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SNAP of Tennessee

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee 

Secrets, sins and silence

By Phillip O'Connor
By the Post-Dispatch
November 14, 2004

For nearly 50 years, St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., served as the first stop on the path to the priesthood for many young Catholics. But for much of that history, the men who ran the boarding high school also staked out a sinister path, one that helped lead to the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church.

The sexual abuse allegations of one former student led to the resignation two years ago of a popular and powerful bishop, Anthony J. O'Connell of Palm Beach, Fla., and the removal of two other priests.

Now, several victims are speaking out - some for the first time - providing more detail about the evil that befell them and the lengths to which the Jefferson City Diocese has gone to keep it secret.

Their experiences reveal that the abuse was more widespread than has been reported, that at least one other faculty member who was never publicly identified also abused students and that the abuse occurred more recently than the diocese has publicly disclosed.

While the Vatican and the nation's bishops have called for candor and honesty in facing the sexual abuse scandal, the diocese still refuses to acknowledge the scope of the problem, victims say.

They are calling for a full accounting of how the diocese handled the cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, not only at St. Thomas but also throughout the diocese.

At least five former seminarians now publicly acknowledge that they were abused by St. Thomas faculty members, and at least 10 more have privately told counselors, lawyers or family members that they were sexually molested while students there.

Before the scandal broke, a few victims were getting thousands of dollars in secret payments over the years to help them buy cars, pay for college or cover their bills. The church offered others a quiet settlement or counseling.

But a growing chorus of victims and families are angry that no one in the diocese heeded numerous warnings they received about O'Connell and others that might have stopped the abuse sooner or prevented O'Connell's rise through the church hierarchy.

They also are angry that their cases have resulted in little or no punishment against their abusers, other than that administered by the church. Missouri prosecutors have not pursued charges against any of the accused. Nor have they subpoenaed church personnel records that might include information on abuse cases.

About 1,000 students attended St. Thomas over the years, and about half that number graduated from the school. Among the graduates, 43 were ordained as priests and 27 are still in active ministry. Twenty-three serve in the Jefferson City Diocese.

Former students worry about their fellow alumni, several of whom they know were abused at St. Thomas and continue to suffer in silence.

They also worry about those who continued into the priesthood. They know that at least two of those priests became abusers themselves. They believe that other priests who rose to leadership positions in the diocese know what went on. They feel that men they once considered friends turned their backs on them and the truth.

The diocese isn't talking. Bishop John R. Gaydos declined to be interviewed for this series of articles.

"I am concerned that in giving you an interview in which you would want to discuss any individual case the confidentiality of the person injured may be breached, even inadvertently," Gaydos responded by letter. ". . . While I would welcome the opportunity to tell you what we as a diocese are doing to assist those who have been injured and deserving of our assistance, I cannot risk the greater harm that may be done by breaching their also well deserved confidentiality."

The diocese has defended itself from suits filed by abuse victims by relying on statute-of-limitation defenses, saying the former students came forward too many years after the incidents allegedly occurred.

O'Connell isn't talking, either. He has faced suits from at least three victims. At least six other former students have accused him of sexual abuse in interviews with lawyers or the Post-Dispatch. In a deposition he gave to attorneys in one civil suit, the man known to many simply as "O'C" repeatedly invoked his right against self-incrimination when questioned about the abuse. In written answers later submitted to the court, O'Connell denied all the allegations of sexual abuse.

Today, St. Thomas is closed - its grounds sold Aug. 31 to a Hannibal church. But the memories of that place and those times continue to haunt the victims. For them, the story of St. Thomas Aquinas is one of psychological pain and misery, secrecy and silence, shame and shattered lives.

The diocese in recent years has quietly offered comfort, counseling and, in some cases, money. But that is not enough, victims say.

What they want, they say, is the truth to be told.

A mystical, magical place

For Michael Wegs, St. Thomas offered a chance to escape the private hell that was his home in Moberly, Mo., in the fall of 1967.

Wegs' father was a cruel and violent alcoholic who often beat his wife and physically and verbally tormented his sons and daughters, according to Wegs' deposition in a suit.

