Brothers File Lawsuit against Diocese, Ex-Priest Three Men Accuse Bernard Oosterman of Sexually Abusing Them As Children

By Virginia de Leon
Spokesman Review
May 16, 2003

Three brothers who say they were sexually abused as children filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane and their alleged perpetrator - Bernard ''Benno" Oosterman, an ex-priest who worked in the diocese for more than two decades.

It is the fifth complaint filed in the past nine months against the Diocese of Spokane.

The plaintiffs - identified only by their initials, W.M., H.M. and B.M. - were molested when they were between the ages of 8 and 13, according to the suit filed in King County Superior Court.

Oosterman allegedly abused H.M. and his brothers between 1968 and 1975. He was a close friend of the family, said H.M. of Seattle. His parents trusted him. The boys called him ''Uncle Barney."

''We all worshipped him," said H.M., who is now 42. ''He was a priest. ... What do you do when God's right-hand man wants to play with your private parts?"

According to information from the Spokane Diocese, the former priest worked at Sacred Heart Church in Wellpinit until 1971 and then served as pastor of both Sacred Heart in Wilbur and St. Benedict in Coulee Dam until 1975.

Oosterman, now 75 and a resident of Center Point, Texas, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

According to the complaint, the boys were raised in a devout Catholic family, served as altar boys and regularly attended Mass. The lawsuit claims that Oosterman took advantage of ''his position of authority, trust, reverence and control as a Roman Catholic priest" to molest the boys at various locations, including King County.

H.M. and his brothers lived in North Seattle, but their parents allowed them to travel with Oosterman to Wellpinit and Wilbur. According to H.M., their grandfather helped Oosterman build the church on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

The plaintiffs continue to suffer emotional and psychological distress, depression and pain, according to the suit. They also were not aware that each of them was a sexual abuse victim until this past year.

The lawsuit says the diocese failed to report Oosterman to law enforcement authorities despite knowledge of the abuse. The diocese's conduct also left the victims with the impression that the priest's conduct ''was proper and that legal action was not necessary," preventing the boys from figuring out what had happened to them and exacerbating their trauma, the suit says.

H.M. said he contacted the Spokane Diocese last year but all he was offered was counseling.

''I don't know how the Catholic Church can say they're not responsible for what happened," he said.

In October, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane named seven priests who had admitted to him they had sexually abused minors. Oosterman was on that list.

According to newspaper accounts from the 1950s, Oosterman was born in Indonesia and attended college in Holland before being ordained in 1956. He worked at a number of area parishes, including St. Francis Xavier in Spokane, Holy Family in Clarkston and St. Patrick's in Pasco. In 1978, he was released to the Archdiocese of Anchorage. He resigned in 1980, according to records from the Spokane Diocese.

In 1993, the diocese settled a lawsuit brought against it by two victims of Oosterman. One of those victims, who asked not to be identified, was molested between age 6 and 12 when his family lived near Wellpinit.

The diocese has settled six lawsuits involving eight alleged victims of sexual abuse since 1985. The average settlement has been about $60,000 per victim, according to the diocese.


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