Sex Abuse Lawsuit Names Dioceses - Ex-Yakima Resident Claims He Was Abused by Priest Who Served in Yakima, Spokane

By Jane Gargas
Yakima Herald-Republic
June 11, 2003

A former Yakima resident filed suit Monday in Spokane County Superior Court, alleging he was molested as a teenager by a Catholic priest in Yakima.

Michael Ross, who grew up in Yakima, says he was abused on several occasions in 1967-68 by Monsignor Joseph Sondergeld, who died in 1969.

Ross and his wife, Madeleine, are asking for unspecified damages from the Catholic bishops of Yakima and Spokane. Sondergeld ministered in both dioceses from his ordination in 1916 until his retirement in 1967.

Bishop Carlos Sevilla of the Catholic Diocese of Yakima said Tuesday that since he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit, he would be unable to comment.

Ross, born in 1954, attended St. Paul Cathedral School and Carroll High School before moving away to attend college. In his complaint, he claims Sondergeld molested him several times when he visited the priest's home to collect money on his newspaper route.

In a police report Ross filed in Spokane last July, he said Sondergeld would ask "to inspect me" after inviting him into his home. The abuse, which occurred as many as seven different times, stopped when the priest's late sister, Bertha Sondergeld, came home and discovered her brother touching the 14-year-old, according to Ross.

Ross reported to police that Bertha Sondergeld then exclaimed, "Joseph, you are not doing this again!"

A year ago Ross told the Yakima Herald-Republic that he didn't remember being abused until he was undergoing counseling in late 2001. Once the memory returned, Ross said he contacted Sevilla to ask the Yakima diocese to pay for further counseling.

Ross said Sevilla met with him in Spokane last summer and offered to pay for counseling, but Ross said it was never provided.

"They say they want to help, but they do nothing to facilitate it. They fight you all the way," Ross told the paper at the time.

Originally, Ross said, he made three requests to the Yakima diocese: counseling for himself and his wife; information from the church on Sondergeld's past along with a demonstration that steps were being taken to prevent future abuse of children; and a financial settlement.

Ross said he never received help.

"I thought the church was a spiritual organization," he said. "They're not; they're a financial entity, and they're not concerned with healing people."

Ross has also said he knows of 12 other people who were molested in some fashion by Sondergeld and is alleging in his lawsuit that bishops in the Spokane and Yakima dioceses continued to move the priest from parish to parish even after they were aware of his criminal behavior.

Duane Rasmussen, Ross' Spokane attorney, declined comment Tuesday, except to say, "The lawsuit speaks for itself."

Ross is also being represented by Spokane attorney Frank Conklin, former dean of Gonzaga University's School of Law.

William Weigand, attorney for the Yakima diocese, said that as of Tuesday the diocese had not yet been served with the lawsuit, but when it is, the suit will be referred to the diocese insurance carrier's attorneys.

Weigand said no other lawsuits claiming abuse have been filed against the Yakima diocese in the past year.

Ross, who co-founded the Spokane chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said last fall that he would be forced to file a lawsuit if the church didn't accept responsibility for past abuse.

Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, a former bishop of Yakima, issued a statement saying that the goal of the Diocese of Spokane is to treat victims with respect and respond to needs for healing.

The Yakima and Spokane dioceses have 30 days to respond to the complaint, after which the court will set a scheduling order. Conklin, Ross' attorney, estimated that a jury trial could begin within about 18 months.


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