On a summer day, a priest pulled into the family's driveway for an unexpected visit.

Word of Wegs' interest in the priesthood had reached the Rev. Anthony O'Connell. Born in 1938, O'Connell had emigrated from Ireland to St. Louis in 1959 to attend college seminary.

Ordained by the Jefferson City Diocese in 1963, he'd immediately joined the faculty at St. Thomas, where he taught English, physics and chemistry, and helped recruit students to the seminary. The young, short, roly-poly man with the thick, dark, wavy hair, cherubic cheeks and heavy black-rimmed glasses charmed Wegs' parents. His sales pitch of a no-strings-attached, quality education unavailable in the public schools won them over. At best, their son would someday be an ordained priest. At worst, he'd acquire a first-rate college prep education.

When Wegs arrived at St. Thomas that fall, the seminary seemed a mystical, magical place with an inviting smell of polished wood, incense and candle beeswax.

The school sat on six acres in the middle of a residential neighborhood on a high, tree-covered hill, just blocks from the Mississippi River in the town that native son Samuel Clemens made famous.

Students slept in bunk beds in large open dorms on two floors at the west end of a red-brick, turn-of-the-century building that originally served as an orphanage. The aroma of hot pancakes and the clanking and banging of a handyman firing up the heating system signaled the start of many cold winter mornings.

School bells signaled changes in long, carefully planned days centered on academics, chores and prayer.

In the evenings, the boys sat at cafeteria tables and dined family-style on dinners such as meatloaf or fried chicken cooked by doting local women who also washed the boys' clothes.

St. Thomas had opened in 1957 as a quick way to produce priests for the newly created diocese of mostly small country parishes spread across 38 counties of farmland and low Ozarks hill country.

In those early years, church leaders also looked overseas for priests to help meet the demands of a growing diocese that today numbers 90,000 members. At one point, a third of the priests in the diocese were from Ireland.

The men of the cloth who ran St. Thomas seemed worldly and intelligent, men the boys could look up to, confide in and model themselves after.

In O'Connell, Wegs, for the first time, found an adult male who seemed to care about the tall, quiet boy's life and problems.

At one point, O'Connell told Wegs that he was now his father and the church his family.

Wegs enjoyed what he saw as the favored treatment he received - the special attention, being treated as if he was a "little God."

Groomed for abuse

Days at St. Thomas followed a boot camp-like routine of early to bed, early to rise. The priests maintained tight control. They reviewed all reading material. They handled money sent from home. Students joked about the "invisible wire" that prevented them from venturing beyond the campus perimeter.

Rules and advice were everywhere. During his first few weeks, Wegs recalls how the Rev. Richard Kaiser, then the rector and now deceased, even instructed the boys not to wear underwear to bed. That would help prevent infections and disease and "let their manhood breathe," he told the boys.

At night, after the evening prayer, several faculty members would meet individually with students for spiritual counseling.

O'Connell's book-filled office and Spartan sleeping quarters sat on the main floor, apart from other priest quarters and near the chapel. It was here that the counseling sessions took place and the grooming for abuse began, according to Wegs.

The conversation during Wegs' sessions with O'Connell turned to the troubled marriage of Wegs' parents and the student's volatile home life.

After time, Wegs' spiritual sessions with O'Connell took a new turn that other former students said O'Connell would repeat dozens of times over the next 25 years, according to lawsuits. O'Connell began to ask pointed sexual questions and to have Wegs talk about his fantasies in graphic detail.

As he listened, O'Connell placed "Clyde," a large stuffed hippo covered in purple and green flowers, on his lap and rubbed it around. While Wegs couldn't see exactly what O'Connell was doing, Wegs believed the priest was masturbating. That happened on about six occasions, Wegs said in a court deposition.

Wegs also claimed in the deposition that on another half-dozen occasions, O'Connell watched him masturbate late at night in the altar boy's sacristy.

Wegs, who had no sexual experience at the time, felt troubled by what was happening. But he also feared the loss of attention, care and comfort that O'Connell lavished on him.

Eventually, Wegs said, he grew uncomfortable and stopped the sexual activity with O'Connell.

