Molestation scandal hits Whidbey

The nationwide scandal over allegations of some Catholic priests' sexual abuse of children has touched Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor.

A recent lawsuit in Vancouver, Wash., alleges that a former priest at St. Augustine's Catholic Church in Oak Harbor, Rev. Barry Ashwell, molested an altar boy over a five-year period at another parish in the mid-1970s.

After the lawsuit became public, a spokesman with the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese said there was a second accusation made against Ashwell, but that alleged molestation also occurred many years ago.

According to the spokesman, a man came forward about five years ago -- while Ashwell was in Oak Harbor -- and accused Ashwell of molesting him as a child.

A forensic psychologist hired by the archdiocese evaluated the case and found the accusation inconclusive. The archdiocese agreed to pay for the man's counseling.

In both cases, the statute of limitations for possible criminal charges expired several years ago.

The current priest at St. Augustine's, Rev. Jack O'Leary, came to the parish in June 2000, just after Ashwell left. O'Leary said Ashwell "was both popular and not popular" among parishioners.

"Some people loved him very deeply," he said, adding that Ashwell is a "very private man."

While O'Leary said there is a church directive that priests change churches every six or 12 years, Ashwell had been at St. Augustine's for 22 years. O'Leary said he didn't know why Ashwell stayed in Oak Harbor so long or why he left when he did.

"It wouldn't be unnatural for him to move," O'Leary said.

While parishioners contacted about the allegation refused to comment, O'Leary said he suspects the accusations will make church members "uncomfortable."

"If (the accusations are) true," he said, "it's a very sad thing, and will make a lot of people very unhappy."

While O'Leary said the wave of sex-abuse accusations against priests hasn't changed the way people treat him, he added that he is very aware of the problem. He addressed the issue in a recent homily.

"It's a problem and we don't have answers..." he said. "If this is going on, it's a good thing that it has come to light."

The Clark County lawsuit names the Archdiocese of Seattle, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle and Father Barry Ashwell as defendants. The plaintiff, however, is only identified as "M.H."

The lawsuit claims, in part, that Ashwell "suffered from a mental disorder known as pedophilia. This disorder caused him to be compelled to perpetrate sexual acts upon young boys. Using the power, authority and trust of his position as priest and youth pastor... Ashwell enticed, directed and coerced M.H to engage in sexual acts upon him."

The plaintiff's attorney, James Sellers of Vancouver, did not return phone calls. Ashwell could not be reached.

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