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A pedophile priest got a Ph.D from UW. Should the university revoke his degree?


n part, it was his position — as a priest and doctoral student — that convinced so many children and parents at Seattle’s St. Paul School and Catholic parish to trust Patrick O’Donnell.

He told them he was working on his graduate research when he recruited 60 seventh- and eighth-graders for a 1978 dissertation experiment “on the subject of trust.” And he told them he was working on “research” when he asked parents and teachers to pull students out of class.

In fact, the reason he was in Seattle in the first place was because the Spokane Diocese had sent him to get treatment for what one priest euphemistically called his “pediatrician complex.”

In the 1970s and early ’80s, as he was moved from parish to parish — in Spokane, Seattle, and the small eastern Washington town of Rosalia — he allegedly molested more than 65 children, court records show. He admitted abusing at least 30. Six victims were from St. Paul.

By 2002, O’Donnell had become known as one of the most infamous predator priests in the region. His actions helped drive the Spokane Diocese into bankruptcy. He was sued — settling for $5 million he didn’t have. He lost his psychiatry job, his role as a priest and his reputation.

But O’Donnell still has one honor left.

“He can put the letters Ph.D after his name, and that’s still a problem,” said Pomona College chemistry professor Dan O’Leary. “He’s in my world, higher education. I don’t think he deserves to be in this world.”

Back when O’Leary was an altar boy in Seattle, he had his own run-in with O’Donnell. Since 2018, O’Leary has been doggedly urging the University of Washington to take a radical step: revoking O’Donnell’s 1978 degree entirely.

Emails provided to InvestigateWest show that UW has seriously considered taking that step over the past six years. Numerous administrators, university investigators, the Title IX office and even the state attorney general’s office have weighed in. The university declined to make any staffers available for an interview with InvestigateWest, and InvestigateWest was unable to reach O’Donnell, now 81, for comment.

In a statement, however, the university said that while the actions were “heinous and reprehensible” and the efforts to seek justice “certainly understandable,” they were “unable to obtain evidence that in the course of his graduate work, Mr. O’Donnell met the standard for degree revocation.”


InvestigateWest, however, has uncovered additional evidence tying O’Donnell’s sexual abuse to his graduate work and calling the honesty of the work itself into question. Degrees have been revoked before, but mostly for issues like plagiarism and data falsification. Revoking a degree for sexual assault would mean diving into a thorny issue that has divided academics for decades: Can you separate the research from the researcher?

Former American Psychiatric Association President Paul Appelbaum, an expert on ethics in medicine and psychiatry, said even the question of whether to use data from the experiments conducted in Nazi death camps doesn’t have a clear consensus among researchers. He’s uneasy about the idea of revoking O’Donnell’s degree, instead of just condemning his actions.

“Going back to erase the record of his Ph.D seems to raise more problems than it could conceivably address,” Appelbaum said.

Yet Mary Dispenza, part of the Seattle Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that even decades later, it “matters to a survivor” when an “institution finally stands up to crimes of any nature.”

“If the university has the right to do that, I say do it,” Dispenza said. “If it is a wrong act, you make it right. It doesn’t matter if it’s 50 years later.”

For the sake of science

O’Leary wasn’t one of O’Donnell’s victims. But he thinks he almost was. O’Leary said he remembers lying on his back, in the winter of his eighth-grade year, at a university pool after O’Donnell offered to teach him how to swim. He will never forget the look on O’Donnell’s face as he floated in his arms.

“It was really clear to me that he was fantasizing,” O’Leary said.

The priest wanted to shower afterward, O’Leary recalls, but the altar boy declined to join him. These memories are nearly a half-century old, but he still finds them “chilling to the bone.”

“It’s like being in a car with Ted Bundy,” O’Leary said.

But he also knows that lawsuits are filled with depositions of boys who said they’d experienced far worse. There were boys who knew O’Donnell as a basketball coach, or track coach, or Boy Scout chaplain, or a family friend. There were boys he’d strip naked after basketball practice, boys he’d take out on his boat, boys he’d wrestle, grope, tell to keep quiet.

There was the boy O’Donnell would let drive if he’d sit on his lap. The boy who rolled the lowest number in a dice game in O’Donnell’s hot tub and had to run naked to the dock to do push-ups. And the boy who knew something was wrong one night at Spokane’s Bishop White Seminary, who tried to call his mom again and again but kept getting a busy signal until O’Donnell was on top of him, mauling him, kissing him, grinding against him, until the boy pleaded with him enough times to stop.

There were boys who grew up and confronted O’Donnell. In the courtroom. In the press. At the front door of the parish with a Bible in their shaking hands. In a suicide note.

The fact that O’Leary got away unharmed, while so many of O’Donnell’s victims didn’t, has stuck with him.