Although they would be in contact several times over the years, Wegs and O'Connell would never again discuss what happened.

For another former St. Thomas student, the abuse began in the fall of 1968, his sophomore year. The student, a classmate of Wegs, began seeing O'Connell as his spiritual director as often as two or three times a week.

For these articles, the former student asked to be identified only by his initials, T.L., to help protect his family and his privacy. Even when he sued O'Connell and the diocese over the abuse allegations, he used the name "John Doe."

Like many of O'Connell's victims, T.L. was struggling with his sexuality and his attraction to boys. During the late-night sessions, T.L. confided to O'Connell his guilt and confusion about masturbation.

O'Connell soon turned the sessions into discussions of sexual fantasies. T.L. said O'Connell told him it was psychological testing and that he was trying to help him.

Almost since T.L. had been born, his grandmother had encouraged him to pursue the ministry. While his second- and third-grade friends played cowboys and Indians, T.L. would perform a Latin Mass dressed in a tiny white cassock and green vestments sewn by his grandmother, who lived next door.

T.L. idolized the priests of his boyhood parish and loved the mystery and awe of the church and the priesthood. Like most of the seminarians, he came from a devout Catholic family who looked at their parish priests as men of God, a source of strength and wisdom, trustful and totally above reproach.

Now there he was, 14 years old, in his pajamas, late at night in O'Connell's quarters. The priest put his hands inside the student's pants, according to T.L.'s suit. T.L. didn't know what to think. Such abuse would go on for a year, according to the suit.

After T.L. had spent months confiding in O'Connell about his sexual feelings toward other students, O'Connell and the school's rector told him they thought he probably should leave the seminary. O'Connell then told T.L.'s parents why he was being dismissed. They were horrified.

T.L. transferred to a high school near his home.

On several occasions when O'Connell visited the area on church business he would call T.L. and invite him to his hotel room, according to court documents.

And then, O'Connell would fondle him, T.L. said.

Neither Wegs nor T.L. ever told anyone at the time what was happening to them.

But they often wondered about other students who received similar attention from O'Connell.

Among them was James P. McNally, who was in the class behind Wegs and T.L. He had moved to Missouri from Miami following his freshman year.

Thin and quiet, McNally excelled at St. Thomas. He made the academic honor roll all three years he attended, played varsity soccer and basketball for two years, and as a senior served as student council president and edited the yearbook under O'Connell's close tutelage.

Even among those O'Connell favored, McNally stood out as the teacher's pet. To some back then it seemed that McNally was O'Connell's shadow. Today, they look back and wonder about that close relationship and whether it may have sealed McNally's fate.

Another abuser surfaces

Chris Dixon grew up about a mile from St. Thomas in Hannibal, where his parish priest took a special interest in the boy.

Dixon was the youngest of eight. His mother worked at the Motorola assembly plant just across the river in Quincy, Ill.

His father worked days as a printer. Three nights a week he played piano at a local dinner bar, where his wife would sometimes sit in and sing.

At what was then Hannibal Catholic School, Dixon served as an altar boy and played the organ at school Masses. From about the ages of 10 to 13, he said, he suffered sexual abuse by the parish priest, the Rev. John Fischer.

He hated what he said the priest did to him and knew it was wrong. But he also felt he could not say anything, because it would be his word against the priest whom everybody loved, even Dixon's own relatives. Every time the touching began, he shuddered. In 1976, then 13, Dixon entered St. Thomas, where he would escape Fischer only to be targeted for abuse by two more priests.

One night during a class retreat to the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, several students gathered to watch television in the Rev. Manus Daly's room, Dixon said.

Students recalled Daly, whom they nicknamed "Bear," as quick-tempered and subject to tantrums. More gregarious than O'Connell, he often used off-color language and wrestled and manhandled students.

Dixon said he fell asleep on the bed and awoke to find everyone gone but Daly, who he said crawled in beside him and tried to masturbate him.

In an interview, Dixon recalled the priest saying: "Do this to me."

"No. I can't," Dixon replied.

"Why not?"

"Because you're a priest. It's wrong."

Dixon then went back to his room.

