last year, he went to St. Mary of the Rosary in Chewelah to attend the funeral rosary of an old friend.
He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
As he knelt in the pew and noticed the familiar knot holes in the church walls, Magart felt his stomach turn. Suddenly, he was back in second grade with the late Joseph Knecht, the priest who he says molested him behind the church sanctuary, right after the youngster confessed to him his sins. Magart started shaking – he could hear the priest’s deep voice again, feel his presence, even smell him.
“Here I am, 60 years old …,” said Magart, his sentence trailing as he recalled how the memories came flooding back. “Damn it, it ain’t right.”
Those who have been victimized by clergy members have responded to the trauma in a variety of ways – from anger and vengeance to even forgiveness, and all points in between.
For its part, the diocese has acknowledged that several of its priests – including Knecht and O’Donnell – had sexually abused children.
But now, as Spokane’s sexual abuse cases continue to be mired in U.S. bankruptcy court, there’s not only conflict between the diocese and victims of sexual abuse; there’s also tension among the victims themselves.
Because of the controversy surrounding the makeup of the creditors committee – the group assigned to represent roughly 130 alleged victims of abuse – these people who have survived the trauma now find themselves divided into two camps: those who took legal action against the church and those who didn’t.
Those who have sued the diocese – including Magart and Coston – want a total of $76 million, an amount so astronomical that the Diocese of Spokane says it had no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection. The enormity of their claims has inevitably caused anxiety among parishioners, who worry about losing their churches, schools and programs to pay for victims’ claims.
But more than half of the alleged victims of abuse never filed lawsuits. The identities of most of those victims have been sealed by a court order and cannot be viewed by the public. Mary Butler, the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator, didn’t respond to phone calls requesting an interview for this story. Neither did two victims who never filed lawsuits but are members of the five-member creditors committee.
Marjorie Garza, the only woman on the committee, once said that a million dollars couldn’t compare to the counseling she received from the Diocese of Spokane. In a previous interview, she said: “There is healing within the church.”
Bishop William Skylstad, of Spokane, often uses three words to describe what he hopes to achieve by filing for bankruptcy protection: fairness, justice and equity.
It’s what all victims want, too, as they journey toward healing.
The problem, however, is that no one can agree on how to define these words. What’s fair and just for the diocese doesn’t ring true for all victims. And what one victim may consider equitable, another may find completely wrong.
Despite the $76 million figure looming over the diocese, many of the victims interviewed for this story didn’t put a dollar value on their suffering.
Some, such as Magart, who was abused not only by Knecht, but also by another priest named James O’Malley, do indeed want money – to pay for counseling and to make up for lost opportunities as a result of their trauma. But there are others, such as Coston, who say they were never in it for the cash.
Coston says he doesn’t want to destroy the church. But he wants people to know about the crimes committed by clergy against children. He wants to show how the church didn’t do enough to protect them from pedophiles. And he wants to make sure that what happened to him and some of his classmates will never happen again.
“I did not come forward with any expectation of money,” said Coston, who thinks he would have kept his abuse a secret had it not been for Corrigan’s suicide. “More than justice, we need change within our church, and it starts with honesty and truth.”
Mark Mains, who was abused by O’Donnell over three or four years, believes the church has participated in a cover-up.
“I want truth,” he said when asked why he and his two brothers – also O’Donnell victims – decided to file a lawsuit. Like other victims, their lawsuit, which was scheduled to go to trial last November, was put on hold by the diocese’s decision to file for bankruptcy.
Mains said his goals were threefold: clarity, closure and compensation. Like others who took legal action, Mains and his brothers say they simply wanted their day in court – which attorneys say will happen as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.
“The only way we can get justice is if the bishop goes on the witness stand and we have a jury making the decision,” said Mains, a second-grade teacher and father of two young children. “Justice in our civil court system has a price tag attached.”
Like Magart, the victims of Knecht and O’Malley in Chewelah never expected to find themselves, in their late 50s and early 60s, talking about the abuse they experienced as children.
For one thing, they thought they were the only ones, Magart said. They didn’t realize that the priests also had targeted their friends, cousins, even brothers. The secret was buried so deeply within each victim that only in the past year or so have they been able to tell their stories.
“I had tucked this all away – way back, buried it, I hadn’t looked at it for years and years,” said Magart, who recently retired from Alcoa. “This stuff is still coming out. … I want these people (church officials) to admit there was wrongdoing. … I want to hear them say they’re sorry, and I want to be able to believe it when I hear it.”
Standing outside St. Mary, an old, white church with a steeple in downtown Chewelah, he and six other men who were abused in the parish smoked cigarettes and talked about how the secret was hidden for so long.
“It’s mind-boggling, the power they held over us,” Magart said.
“They still do,” said Bill Bordwell, another O’Malley victim.
The bishop has repeatedly apologized to victims of abuse. O’Donnell was removed from ministry in the mid-1980s; O’Malley now is retired and living in Ireland. In his message addressed to those molested by clergy, he wrote: “I have heard you plead for someone like me to say over and over again: Yes, I believe these terrible things happened to you. You are not to blame. We accept responsibility for your suffering. We will treat you with respect, gentleness and caring. We will provide you with counseling.”
A number of victims, however, say his actions – particularly his decision to file for bankruptcy protection – do not match his words. While diocese attorneys have said that they never knew of some of these victims until lawsuits were filed, there are some, such as Mike Shea, a victim of Reinard Beaver, who say they never would have sued had the church showed more sympathy and acknowledged a cover-up of the crimes.
“Unless somebody has been a victim of sexual abuse, there’s no way to understand the kind of pain and chaos involved,” said Kent Hoffman, a Spokane psychotherapist who has spent three decades counseling victims of childhood sexual abuse.
“The fundamental experience is one of abandonment,” he said. “The core problem of sexual abuse is that the person I need to turn to for support is the very person perpetrating that abuse. It’s unbelievably more complex when the representative of God has done it to you.”
There’s a lack of empathy, however, for those who have survived this ordeal, Hoffman said. It’s easy for people to say, “Get over it,” he said, but for victims, the road to healing is often pockmarked with shame, anger and grief.
“You just don’t get over sexual abuse, you work with it,” he said. “But to do that, you need a sense of trust.”
But most victims who have filed lawsuits say they don’t trust the diocese, even when it comes to protecting children now. Despite the bishop’s words, many say they don’t sense true remorse or accountability.
In fact, some victims say that filing for bankruptcy hasn’t made it fair for victims; it has only shifted the blame to those who have been abused.
Because the assets of individual churches and schools are at stake, some parishioners fear that they will lose programs for the poor and other services because the victims want money from the church.
“It’s disheartening to hear we’re being blamed for the current state of affairs,” said Coston, 41. “But it’s the diocese that made this decision.”
He and other victims don’t want to destroy the diocese, he said. “I function within that environment. Vengeance would be taking down the system, and I don’t want that. … At the same time, the diocese is not acting in good faith.”
However, the church needs to get more “than just a slap on the wrist” for allowing pedophiles to prey on children, said Duane Rasmussen, an attorney for Magart and many other victims of abuse.
“The amount of money is a measure of the degree to which the church will be held accountable. Unfortunately, there aren’t any other remedies. … How much the church is required to pay would indicate the seriousness of this problem.”