UW weighs whether to revoke a notorious child molester’s Ph.D. | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

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, 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 have 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, claiming “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 how the “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 reinvigorated 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.”

InvestigateWest ( is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. A Report for America corps member, Daniel Walters covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at [email protected].

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