“I think there’s probably some survivor’s guilt,” O’Leary said. “You lived and other people perished.”

It’s part of what’s fueling his tenacity, driving him to keep hammering away on this issue for so many years. Whenever one UW administrator stopped responding to his emails, he’d simply reach out to another.

When he managed to get his hands on O’Donnell’s 1978 doctoral dissertation — sent to him in California by interlibrary loan — the thing that angered him the most was on the very last page: The University of Washington consent form, a permission slip to participate in the experiment that students and parents were asked to sign.

“That told me that O’Donnell understood that researching with human subjects has responsibility,” O’Leary said. “It’s clear that he was well-aware there are ethical obligations.”

The May 1978 experiment had focused on studying how trust develops between kids and adults. The recruits were asked about the prisoner’s dilemma, a famous two-person negotiation game: If both players are trustworthy and choose to cooperate, they both benefit — gaining a small amount of money. But if one decides to betray the other, the betrayer gets more money and the victim gets nothing.

Attorney Michael Pfau, who represented many of O’Donnell’s victims, said he’s never come across any victims who remember being a part of the experiment. But he cited O’Donnell’s doctoral dissertation, “Evoking Trustworthy Behavior of Children and Adults in A Prisoner’s Dilemma Game,” in multiple lawsuits as an example “of a pedophile using a number of means to gain access to children.”

To O’Leary, the topic was “tragically ironic.” In March 2018, as the #MeToo movement sparked hundreds of whistleblowers across the country to go public with allegations against rapists, O’Leary made his pitch in an email to the UW: If O’Donnell had “engaged in sexually abusive behavior under the pretext of conducting doctoral research” then surely, UW would “disavow itself from that research and question the validity of any degrees given in association” with it.

He knew it was going to be an uphill battle. While plenty of honorary degrees of serial predators such as Bill Cosby have been retracted, pulling a real degree for nonacademic reasons is very rare.

There have been exceptions. In 1999, MIT revoked the diploma of a former fraternity pledge trainer for providing a freshman with the alcohol that killed him. In 2000, a federal court found that University of Virginia did have the right to revoke a graduate’s degree for embezzling funds from a student club, but allowed the student to sue on due process grounds. And while Columbia University officials revoked the degree of a journalism student accused of sexual assault in 2017, they restored it three years later as part of a lawsuit settlement. But almost all of these cases involved recent graduates.

But Applebaum, the ethics expert, said he’s uneasy about the notion of stripping away someone’s degree for anything but academic reasons.

“Whenever someone is convicted of a felony, does that mean we go back and take away their graduate degrees or their undergraduate degrees or their high school diplomas?” he asked. “Where does this end?”

But when O’Leary reached out to UW in 2018, they were coming off of multiple years of headlines about a star university researcher accused repeatedly of sexual harassment.


In emails provided to InvestigateWest, university officials initially seemed supportive of revoking O’Donnell’s degree. Martin Howell, the assistant dean for academic and student affairs in the College of Education at UW, told O’Leary that the “mission and values” of the university were driving him and other administrators to push O’Leary’s proposal forward.

Since the 1950s, UW faculty had the power to recommend that the Board of Regents revoke a degree retroactively — if they could prove it was granted based on “fraud and deceit.”

The fundamental question, Howell wrote in a 2019 email, was whether, if the school knew about O’Donnell’s conduct at the time, they would have refused to grant him the doctorate. At first, Howell said, they anticipated being able to rely on “non-academic misconduct that would have violated the UW Student Conduct Code in place at that time.”

But after a conversation with the state attorney general’s office, the university concluded it would be more difficult than they had suspected: To take away his degree they needed proof of fraud and deceit connected to his actual academic work.

The best evidence for that had come from Jim Biteman, one of O’Donnell’s victims at St. Paul. Biteman was never a part of O’Donnell’s 1978 “Prisoner’s Dilemma” experiment. But the year before, he recounted in a deposition,O’Donnell repeatedly pulled him out of class, claming “he was going to ask me questions regarding research for his university studies.”

The priest would ask the boy to stand in front of the cafeteria window — his back to O’Donnell — and imagine himself naked and describe what he saw. And then O’Donnell would ask Biteman to imagine another boy naked with him, touching him, and ask how the thought made the eighth-grader feel. “He would always say, ‘Don’t tell anybody about this conversation. This is part of my research. I don’t want you to spoil it, because I have to talk to some other boys,’” Biteman said in the deposition. “I know for a fact that he pulled other boys down there and did the same routine, same questions because I have spoken with others that have gone through it.”

Later, O’Donnell invited Biteman on trips on his boat up at a lake — as he did with so many other kids — and molested him.

While Biteman did not respond to an interview request from InvestigateWest, in a 2019 email he stressed to O’Leary that the evidence clearly showed O’Donnell had used his role as a graduate student to abuse underage boys.

