New Suit Alleges Priest Abused Boy
Seventh Suit against Spokane Diocese Claims Priest Molested 12-Year-Old

By Virginia de Leon
Spokesman Review
June 10, 2003

Another lawsuit alleging priest sexual abuse was filed Monday against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane.

It was the seventh complaint filed in the last 10 months against the diocese. The lawsuits represent a total of 30 plaintiffs - 27 alleged victims (including one who committed suicide last year) and three spouses.

The latest suit was filed by Michael Ross, one of the founders of the local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Also named as a plaintiff is Ross' wife, Madeleine Ross. The suit also names the Yakima diocese as a defendant.

Michael Ross claims to have been molested as a 12-year-old by Monsignor Joseph Sondergeld, a priest who died in 1969.

The abuse he suffered 35 years ago still tortures him, Ross has said in numerous interviews. It has taken a toll on his marriage and family life, he said, adding he has difficulty sleeping and has contemplated suicide.

Filed in Spokane County Superior Court, the lawsuit claims both the Spokane and Yakima dioceses had known for more than 40 years that Sondergeld was a sexual predator. Instead of warning parents and reporting him to law enforcement, bishops and church officials repeatedly moved him to different

locations and "permitted Sondergeld to prey upon unsuspecting children," the suit stated.

Sondergeld was ordained in 1916 and worked as a parish priest in the Spokane Diocese from 1918 to 1951. After that, he worked in the Yakima Diocese until he retired in 1967.

According to the lawsuit, the priest abused Ross in 1967 and 1968. Ross, a student at St. Paul's Catholic School in Yakima, also was Sondergeld's paperboy. The complaint states that the priest paid Ross after each act of molestation so that the boy wouldn't report the crime.

Both dioceses "knew or should have known" that Sondergeld was a pedophile who used his position as a priest to exploit and sexually abuse children, the lawsuit said. It accuses the church of covering up the crimes and responding to disclosures of abuse by blaming the children, as well as portraying

Sondergeld as a "worthy, chaste and honorable man" despite knowledge of his criminal behavior.

Bishop Carlos Sevilla of Yakima declined to comment on the allegations because he had yet to see a copy of the lawsuit Monday afternoon.

In a prepared statement, the Rev. Steve Dublinski, vicar general of the Diocese of Spokane said: "In keeping with (Bishop William Skylstad's) goal for the Diocese of Spokane to treat all victims with respect and respond to their needs for healing, the bishop, once again, on behalf of the church, wishes to apologize to Mr. Ross for whatever trauma he believes occurred in his life at the hands of Joseph Sondergeld over 30 years ago."

Dublinski also wrote that at the time of the alleged abuse, Sondergeld was 81 or 82, retired, living with his sister and believed to have been in a state of senile dementia. He "was a retired priest in the Yakima diocese, not the Spokane diocese," Dublinski added.

Sondergeld wasn't one of the six priests identified as abusers last year by Skylstad. Although the diocese has reported to police victims' accusations against six others who are now dead, it has declined to release their names.

Dublinski wouldn't say whether Sondergeld was among the deceased priests or if he has been accused of abuse while working in Spokane. The diocese plans to hold a news conference Thursday, he said.

By failing to identify those priests, the diocese has "reabused" the victims, Ross has said in numerous interviews. It's as if his suffering is less valid to the church than the experience of victims whose perpetrators are still alive, he said.

Besides Sondergeld, the following men who have served as priests in Spokane have been named in the seven lawsuits filed this past year: Patrick O'Donnell, Reinard Beaver, Dominic Doyle and Bernard Oosterman. Another lawsuit has accused a former priest, Ronald Lane Fontenot, of sexual abuse but did not include the Spokane Diocese as a defendant.

More lawsuits are expected in the coming months, victims' attorneys say.


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