Date: 2004-05-15

Author: CLAUDIA ROWE P-I reporter

A priest celebrated for his work running a school for impoverished boys in South America has been accused in a lawsuit of molesting one of his young charges and continuing the sexual abuse by taking him to a Vancouver, Wash., parish, purportedly as an adopted son.

Papers filed yesterday in King County Superior Court allege that Father James Mitchell of Pullman sexually abused Ariel Ariza for several years beginning in 1982 when Ariza was 17. Mitchell, the recipient of numerous testimonials about his good works as director of the El Camino school in rural Colombia, took Ariza there from his mother's home and later offered to rear the boy in the United States, Ariza said in an interview.

Only years later did Ariza learn from immigration officials that Mitchell had never actually adopted him. Two other boys were living in the priest's Vancouver home at the same time, the lawsuit says.

"There are so many things that come to your mind when it's happening - you don't know what is right and what is wrong," the man said. "He was like my father."

Calls to a Pullman number listed under Mitchell's name were not returned.

In a soft voice, Ariza described life with the priest.

"We couldn't go out, couldn't have friendships. We were prohibited from doing anything that didn't have anything to do with him," Ariza said. "We were kind of intimidated and cut off from the outside world."

Ariza is identified by only his initials in the lawsuit, but spoke for the record in an interview.

Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for the Seattle Archdiocese, said officials had heard about Mitchell - indeed, a fellow cleric raised questions about him - but believed that the alleged abuse occurred only in Colombia. Also, Magnoni said, Mitchell was an extern, a priest ordained elsewhere who worked for the Seattle church but was officially part of another diocese. He could not immediately say which one. Nor could he say what action the Seattle Archdiocese had taken once made aware of the allegations.

He added that the accusations concerned events before 1988, when the church had no formal process for reaching out to those claiming abuse.

The lawsuit, filed by the firm of Rogers and Fleck, accuses the archdiocese of negligence in its oversight of Mitchell and seeks unspecified damages. It is one of 12 such cases attorneys there are handling.

"The archdiocese knew or should have known that Father Mitchell was a pedophile and molester," the suit says.

Ariza's attorney, Mary Fleck, called the case deeply troubling.

"You've got young boys living in a rectory, isolated and particularly vulnerable," she said. "There should have been supervision of this priest to find out what he was doing with the boys when he brought them here from another country."

Almost as objectionable as these facts, she added, is the church's resistance to providing information about Mitchell.

"One of the predominant issues in these cases is the victims feeling betrayed, and they feel doubly betrayed when the archdiocese isn't forthcoming with information," she said.

Magnoni expressed exasperation at those remarks.

"I'm completely unaware of efforts by the plaintiff's attorney to get information from the archdiocese," he said. "It's the basic attempt to paint the whole Catholic Church with a single brush and to paint every priest with the same brush. They do a total injustices to priests - and to their profession - by operating in the manner that they do."

P-I reporter Claudia Rowe can be reached at 206-448-8320 or


Primary links

Pound Pup Legacy