Man Files Sexual Abuse Lawsuit against Diocese
Accused Priest Removed from Ministry In 1989 after Allegations of Abuse
By Virginia de Leon
Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)
July 16, 2004
Shame silenced the boy. As a young man, the pain drove him to contemplate suicide. For years, the suffering became so unbearable, he said, that he completely blotted it from his memory.
P.J., a Redding, Calif., man who only wants his initials used, claims to be a sex-abuse victim of Arthur C. Mertens, a priest who worked in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane but was removed from ministry in 1989 after allegations of abuse.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Spokane County Superior Court, P.J. is suing the Diocese of Spokane for failing to protect him from Mertens, who he says started molesting him when he was a 13-year-old in Walla Walla.
"Emotionally, it scarred me for life," P.J. said during a phone interview. "My life did change. It has been a burden that will never go away."
This suit is the 18th against the diocese, but the first against Mertens, who is now 80 and lives in Spokane.
The diocese has been expecting the suit, the Rev. Steve Dublinski said in a statement. In 2002, Bishop William Skylstad identified Mertens as one of six priests who admitted to molesting minors. The bishop "expresses his profound sorrow and apologizes to the victim on behalf of the Diocese of Spokane," said the vicar general.
Mertens didn't return phone calls from the newspaper.
According to the lawsuit, P.J. - who is identified in the claim as "John Doe" - was a 9-year-old altar boy at St. Patrick's parish in Walla Walla when Mertens started sexually grooming him. He molested the boy for the first time when he was 13 and continued to rape and molest him throughout his teenage years - in the St. Patrick's rectory, at a home in Milton-Freewater, Ore., in motel rooms in Pasco and Kennewick, and in Mertens' mother's home in Spokane. During that time, Mertens was the St. Patrick's pastor, a position he held from 1981 to 1989.
P.J., who is now 35, thinks he might have been targeted by Mertens because his mother was raising him by herself and appreciated the attention the priest gave to her son. Mertens often visited their home and gave the boy money, P.J. said.
At one point, according to P.J., the priest was paying for his clothes, books and school supplies. When P.J. resisted the priest's attacks, Mertens threatened to stop giving him and his family any financial support, he said.
In 1990, after P.J. graduated from Walla Walla Community College, he cut off all communication from Mertens "due to emotional hardship, anger and distress." He also stopped going to church. In 1995, he moved to California to "leave all the memories behind and start a new life."
It wasn't until 1997 when the memories came flooding back, leading to severe depression and a suicide attempt, P.J. said. A year later, he contacted Mertens "to express and release some of the anger and hurt due to the abuse."
In late October 2002, shortly after Skylstad named Mertens as a perpetrator, P.J. filed a report with the Walla Walla Police Department.
According to diocesan records, Mertens was born in Mansfield, Wash., and grew up in St. Paschal's in Spokane Valley. He was ordained in 1949 and had worked in a number of parishes including St. Augustine in Spokane, St. Rose of Lima in Cheney and St. Joseph in Dayton. He was promoted to monsignor in 1974.
In April 1994, a victim came forward claiming he was abused by Mertens, according to the diocese. The suit was settled three months later for an undisclosed amount, which was paid by an insurance company.
In 1989, the diocese learned from the Bishop of Solola in Guatemala - where Mertens had worked as a missionary from 1961 to 1977 - that the priest was suspected to have sexually abused adolescent males there, as well, according to the diocese.
"Upon receiving the (victim's) report, the reports from Guatemala and admission by Mertens, Bishop Skylstad permanently removed Mertens from any further ministry and sent him into counseling and therapy," diocese attorneys wrote in their response to plaintiffs' interrogatories.
But the lawsuit says the diocese failed to protect P.J. even though it knew Mertens was a "dangerous child molester with a deviant sexual attraction to pre-pubescent and adolescent boys."
The suit states that in 1984 or 1985, a priest complained to then Bishop Bernard Topel about P.J. spending the night with Mertens in the parish rectory, but the bishop "failed to take action." It also mentions an adolescent male who allegedly had sexual contact with Mertens between 1977 and 1982. The lawsuit claims that the boy asked the bishop to remove Mertens from ministry, but nothing was done.
According to the suit, Mertens kept asking the bishop for permission to adopt P.J.
He also confessed to several priests between 1983 and 1987 that he was sexually abusing P.J. and that he "could not control these urges." Although he told his confessors that he was a priest, "at no time did these priests encourage Father Mertens to turn himself in to authorities, to seek professional help for his pedophilia or intervene to stop the abuse."
P.J. is the only person who has alleged abuse committed by Mertens, Dublinski said.
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