Salem Priest to Face Accusers at Trial
The Rev. Michael Sprauer Denies All Sexual-Abuse Allegations

By Alan Gustafson
Statesman Journal [Salem OR]
April 29, 2007

For almost four years, a dark cloud of suspicion has hovered over the Rev. Michael Sprauer.

The Salem priest, long respected by Catholic parishioners, has been branded a pedophile by his accusers. Since mid-2003, more than 15 men have sued Sprauer, alleging that he sexually abused them while he was chaplain at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in the 1970s.

Starting Tuesday, Sprauer goes to court for trial of a civil lawsuit pitting him against three of his accusers: Robert Paul Jr., Randy Sloan and Norman Klettke Jr.

Michael Sprauer

Born: 1944 in Wenatchee, Wash.

Education: Gonzaga University, Wenatchee Valley College, Mount Angel Seminary.

Priest experience: Ordained as a Catholic priest in 1972; has served in a variety of pastoral and administrative positions in Salem, Keizer, Sublimity and Corvallis.

Prison ministry work: Chaplain at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility from 1972-75; chaplain at Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem in the 1980s; director of religious services for the Oregon Corrections Department in the 1990s.

Current status: Placed on administrative leave by Catholic Church leaders in 2003 when he became the subject of multiple sex-abuse lawsuits; currently listed as a parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Salem, assisting the Rev. James Coleman.

"Do I think we're going to win? Absolutely," said Paul, 49, of Salem. "We're going to go in there and tell the truth. The jury is going to see through lies."

In court papers, the three men allege that Sprauer used his authority as a prison chaplain to lure them into sexual acts, primarily mutual masturbation and oral sex.

The priest allegedly molested the boys in segregation cells, his chaplain's office, in a storage closet and in a car that he drove to transport one youth to his sister's funeral.

Sprauer has denied all of the sexual-abuse accusations through his attorney and in a videotaped deposition.

To loyal parishioners, he remains a trusted man of God. Some think the well-known priest is being railroaded by ex-convicts seeking to cash in on bogus allegations.

"They've got nothing to lose and everything to gain," said Kevin Mannix, a former state legislator and long-time parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Salem, where Sprauer remains on the staff as a parochial vicar, assisting the Rev. James Coleman.

Mannix said he has known Sprauer for 20 years. He described him as "quiet, intelligent, diligent and completely dedicated to ministry."

"Yes, I think he's being falsely accused," Mannix said. "The best way to see this resolved is through a fair trial."

By law, it's too late for any criminal investigation or possible prosecution of the sex-abuse allegations against Sprauer. The statute of limitations expired long ago.

But Oregon law allows victims of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits as long as three years after discovering the impact of abuse on their lives. In some cases, that can mean years, or decades, later.

The theory behind the law: Victims of sexual abuse may completely forget traumatic offenses against them as children, but recover the repressed memories later.

In all, more than 15 of Sprauer's accusers filed a series of suits in 2003 and 2004 -- three decades after their alleged abuse at the state-run juvenile facility.

The Archdiocese of Portland, the governing body for Catholic parishes in Western Oregon, agreed to pay them $600,000, according to Salem attorney Daniel Gatti, who represents Sprauer's accusers. Individual settlements ranged from $7,500 to $100,000, he said.

The settlements ended the archdiocese's involvement in suits against Sprauer.

Cases still are going forward against Sprauer and the state, which employed him at MacLaren. As it stands, six civil suits are pending against Sprauer in Marion County. No trial dates have been set.

The trial scheduled to get under way Tuesday will be held at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland. It's expected to last several weeks; jury selection could take several days.

Paul alleges that Sprauer molested him four times during counseling sessions in the chaplain's office at MacLaren in 1972. He stated in his deposition that he tried to report the abuse to a MacLaren counselor but was told "to get the hell out of his office and not talk like that about somebody in the priesthood."

After getting a $35,000 payment from the Archdiocese of Portland, Paul views the trial as a way to settle the score with Sprauer and the state.

"Now, we're ready for the big one," he said. "The money is a consolation. It's the only way we can get to them and hurt them. I'd like to see him go to prison myself."

Heeding his attorney's advice, Sprauer has not responded to Statesman Journal requests for interviews. His attorney, Thomas Cooney Sr. of Lake Oswego, has said that Sprauer looks forward to clearing his name at trial.

One accuser's story

In videotaped depositions, all three men recounted being sexually abused by Sprauer. They all linked the abuse to long-term problems in their adult lives, ranging from depression to alcoholism and personality disorders.

"It's been really rough," Sloan, 49, of Aumsville said Friday.

In a deposition taken in 2005, Sloan answered questions put to him by attorneys representing the Portland Archdiocese, Sprauer and the state. Here is a summary of what he said:

In December 1974, Sloan was sent to MacLaren for burglary and car theft. He was 16.

Shortly after he entered the juvenile facility, he was sent to disciplinary segregation for fighting.

Sloan said his first encounter with Sprauer came in February 1975, when the Bible-carrying chaplain visited him in his segregation cell.

"He asked me if he could sit with me for a while and I let him," he said. "He put his hand on my leg as if to comfort me and asked me why I was in detention and why I was in MacLaren ... "

"He asked me about my family life, what it was like growing up, if my mom and dad were still alive, and he told me that he might be able to help me."

Visiting Sloan's cell the next day, Sprauer sat beside him on his bunk, Sloan said. The priest allegedly told the teenager that he was handsome and asked him whether he had ever given oral sex to a man. He allegedly took the boy's hand and placed it on his groin.

