Lawsuits Catch up to Disgraced Priest Living Quiet Life As Retiredfather Tom

By Michael Wilson
Sunday Oregonian
May 19, 2002

Summary: New allegations of abuse in Oregon follow convicted sex offender Thomas Laughlin, who lives unsupervised in New Mexico

The old women call him Father Tom.

He lives on the sixth floor of the Landmark, a quiet high-rise set back from the road and flanked by banks and malls and big parking lots. It's safe, bland, decidedly not a landmark: a tower of condos with an asphalt moat and a secret code for the front door.

He's 77 now. He comes down for coffee with the ladies every morning. They love him.

Most of the Landmark's residents are his age or older. Many of their names are posted on a board down front, so visitors know which room to buzz. His name is absent.

"He has been a wonderful person to us here at Landmark," said Sadie Glenn, 84. "He's been a wonderful person and a good friend. If anybody's depressed or has problems, he'll sit here and talk to us."

Sometimes at night, they said, for special occasions or dinners, Father Tom puts on his black suit and his Roman collar. He's tall and fit and likely very impressive in his outfit.

He told them he's retired.

Back in Portland, his old, dead career as a priest faces different scrutiny, without plumage or flatter. In Portland, he's not Father Tom anymore. He's a name in new lawsuits brought by five of his past altar boys: Thomas B. Laughlin, exiled priest, child molester.

Lawyers will soon book trips to New Mexico for Laughlin's depositions, presumably his first discussions of his 35 Portland years in any depth -- a Landmark neighbor said, "I thought he'd only visited Oregon" -- since he pleaded guilty in 1983.

He twice turned away requests for an interview last month.

For decades, children all around A schoolteacher for seven years, assistant principal for 10 more. Pastor of three churches for the next 18 years. There were children everywhere.

They caught him in 1983.

Laughlin was 57. The police spent weeks investigating incidents involving two boys three years earlier. Laughlin waived a grand jury's consideration of the case, immediately pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sex abuse.

Now almost 20 years later, Laughlin stands out among the growing pool of abuse cases against Oregon's clergy. For starters, he's alive: Oregon law allows sex-abuse victims a far broader statute of limitations than in other states, and most of the lawsuits naming close to 20 Archdiocese of Portland priests describe acts that occurred closer to 1950 than 2000. Most of the other accused priests are dead, having never addressed claims of abuse.

Several just passed through Oregon, relative to Laughlin's tenure, or served in remote parishes and small towns. Laughlin encountered hundreds, even thousands, of Catholic boys, a swath of Portland's 30- and 40-somethings today.

"Frequently I made mistakes of judgment," the priest told Multnomah County Circuit Judge R. William Riggs at his Aug. 29, 1983, sentencing. "I take total responsibility for them."

He described enduring the police investigation as "the torture of hell . . . I felt everything good I had done for 35 years would be forgotten, and I would be remembered only for the harm I had done to those I was sent to serve."

By then, he'd resigned from All Saints parish in Northeast Portland. The late Archbishop Cornelius M. Power stripped him of certain priestly functions, noting that some of Laughlin's abuse occurred within the sacrament of confession.

The state agreed to probation, but before his sentencing, an All Saints parishioner spotted Laughlin in the Grand Canyon with a teen from the parish. A victim's furious father informed the judge, who put Laughlin in a Multnomah County jail for a year.

Two years later, the teen from the Grand Canyon sued, accusing Laughlin of abuse. The archdiocese settled the case in 1986. In a sworn deposition, Laughlin conceded that there were "not less than seven" victims.

He'd begun treatment by the time of his sentencing. A psychiatrist who treated priests at the center, Jay R. Feierman, spoke on Laughlin's behalf, saying he'd applied himself seriously to therapy.

He said Laughlin, to best avoid a relapse, would likely need constant supervision "probably forever."

Problem priests sent away They wanted peace when they built the Foundation House in Jemez Springs, N.M., beside a winding desert two-lane. Its narrow, modern spire casts a shadow thin and sure as a minute hand across the dirt. It's very quiet.

In the 1980s, it was a clearinghouse for problem priests. Run by a Catholic order called the Servants of the Paraclete, the center treated priests for a variety of problems including alcohol and substance abuse, and an array of sexual issues, including child molestation. More than 500 priests -- estimates climb to 1,000 -- visited the center in its 19 years of operation, The New York Times reported last month.

As sex-abuse scandals spread, the center, and the church, fell under intense criticism for quietly releasing priests back into their communities, where they abused again. The center stopped treating priests in 1995 and is today a placid retreat house for clergy and laity.