“If the UW chooses to ignore the facts and requires ‘proof’ that directly ties his research to the abuse,” Biteman wrote, “then it appears they are not interested in pursuing what is right and are taking the easy way out.”

He hoped O’Leary could get traction on his efforts to convince UW to revoke O’Donnell’s degree.

“Anything that can be done to discredit this guy, who is currently living out his life … with little if any payment or accountability for his crimes, is welcome,” Biteman wrote.

An academic question

Finally, last June — more than five years after O’Leary first raised the issue with the university — he was told the investigation had come to a halt.

The trouble with Biteman’s account, the university explained in a letter to O’Leary, was that they didn’t have any evidence O’Donnell was actually conducting doctoral research when he was victimizing the eighth-grade boy.

If O’Donnell was lying to Biteman, if his “research” didn’t have anything to do with his studies and he was just molesting them, then his degree was safe.

On its face, that may seem perverse. But Appelbaum, the ethics expert, argues that it makes sense. A university degree shouldn’t be read as a moral badge of character, he said; it’s proof of the completion of academic standards.

“If a man, however evil he was a person and however many people he may have harmed, fulfilled the requirements for a Ph.D, then he’s got a Ph.D,” Appelbaum said.

In UW’s emails to O’Leary, officials stressed they’d tried to find a clear connection to his dissertation.

While O’Donnell had written that 60 seventh- and eighth-graders had participated in the experiment at St. Paul, there was no record of who they were. The university tried to reach out to Biteman, but never heard back. The university even sent a letter to O’Donnell himself, to his home in Mount Vernon, but through an attorney, O’Donnell declined to talk. But UW would not tell InvestigateWest whether they considered another major trove of information: court records.

During a 2004 deposition, O’Donnell testified that he did pull kids like Biteman out of class for purposes tied to UW academics — but didn’t indicate it had anything to do directly with his dissertation. Instead, he said, he was performing a “psychological test” on them.

His academic transcripts, indeed, show he was taking a class called “individual testing,” which focused on intelligence tests for children. But O’Donnell said the tests he was conducting involved a word-association game where the kids would have to react to words like “man,” “masturbation” and “intercourse,” though he claimed he didn’t particularly emphasize the sexually charged words over other words.

O’Leary sees it as evidence of “extensive human subjects violation during the courses” that O’Donnell had taken. Combined with Biteman’s testimony, it suggested that O’Donnell had been using these kinds of games to groom young boys and that this behavior was clearly intertwined with his academic work.

“When someone is a rule breaker, it’s worth going back and taking a close look at their doctoral research, and see whether there’s any rule-breaking there, too,” Appelbaum said.

Indeed, O’Donnell insisted that the only reason that he had landed on the “prisoner’s dilemma” dissertation topic was because “the ethics committee at the university wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do” and he’d done similar research for his master’s program at Gonzaga University.

InvestigateWest found his published master’s thesis — “Eliciting Trustworthy Behavior in A Prisoner’s Dilemma Game” — in the Gonzaga library archives.

Vast sections of O’Donnell’s doctoral dissertation had lifted entire pages from his master’s thesis word for word, right down to using the same lengthy quotes from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” about howthe “difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”

Today, the UW warns doctoral students that plagiarism, even using “your own, previously published work” without citing it, could prevent them from getting a degree.

The prohibition against self-plagiarism can be hazy, Appelbaum said, but it becomes a problem “when it crosses the line from merely recapitulating the same idea or using the same phrase to extracting and reusing a larger body of words.”

Self-plagiarism, of course, is almost a comically minor sin compared to those committed against the more than 30 victims O’Donnell has confessed to molesting. But, crucially, it’s an academic one.

The revelation has re-invigorated O’Leary. Earlier this month, he was armed with a highlighter and a green pen, going line by line through a copy of O’Donnell’s dissertation, marking up just how many lines appeared verbatim in each of them. He even identified two small instances of plagiarizing other people’s work — nearly word-for-word quotes that were sourced in the Gonzaga thesis but unsourced in his dissertation.

“I’m confident it would raise eyebrows,” O’Leary said. “Anyone on a dissertation committee, if they knew that was happening, they would consider it fraud or deceit.”

Presented with this evidence by InvestigateWest, the UW said it remains open to new information but was “focused on the concerns regarding abuse of minors within the conduct of his university research, not plagiarism.” It declined to comment further.

But O’Leary sees an opportunity: O’Donnell had used the pretext of UW doctoral research to molest children as a grad student. Now, O’Leary argued, the university could use the shoddiness of his actual research as a pretext for removing the degree of a child molester.

“It does directly meet the usual standard for degree revocation,” O’Leary said. “Maybe the university is actually secretly hoping for a valid reason to do the right thing.”