Bishop Caught Up in Scandal Is Recalled as an Ideal Cleric
March 26, 2002
By SAM DILLON, New York Times
To many of the students at the Roman Catholic seminary he headed in Missouri, the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell was a role model and a tireless salesman for religion, the priesthood and life itself. So successful was he at running St. Thomas Seminary that he was chosen bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., in 1988 and, a decade later, bishop of Palm Beach, Fla.
But in the last several weeks, three former seminarians have publicly stepped forward to say he also played a secret and sinister role there.
During his 25 years at St. Thomas, 18 of them as rector, Father O'Connell repeatedly disrobed teenage boys and wrestled them into his bed, and ignored complaints that other priests were also preying on his students, the seminarians and the lawyer for two of them said in interviews here and in lawsuits filed this week in Missouri.
One of the plaintiffs maintains that for several years after becoming a prelate, Bishop O'Connell continued to arrange sexual encounters with him.
Accounts of molestation have touched scores of priests around the nation in recent weeks, but Bishop O'Connell, 63, is the only prelate to have been accused of abuse in the current crisis. The development prompted his resignation as head of the Palm Beach Diocese two weeks ago, along with his admission of wrongdoing.
To hear former students and fellow clerics tell it, few religious leaders were more beloved. Priests who worked with him recall how he crisscrossed Missouri, charming parishioners as he recruited for the priesthood. Even his accusers remember him as a talented educator with a quick wit and boundless energy.
''He was very charismatic,'' said one, Christopher Dixon, 40, who attended St. Thomas, in Hannibal, Mo., during the late 1970's and then became a priest but later resigned. ''He was a great teacher. He was a hard worker. He always had time for people. He was larger than life.'' But Mr. Dixon said that during spiritual counseling sessions, he witnessed, firsthand, another side of Father O'Connell.
''It was such a tangled web of 'I love you; I want to help you become a better person,' even as he was taking me to bed,'' Mr. Dixon said in an interview at his home in St. Louis. ''It was a very complex seduction.''
It was the public accusations two weeks ago by Mr. Dixon, to whom the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., secretly paid a $125,000 settlement in 1996, that prompted Bishop O'Connell's resignation in Palm Beach on March 8.
Since Mr. Dixon spoke out, two other former St. Thomas seminarians have hired Jeffrey R. Anderson, a lawyer here in St. Paul who over the years has brought many suits on behalf of plaintiffs alleging sex abuse by priests.
Mr. Anderson's two new clients have now also sued, naming Bishop O'Connell and the Jefferson City Diocese as defendants, and he says several other former St. Thomas students have voiced similar accusations against the bishop.
The new suits identify each of the two accusers as John Doe, and they agreed to be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity. One of them said in an interview here that since resigning, Bishop O'Connell had repeatedly phoned him and sent him e-mail messages, beseeching him to keep silent about their relationship.
Bishop O'Connell did not respond to messages left on his cellphone voice mail. Sam Barbaro, a deacon serving as spokesman for the Palm Beach Diocese, said Bishop O'Connell left the diocese only hours after his March 8 news conference announcing his resignation and was now in seclusion.
James C. Geoly, the Chicago lawyer representing him, said the bishop ''understands that people have been hurt.''
''It may be impossible to get healing, but that's what he wants,'' Mr. Geoly said. ''That does not mean, however, that we acknowledge that there is a viable legal claim against him.''
The Rev. Joseph Starmann, a Missouri priest, now retired, who visited St. Thomas Seminary frequently during the 1970's and 1980's, said in an interview that he had seen faculty members grab and wrestle with students in ways that he thought inappropriate but that he did not then think could be considered abuse.
The portrait that has emerged of sexual impropriety at the seminary has raised new questions about how Catholic authorities could have overlooked what was occurring. Among the bishops visiting frequently was Bernard F. Law, now archbishop of Boston, who from 1973 through 1984 headed the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, neighboring the Jefferson City Diocese.
A Boston Archdiocese official said this week that Bishop Law had visited Father O'Connell at the seminary many times and had never seen evidence of abuse. In fact, Father Starmann and other clerics here said Bishop Law had been one of Father O'Connell's most admiring patrons.
But Bishop O'Connell was widely admired in all his church posts. At the March 8 news conference, where he acknowledged the improper nature of his relationship with Mr. Dixon, weeping church workers and other supporters applauded and embraced him.
One of Bishop O'Connell's accusers attended the seminary from the late 1960's to the early 70's, another in the late 70's, and the third in the early to mid-80's. All three are now openly gay. All three, who do not know one another, similarly described Father O'Connell's taking advantage of monthly private spiritual-counseling sessions.
The oldest accuser is a 48-year-old writer of corporate reports who lives in Minnesota and attended St. Thomas from 1967 to 1971. In an interview here, he said Father O'Connell had turned counseling sessions into ''mostly psychotherapy, talking about sex,'' urging him to verbalize his sexual fantasies. During his junior and senior years, the former seminarian said, he and Father O'Connell engaged several times in simultaneous masturbation
in the chapel, although the priest never touched him sexually.
As for Mr. Dixon, he said that after he entered the seminary in 1976, Father O'Connell urged him to talk about his feelings of guilt about masturbation, seeking to persuade him ''that there is no sin in accepting your body for what it is.''
''And under this guise, he took me to bed with him,'' Mr. Dixon said. Over four years, he said, Father O'Connell initiated half a dozen sexual encounters with him.
Bishop O'Connell's third accuser, a 34-year-old St. Louis medical technician, attended from 1982 through 1986. In an interview here, he said the priest began to grope and fondle him during counseling sessions in his sophomore year, when he was 15. Those sessions escalated into naked encounters in Father O'Connell's bed, he said. The former seminarian said the abuse had driven him into suicidal depression.
After this seminarian graduated in 1986, his lawsuit says, Father O'Connell continued to arrange sexual liaisons with him, at hotels and at a college seminary.
In 1994, the former seminarian traveled from Missouri to Knoxville and, he said, confronted Bishop O'Connell in a tearful two-hour conversation. Bishop O'Connell later wrote him personal checks totaling $10,000 to help him buy a car and furnish an apartment, the former seminarian said.
Late in 1995, meanwhile, Mr. Dixon brought his accusations to the Jefferson City Diocese. Louis DeFeo, a diocesan lawyer, called Bishop O'Connell in Knoxville to confirm Mr. Dixon's account, but diocesan officials did not report the matter to anyone outside the diocese, Mr. DeFeo said. Bishop O'Connell responded to Mr. Dixon's accusations by writing him. ''I loved you and love you as a brother, and I believe you responded in kind,'' the letter to Mr. Dixon said. ''I beg your forgiveness,'' it added.
In the letter, Bishop O'Connell sought to persuade Mr. Dixon not to sue. But Mr. Dixon hired a lawyer, who negotiated the $125,000 settlement with the diocese. It included a secrecy clause, but amid the nationwide scandal Mr. Dixon decided this month to make the case public anyway.
Stunned by Mr. Dixon's public accusation, the medical technician contacted Bishop O'Connell after the Palm Beach resignation. He demanded a meeting between his family and Bishop O'Connell where the bishop would apologize. He hinted at a suit.
Over a period of days, this accuser says, he received a number of phone calls and e-mail messages from Bishop O'Connell.
''I plead with you with the love of God to hold up on anything that you might be inclined to do publicly with a lawsuit or anything else,'' a transcript from the former seminarian's lawyer quotes the bishop as saying in a message left on the accuser's home phone machine on March 18. ''I am really anxious to talk to you, to see what I can do for you personally to restore you a little bit to where you were.''