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SNAP of Tennessee

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee 

Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell and St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church

 By Michael Wegs

When Anthony J. O’Connell was named the first bishop of the new Diocese of Knoxville in 1988, his promotion to a management position in the Roman Catholic Church was greeted with celebration, not only in Tennessee, but also in Missouri where he had served as a priest for 25 years. 

O’Connell was hero to those who knew as a teacher, mentor, spiritual leader, and confidante at the small college prep school that sits atop a hill in Hannibal, Mo.  O’Connell came to the United States to continue his studies for the priesthood in the early 60’s.  When he was ordained his first assignment in 1964 was to teach high school students at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary (STAS).  For the next 25 years, O’C (as he was known to the students) directed and shaped the agenda for the college prep seminary, as well as the minds and moral character of the young boys who were in his care.  In fact, O’Connell and St. Thomas were synonymous for the generations of boys who came within his sphere of influence.

I am one of those boys (Class of 1971) albeit somewhat older and wiser today.  I am also one of several STAS alumni who has filed suit against O’C, alleging sexual misconduct and abuse.  I am, along with other publicly identified alumni, stand witness against the man who has been acknowledged and honored as a moral paragon of virtue of the Roman Catholic Church in America.  Peculiar to the Church in Oakridge, I am one reason why the Bishop O'Connell Family Life Center at St. Mary’s Catholic Church should be renamed.

I am not alone in my testimony.  I can take comfort in the fact that my suit against O’C has led to significant disclosures about the sexual appetite of this priest and prince of the Church.  For example, one of the first claims of sexual abuse against O’C surfaced in 1967 when the mother of one of my classmates informed Father Richard Kaiser, the seminary rector, that O’C had taken advantage of her son.  Fr. Kaiser did nothing, and, apparently, Bishop Joseph M. Marling, the first bishop of Jefferson City, did nothing about this complaint.  Marling’s successor, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, continued this pattern of negligence, despite repeated allegations throughout O’C’s career in Missouri.  But now I know why this classmate left STAS before he completed his freshman year, and I have a unique view of the man I turned to for guidance throughout my 10-year affiliation with the diocese.

When I first filed suit in March, I received a call from the upper classman, who was a year ahead of me during my time at St. Thomas (1967-1971).  This person is someone I have not spoken to in about 30 years.  He called my attorney to offer a sworn affidavit against O’C, detailing the man’s sexual maneuvers.  And, to my surprise, this alum lives nearby. 

To track the progression and changes in O’C’s sexual abuse patterns, my attorney has posted a timeline at http://www.ralawfirm.com/s/globals/JohnTDoe_Timeline.pdf.  The details of the timeline show a priest who evolved from a man who engaged students in sexualized conversation and counseling sessions to rape within a 10-year period.

When O’C resigned as bishop of Palm Beach he acknowledged the $125,000 settlement in a suit brought by STAS alum Christopher Dixon, who was ordained and then brought back to St. Thomas by O’C to teach.  O’C also acknowledge that one other alum might step forward. 

Since I filed suit March 18 as John Doe, at least 12 other STAS alumni have come forward with affidavits or suits against the former bishop of Knoxville and Palm Beach.  Even some of O’C’s former colleagues in Jefferson City have corroborated the sex crimes alleged by St. Thomas students.  Given the psychiatric profile of pedophilia,
O’C probably abused, conservatively, 100 students who attended STAS. 

Most likely O’C will never have to pay for his criminal behavior because statute of limitations laws will shield him from justice.  And even though he was forced to resign his Palm Beach post, he is still a bishop and maintains all the privileges that accompany the title, like his mentor and patron, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.

The folks at St. Mary’s will do the right thing by removing O’C’s name for their Family Life Center.  They can also do something else considering the lack of accountability and cover-up schemes of the American hierarchy:  lobby the Tennessee Legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations for sex crimes and require clergy of all religious denominations to become mandated reporters of abuse. 

Crimes against children are unspeakable and horrific.  It is the responsibility of parents to see to that their children are protected from sexual predators of all stripes, including ordained clergy.  Clearly parents now know they must take these precautions, because the Church hierarchy refuses to do so.

Michael Wegs, a communications professional, lives in St. Paul, MN.