Former Helena-Area Priest Named in Sex Assault Lawsuit

By Sanjay Talwani
Independent Record
March 24, 2013

A Lewis and Clark County man is suing the Roman Catholic Bishop of Helena, claiming he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a longtime priest who worked at the Cathedral of St. Helena.

The suit, filed March 13 in Helena, claims in about 1974, the Rev. Robert O’Donnell “engaged in multiple instances of unpermitted, harmful and offensive sexual conduct” with the plaintiff, who was a teenager at the time.

The man bringing the lawsuit, represented by Bozeman attorney Michael Cok, says in his complaint he did not connect various injuries he suffered with the abuse until September 2011.

O’Donnell was a priest in the Helena Diocese from 1966 to 1990, according to Renée St. Martin Wizeman, a diocese spokeswoman.

Most of that time was spent in Helena — from 1968 to 1969 and again from 1972 to 1985.

He worked in Butte from 1966 to 1968 and again from 1968 to 1969, according to the diocese.

He was on a sabbatical and leave of absence from 1985 to 1990, spending some of that time in Honolulu, Wizeman said.

He was “incardinated” as a priest in the Honolulu Diocese in 1990 and died in 1995, she said.

She said the diocese is committed to providing pastoral care for all victims of sexual abuse and has an extensive “safe environment” program that trains people who work with children to recognize signs of abuse and provides direction on how to deal with suspected incidents.

Wizeman said the diocese is in compliance with the Dallas Charter, a document first put together by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002. The charter outlines maintaining a safe environment with annual independent audits, done most recently in Helena in the fall.

“I offer my humble apologies to victims of sex abuse by clergy or lay leaders,” Helena Bishop George Leo Thomas said in a statement. “Even though it’s deeply difficult for all of us to go through this process, it’s very important for us to face the past realistically and enter a time of purification and renewal.”


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