Suit Accuses Two Mount Angel Priests of Sex Abuse
By Michael Wilson
April 14, 2002
Summary: David Schmidt says his story of recalling in therapy repressed memories of alleged violations as a child might help others Oregon law is unique in its handling of sex-abuse cases: The victim-friendly statute of limitations allows people to sue as long as three years after discovering the impact of abuse on their lives.
Two years and some 50 weeks ago, David Schmidt, during an intense therapy session, remembered something new: Black robes.
Schmidt filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Friday, accusing two Mount Angel priests of sex abuse in the 1950s.
"For me, to put as much finality to it as possible, I really needed to get some control back," Schmidt, 58, said from his Coulee Dam, Wash., home. He chose to use his full name; most sex-abuse victims are identified in lawsuits by initials.
"When you have an issue, you stand as your own person. This is the way I was raised. You cannot do it anonymously," he said.
His is a case of repressed memory, a controversial diagnosis since its treatment exploded in the 1980s, increasingly challenged in the psychological community. More specifically, he's been diagnosed with dissociative disorder, thought to be a common childhood coping response to abuse, in which the young victim dissociates, or "psychologically flees," from the encounter.
Schmidt himself concedes that he was suspect of his first recollections: "I questioned myself a lot about that, because I would never want to hurt an innocent person."
He said he went back and looked at old photos to be sure: "There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever."
The suit names, as defendants, the Archdiocese of Portland and the archbishop, the Mount Angel Abbey and the order of Benedictine monks that founded the abbey in 1882 and continue to live and work there.
The suit is one of several that have been filed in the past two years in Oregon, naming more than a dozen priests, mostly for long-ago abuses. Most of the priests are dead.
Schmidt's suit accuses two priests. The first, Father Clement Frank, was a priest at St. Mary's Church in Mount Angel and principal at Mount Angel Preparatory school for boys. He died at age 89 in 1996, an abbey lawyer said. The second priest, Father Louis Charvet, 82, resides at the abbey after the Benedictines last week abruptly transferred him from an assignment in the Gervais parish pending an investigation.
In a written statement, the archdiocese pointed out the "great challenges" of investigating claims of 50-year-old actions and pointed out that the Benedictines, not the archdiocese, had assigned Charvet to the area.
"Priests of religious orders who work at Mount Angel Seminary are not assigned to those positions by the Archdiocese of Portland," the statement said. "The archdiocese has no record of any prior complaint against either of these men, by the plaintiff or anyone else."
The archdiocese is the governing body of the church, even though the religious orders make the assignments.
Archbishop John G. Vlazny encourages victims of abuse to contact the church, the statement said.
The abbey released its own statement promising to thoroughly investigate the claims. "However, we have no knowledge of any inappropriate conduct" by either priest, the abbey said.
Richard J. Whittemore, a lawyer for the abbey, denied a request to interview Charvet, and calls to the abbey were referred to its public relations office.
Schmidt is a credit union CEO in a town of 4,000. He and his wife, Bonny, have six children from previous marriages. He spoke to his family and several friends and employees before going public.
He grew up in Mount Angel, the fourth of 13 children. His family attended Mass daily in the rural Willamette Valley town that reflects the German ancestry of many of its inhabitants.
The kids liked to roller skate near St. Mary's Church because the sidewalk was sloped. One day, when he was 7, he fell down.
"This priest came to my rescue," he said, and took the boy to a basement. "He said, 'You've scraped your knee,' and he had me take my pants down."
Schmidt said the priest fondled him. "From there, it became very violent," he said. "He threw me onto the table. I started crying, I remember. He yelled at me to quit my goddamn crying or he'd kill me. And then he raped me."
Next, he forced the boy to perform a sex act, Schmidt said. "Then it was pretty much over," he said. "He told me I was never to tell anyone, and if I did, he would make sure that my mother would never get into heaven. I remember that very distinctly in the process of recalling all this."
Schmidt said that an adult from town entered the basement as the priest was leaving, there was a confrontation, and the man carried Schmidt home. A housekeeper bathed the boy, he said. His parents never knew about the abuse, Schmidt said.
He said the man and the housekeeper are now deceased.
Schmidt's lawsuit names Frank as the priest.
And then Schmidt buried the incident from his memory, he said. He went on to be an altar boy in Mount Angel, and, at age 13, entered the seminary. He recalls feeling uncomfortable with the sacrament of reconciliation, with entering a confessional and being alone with a priest, and he eventually stopped going.
Charvet was in charge of Schmidt's dorm, Schmidt said. The priest called the teen into his office one day, Schmidt said. According to the lawsuit, the priest spoke in a sexually explicit manner to Schmidt and masturbated. There was no physical contact, Schmidt said: "I was absolutely afraid to move."
He dropped out of the seminary shortly after and eventually quit attending Mass. He never told anyone about either incident, he said.
Years later, in the late 1990s, he began experiencing mild seizures. He tested negative in Seattle for epilepsy and eventually began therapy. The seizures increased in severity and frequency, to as many as 20 a day, rendering him rigid and unable to move, he said. He'd miss work for days.
Then, in late April 1999, during a therapy session, he recalled being attacked as a child by someone in a black robe. At the next session, he remembered Frank's face, he said. Charvet was easier to remember, he said, because the alleged encounter occurred when he was a teen, and it was far less severe.
He said he's learned to cope with the encounters through therapy, but felt more and more troubled by reports in the media. He saw coverage of recent lawsuits against the Vatican for allegations of sex abuse involving U.S. priests, including a former Portland priest, and he and his wife decided to call attorney David Slader.
Slader said the archdiocese was named in the lawsuit because "they have a long pattern of tolerating child abuse by their priests, and that fact cannot have escaped the knowledge of these two priests, and that gave them license to do what they did to David Schmidt."
Schmidt said he decided to use his full name in hopes of bringing out other possible victims. "With my face showing, telling this story can be helpful to others," he said.
Word spread quickly Friday in Mount Angel as Schmidt's large family, several of whom still live in the area, notified friends of the lawsuit.
He said he remains distrustful, even loathing, of all priests, even though he realizes that's not fair to good priests. He finds it difficult to have a full spiritual life, because some part of him feels like he's betraying the faith he was baptized into, he said.
"Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. That's the hardest part of it," he said. "It's hard to kill."
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