Sex abuse victim questions Seattle archdiocese transparency

by Dan Morris-Young

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A woman who won a $950,000 judgment against the Seattle archdiocese last month for negligence related to her 1983 rape by a janitor at a Seattle Catholic grade school, has issued a public rebuke of how the settlement was portrayed to parishioners.

Referred to as "A.W." to protect her identity, the woman was a 10-year-old fifth grader at the time of the attack at St. John the Evangelist School.

In a Dec. 14 statement released through her attorneys, the victim charges that a message to St. John parishioners and school families was misleading and "makes it sound like my claim had no merit."

A Nov. 17 "message to the parish and the school" signed by Fr. Crispin Okoth, pastor, and Bernadette O'Leary, principal, expressed regret for the incident, hope for the victim's healing, and assurance that the school is committed to "a safe environment for all children in our care."

The pastor and principal also synthesized the case: "The former employee, Charles Siddons, was hired as a custodian for the parish and school. He was immediately terminated from his position when the incident was reported. He was arrested, charged and plead guilty to the crime."

"There is nothing in personnel records that indicates information was available at the time of his hiring suggesting that he was a potential threat to children," they added. Siddons died in 1997.

In the Dec. 14 statement, however, A.W. and her attorneys Jason P. Amala and Michael T. Pfau claim that the narrative for parishioners "failed to disclose the testimony of the [former] vice principal and others that suggests the school knew for years that Siddons posed a danger to children."

"The Seattle Archdiocese should have acknowledged mistakes were made and used this settlement as an opportunity to explain why it is so important that people report suspected abuse," Amala states in the release. "By failing to acknowledge complaints were made and warning signs were ignored, the archdiocese is perpetuating a false sense of safety and undermining the policies and procedures that are now in place to prevent abuse."

In their message, Okoth and O'Leary urged persons to report any "knowledge of sexual abuse or misconduct by a member of the clergy, an employee or volunteer" to the archdiocese's "hotline."

They introduced the letter by asking that any inquiries "by the media regarding this communication" be directed to Greg Magnoni, archdiocesan director of communications.

Magnoni had not responded to NCR emails for comment as of Dec. 16, but a KING-TV report quoted Magnoni as saying the open letter to parishioners and school families spoke for itself and "was an effort to be as transparent as possible and in a way that would be helpful to the school and the parishioners."

In a rebuttal to an Oct. 7 archdiocesan motion to dismiss the case, attorneys Pfau and Amala outline what they argue was extensive awareness of Siddons' "well-known history of fondling students' breasts, slapping their butts, and looking up their skirts."

On Dec. 14, the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests issued a statement in support of A.W. and critical of what it called "the continuing secrecy of church officials with predators."

The complaint against the archdiocese was filed in King County Superior Court on Aug. 11, 2015.

In March the Seattle archdiocese reached a $9.1 million settlement with a group of eight women abused by a former priest, Michael Cody, while working in four parishes from 1968 to 1974.

In a March 23 statement, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain said he regretted the abuse the women experienced and hoped the settlement and the counseling provided by the archdiocese would "bring healing and give them a measure of closure so they can move forward."

Sartain also said he had invited the women to meet with him so he could "offer them my personal apology."

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast correspondent.]

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