Robert Goodkind, a psychologist who treated priests at the center, said he didn't recall Laughlin and couldn't discuss his case if he did, but he described the therapy.

"It was often an emotional experience," Goodkind said.

Besides once- or twice-weekly sessions alone with a therapist, and sessions with a spiritual counselor, the troubled priests worked in groups, in art therapy and wilderness experiences.

Goodkind said follow-up care was an important part of treatment, again without commenting on Laughlin specifically. There were follow-up visits to the priest from therapists, and, after six months, another week in Jemez Springs.

"I don't recall a single man who went through the program who reoffended when he left the program," Goodkind said.

"I wish he was in jail" In Portland, Jimmy Clarizio, a former altar boy turned Laughlin plaintiff, always pictured, when he wondered about the priest, "a compound."

"I wish he was in jail paying for his crimes. But he's in treatment for the rest of his life, and in a compound. He's not free to leave and go to a movie when he wants to."

Michael Virnig, 35, also of All Saints: "I was told in 1983 that he was going to a home for priests in New Mexico, and that he would remain there for the rest of his years. I pictured walls and gates."

On the contrary, Laughlin is unsupervised. Although New Mexico law requires sex offenders to register with the state, those who completed their probation before July 1, 1995, are exempt.

"There would be no reason he would have to register," said sheriff's spokeswoman Michele Arviso Devlin.

Neither the Albuquerque police nor Bernalillo County sheriff's office has any record of Laughlin's past. He has not been charged with any crime since.

For almost two decades it was, until the new lawsuits, as if Portland had never happened.

But it seems Portland will only hear more of him, as the national outrage about priest abuse and Oregon's loose statute of limitations prompts more men to come forward. Just-released correspondence between another priest and the late Archbishop Power suggests that Power and two bishops knew of Laughlin's abuse four years before his arrest.

"It's difficult to put together what went on 20 years ago," said archdiocese lawyer Tom Dulcich. "It would be much easier if this was 1983 and we could ask the people what occurred."

Virnig was so infuriated when he learned that Laughlin is a free man that he decided to proceed with a lawsuit. "I'm going after him," he said. "I go to New Mexico now and then. I can't imagine walking down the street and running into that son of a bitch."

A loss of privileges Laughlin is not active with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which includes Albuquerque parishes, a spokeswoman said.

That's because Father Tom is not allowed to act as a priest.

His probation ended in 1988. That year, the Archdiocese of Portland petitioned the Vatican to have Laughlin laicized -- stripped of the priesthood, returned to lay status, the heaviest sanction for a priest. Laicization is rare because, if the priest fights it, the appeals process can drag on for years, expensively. More commonly, an archbishop suspends a priest from publicly conducting himself as a priest, a simpler matter, but less symbolically grave.

Laughlin didn't fight; on the contrary, as with his criminal conviction, he consented to the laicization, the archdiocese said. He continues to draw a small pension from the archdiocese, which described it as not enough to live on.

He may "definitely not" perform sacraments or even wear his Roman collar, said archdiocese spokesman Bud Bunce.

"He should describe himself as a laicized priest, a priest in the lay state," Bunce said.

Fellow Landmark residents describe Laughlin differently.

Asked whether Father Tom is a priest, resident Dorothy Holbrook said, "He isn't active right now, unless something comes up, and then he goes with different people and helps."

Asked whether he dresses like a priest, Glenn said, "Anything that comes up, he does. But just ordinary things, he doesn't."

One woman trusted Laughlin so much, he was granted power of attorney over her legal and financial affairs. In 1997, Laughlin reported suspicious charges on her credit card: a cell phone, airfare to Las Vegas, seats at a prize fight.

The officer who took his statement referred to him as "Father Tom Laughlin."

Alone on his daily walk Most mornings, Laughlin, after the morning coffee, sets out on a three-mile walk that lasts about an hour. Even in the office-tower and strip-mall world off Interstate 40, his chosen course is exceptional in its scenic unpleasantness.

In a floppy white beach hat and oversized sunglasses, he darts across the four-lane Indian School Road and threads through a large parking lot, the shortest distance across. A passer-by would think he was looking for his car, except that he's not gazing around, he's staring ahead.

Almost the whole walk is through parking lots that ring a large shopping mall. He speaks to no one because there's no one to speak to. Some lots are empty, and he walks straight across under the hot sun. He walks along a busy city street on the edge of a vacant lot. This side of town is never really quiet.

He turns pleasantly enough at the call of the name Father Tom, but asked again for an interview, walks away.

"I know," he says, "what you want to talk about."


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