"I didn't know what to do," Sloan said. "I just let it happen."

The sexual contact reportedly continued for a few minutes.

"Then he asked me if I enjoyed that, and I told him I didn't know," Sloan said. "He told me that he could help me and do things for me but he also wanted the favor returned and then he left."

According to Sloan, Sprauer molested him again during another visit to his cell. He said the chaplain became "mad and disgusted" when Sloan refused to give him oral sex.

In July 2005, Sprauer allegedly victimized Sloan again.

It happened, Sloan said, after his sister drowned and he received a pass to attend her funeral.

Sloan said Sprauer arranged to drive him from MacLaren to his family home in Aumsville, east of Salem.

Near Gervais, he said, Sprauer turned off the highway, pulled onto a gravel road and parked the car.

"We're here to finish what I asked you to do to me," Sloan said, recounting what the priest allegedly told him. "Give me oral sex, and if you don't, I'm going to take you back to MacLaren."

Sloan said he obeyed the priest.

According to his account, the sexual encounter left him reeling. He skipped his sister's funeral and went AWOL until law enforcement caught him and took him back to MacLaren.

For much of his troubled life, Sloan said, he buried the abuse that occurred at the juvenile lockup. "I just blocked it out so I didn't think about it," he said. "It was like it wasn't there."

In 2003, Sloan said, he read a Statesman Journal story about Sprauer being sued by several former inmates at MacLaren. Bitter memories overwhelmed him. "I just felt sick," he said.

In his deposition, Sloan blamed Sprauer for triggering his 30-year battle with depression, anger, personality disorder, loss of sleep, isolation and inability to trust other people.

"I can't get along with people," he said. "I can't trust anyone."

Tormented life ends

Steven Colvin would have been the fourth plaintiff in the case nearing trial. However, Colvin died from a heroin overdose in December 2004.

A medical examiner determined that he died from an accidental overdose. But Pricilla Cowan, Colvin's mother, thinks it was a suicide.

Cowan said her son was a chronic drug addict, haunted by memories of being sexually abused by Sprauer.

"I couldn't say if that was the only factor that caused him to take his life, but I know without a doubt that it wasn't an accidental overdose," she said.

Colvin entered MacLaren as a rebellious, out-of-control teenager, his mother said. She hoped that he would get his life on track at the juvenile facility.

"I was told that If he went there he could get counseling and job skills," she said. "The thing was, he came out worse than when he went in. He was angrier, he was harder to communicate with. He wouldn't talk to me."

After MacLaren, Colvin was consumed by drug abuse, psychiatric problems and self-destructive impulses. He tried to kill himself several times, medical records show.

Cowan said she had no inkling that her son had been sexually abused at MacLaren until he confided in her several years ago.

"He called me in tears and said, 'I just saw the monster,'" Cowan said. "It didn't make any sense to me, I didn't know what he was talking about. I asked him, 'What monster?' and he said, 'Sprauer.'"

Cowan thinks that an unexpected spotting of the priest unlocked her son's long-repressed memories of abuse.

"He happened to see Sprauer on downtown streets, and he started having flashbacks," she said. "That's when he started telling us what had happened."

Revealing his secret did not ease Colvin's anguish, Cowan said. He became increasingly paranoid, fearful and depressed.

"One time, he told me, 'I'm tired of this,'" Cowan recalled. 'I'm tired of not being able to hold a job, I'm tired of not being able to kick the habit, I'm tired of having to wait for justice.'"

Amid his otherwise bleak existence, Colvin displayed flashes of musical talent, playing the guitar and slipping into hotel lobbies and department stores to play piano.

"He didn't read music, but he played it brilliantly," Cowan said. "We loved his music."

By suing Sprauer, Colvin hoped to receive a financial settlement that would enable him to produce a CD and fashion a fresh start, Cowan said. Those hopes evaporated with his fatal overdose. He died after giving away his guitar. Family members saw that as telling evidence that he intended to take his own life.

Cowan doesn't plan to attend Tuesday's trial. Too much heartache, she said.

"I'm trying to heal from the death of my son," she said. "And my presence wouldn't help anything now, would it? Steve's dead. Steve is going to remain dead no matter what happens to Michael Sprauer."

Mannix speaks out

As a staunch defender of Sprauer, Mannix deems the allegations against Sprauer "suspicious" and "frivolous."

"To my mind, the circumstances underlying these claims are highly suspicious," he said. "I'm talking about failure to report at the time, delay in complaint, and the nature of the complainants."

Mannix, while serving in the Oregon Legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sponsored legislation to extend the time for child abuse victims to file claims.

He still endorses Oregon's victim-friendly statute.

"Philosophically, I think any person's who's been sexually abused as a child should be given an opportunity to seek redress," he said. "Don't get me wrong there."

But Sprauer's accusers lack credibility, Mannix said. "These plaintiffs are filing complaints relating to events that occurred about 30 years ago," he said. "As I understand it, most of them have had substantial criminal histories since then."

Asked whether he thought the priest was being railroaded, Mannix said: "I think the train has left the station, and there was piling on to that train. That's just my perception. He was just too easy a target."

Mannix said Sprauer's distinguished career and stellar reputation have been sullied by gut-wrenching allegations.

"Anybody who's dragged through this is injured before the process is over," he said. "And that is truly sad, assuming the person has not committed the conduct for which he is accused."

The truth likely will come out at trial, Mannix said. Meanwhile, he's standing by Sprauer.

"I can't be sure of anything in this life," he said. "But when I lay out the cards on the table in this litigation, from what I know at this point, the vast majority of the cards favor his denial of culpability."

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