Catholic church pays $2 million to settle local abuse cases

Two former priests at St. Michael in Snohomish were among four “credibly accused” of molesting children.

SNOHOMISH — The Archdiocese of Seattle has reached over $2 million in settlements in the past six months due to credible allegations of sexual abuse against four Catholic priests in Western Washington, including two former leaders of a parish in Snohomish and one in Everett.

The Rev. Michael C. OBrien led St. Michael Parish from 1974 to 1979.

He was succeeded by the Rev. Dennis Champagne from 1979 to 1999, who then became the priest of St. John Bosco Church in Lakewood. Church leaders put Champagne on leave in 2002, after someone accused him of sexual misconduct.

OBrien was also accused of “a credible complaint of sexual abuse,” and he was defrocked in 2010.

Both men had been flagged as potential abusers for decades but continued to serve as priests.

In July, the Seattle archdiocese agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of money to a plaintiff accusing both priests of abuse in Snohomish in the 1970s and early 1980s, according to a press release sent out Thursday by the archdiocese.

The payout is separate from another $1.7 million settlement reached earlier in 2020, involving another allegation of sexual abuse by Champagne.

The archdiocese did not say how much time elapsed between the initial report of abuse and Champagne being put on leave.

News reports from 2002 say then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was aware of at least one allegation from the 1980s.

“When it became evident to me that an allegation from over 20 years ago, which I thought had been dealt with, was going to be made public in the press, I decided that the best thing I could do was to submit my resignation from active ministry to the archbishop,” Champagne wrote in a statement to his parish in 2002.

A spokesperson for the archdiocese, Helen McClenahan, declined to say Friday how many times the priests were accused of abusing children in Snohomish, citing privacy concerns for victims.

This month the Seattle Times published a story about a group of Catholics seeking greater transparency from regional church leaders — contending that the archdiocese continues to resist releasing secret files on pedophile priests, “stonewalling” victims who say a full accounting will help to heal and rebuild trust.

Both of the Snohomish priests were named among dozens of other alleged abusers in a list released under Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain in 2016.

Sixteen of the clergy on the original list served in Snohomish County.

Champagne, 75, remains a priest but has been banned from public ministry, under a Catholic punishment known as “permanent prayer and penance.” He lives in Tacoma.

According to news articles maintained by Bishop-Accountability.org, OBrien had been put on leave at least three times due to sex abuse allegations: in 1993, when he served at St. John the Evangelist parish in Vancouver, Washington; in 2004, when he was accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy on a canoe trip more than a decade earlier; and in 2008, when abuse allegations from the late 1960s ultimately led to his defrocking.

At the time of the alleged abuse in 1969, OBrien served at Our Lady of Lourdes in Vancouver. He also worked at St. Ann in Tacoma (1970 to 1973); St. James Cathedral in Seattle (1973 to 1974); St. John (1979 to 1999); and St. Mary of the Valley in Monroe (1999 to 2008).

“Sexual abuse against minors is such a terrible thing … the error in the past has been to not recognize it and that’s an additional abuse to people who are abused because when it’s denied, that hurts them all the more,” he told KOMO when he was reinstated in 2004.

OBrien told the TV reporter his leave was “a small price to pay for the protection of children,” and that he was “overjoyed” to return to his parish.

After he was put on leave a third time, he resigned in 2009. He had maintained that he was innocent, but eventually recognized that he had “engaged in behaviors that were not consistent with his priestly vocation,” according to a letter from Archbishop Alex Brunett to Monroe parishioners.

OBrien, 81, now lives in Steilacoom. He has been laicized, a term with Latin roots meaning he’s no longer a priest.

The archdiocese reached another settlement in November involving the Rev. Paul Conn, who served at Queen of Angels Parish in Port Angeles in the late 1980s. The archdiocese passed along a report of sexual abuse to police in 1988. Conn was convicted of six counts of sex crimes, and he was sentenced to four years in state prison.

A third settlement came in a case where the Rev. James Knelleken was accused of sexual abuse in Raymond, in southwest Washington, in the early 1960s. Knelleken’s last assignment as a priest was at Immaculate Conception in Everett. He was put on leave after an abuse allegation came to light in 1988, and he was laicized in 1996. Knelleken died in 2003.

In all, the three settlements added up to just over $2 million. The archdiocese declined to provide further information about the actual allegations, instead pointing to the list released in 2016.

The roster was updated this month.

It now shows 80 names of clergy credibly accused of abusing children: 31 priests within the Seattle archdiocese; 16 priests from other dioceses who spent time at churches in Western Washington; two deacons; 16 “religious priests”; 14 religious brothers; and one religious sister, or nun.

One name is James Mitchell, a priest who adopted a Colombian teenager in the early 1980s and brought him along to his assignment at St. John’s Parish in Vancouver, where he worked under the Rev. OBrien — who had just been reassigned from Snohomish. As an adult, the Colombian later publicly accused Mitchell of sexual abuse lasting about five years.

One of the more prominent local priests on the list is John Cornelius, also known as John McKenna, a charismatic preacher with celebrity friends who resigned from Immaculate Conception in Everett in 2002, amid allegations that he molested at least a dozen boys from the 1960s to 1980s.

Eight priests and the nun on the list served in Everett at some point: Edward Boyle (1956 to 1958); Cornelius (1997 to 2002); Sister Dolores Crosby (1992 to 1999); David Jaeger (1972 to 1975); Knelleken (1984 to 1988); Theodore Marmo (1965 to 1969); James McGreal (1981 to 1985); and Harold Quigg (1960 to 1966).

The list is at protect-seattlearchdiocese.org.

The Catholic Church encourages people to report any abuse or suspicion of abuse to local police.

The archdiocese also has a hotline, 1-800-446-7762, for anyone who suspects misconduct by clergy, a church employee or a volunteer.

Survivors may wish to reach out to SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, through snapnetwork.org/washington.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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