Dixon said Daly later apologized and said it had never happened before and wouldn't again.

Later Dixon confided to O'Connell what both Fischer and Daly had done. By that time, O'Connell had become rector and principal of St. Thomas.

Now Dixon began long, late-night talks with O'Connell about being tempted by sex, Dixon's sexual experimentation with other students and the guilt he felt about his frequent masturbation.

Again, O'Connell turned the lengthy sessions into discussions of sexual fantasies.

At one point, O'Connell began to ask Dixon to type out in graphic detail what he was thinking while masturbating or during his homosexual encounters at St. Thomas.

Dixon now believes O'Connell's sole motive was to get him in bed.

And he did.

As part of his counseling, O'Connell said he wanted to show Dixon that people could be in bed together without having sex.


Dixon remembered O'Connell's ice-cold hand. He also remembered O'Connell made fun of him because he left his underwear on.

In bed, O'Connell began to hug and rub Dixon, Dixon said. The abuse happened three or four times during the next two years, he said.

O'Connell would whisper the same three words that Dixon said he heard from all his abusers: "I love you."

Dinner, prayers, then sex

In the fall of 1982, Matt Cosby arrived at St. Thomas from Marshfield, Mo. The son of a truck driver and a homemaker, he'd visited the school as a seventh-grader and felt pulled to the priesthood.

He too was struggling with his attraction to boys.

Cosby met O'Connell his freshman year when he became distraught about a sexual encounter with an older student.

O'Connell told him the encounter was no big deal and to go on with life, he said.

Early in Cosby's sophomore year in the fall of 1983, O'Connell became his spiritual adviser. The pattern of asking the student to keep a journal about sexual fantasies and feelings began almost immediately.

Cosby would turn in the journal to O'Connell during the day and they would then meet after night prayer once or twice a month. When Cosby wrote about a homosexual relationship he was having with another student, O'Connell didn't chastise him or tell him to stop. Instead, he asked the student for graphic detail. The same was true when Cosby wrote a fantasy involving O'Connell.

Cosby was embarrassed to talk about such things, but O'Connell would tell him that it was normal to feel that way. The sessions usually ended with a big hug.

But at the session before the Thanksgiving break, the hug lingered. Then O'Connell began to grope Cosby, according to Cosby's deposition in a suit he filed. Cosby stood barely over 5 feet tall and weighed only 100 pounds. He wore a T-shirt and gym shorts with no underwear.

He'd remembered the directive from the Rev. McNally, who had graduated from St. Thomas and now served as dean of students. McNally had told the students not to wear underwear to bed in order to let their genitals breathe. It was healthier, McNally had said.

The fondling continued for two or three minutes in silence. Student and priest said good night and Cosby went back to his bed.

He was 15.

The sessions continued in much the same manner once or twice a month the rest of the year, and the abuse escalated, according to Cosby's suit.

That summer, O'Connell drove Cosby home from camp. On that ride home, they went to an anniversary Mass for a priest that required an overnight stay in a Jefferson City hotel. After dinner, they returned to the hotel. There were two beds. Cosby got in one.

O'Connell knelt down, prayed, rose and patted the bed.

"You know, you can come sleep over here with me," Cosby recalls him saying.

The 10 p.m. news was starting. The abuse did not stop until after the sun came up, Cosby recalls.

In Cosby's junior year, the counseling sessions moved to O'Connell's private quarters and his bed. The sessions often lasted until 3 and 4 a.m.

On other nights, according to allegations in depositions, O'Connell would sit in the darkened student dorm and fondle Cosby while he carried on a conversation with another seminarian lying in bed just feet away.

For Cosby, the priest's actions seemed normal. If the acts weren't, the priest wouldn't be doing them, he reasoned.

For high school graduation in May 1986, Cosby says, O'Connell took him to St. Louis for dinner at Schneithorsts, "42nd Street" at the Muny and sex in a Red Roof Inn hotel room.

O'Connell would continue to abuse Cosby until 1991, including when he visited Cosby at Conception Seminary College in northwest Missouri, according to Cosby's suit.

In September 1988, Pope John Paul II appointed O'Connell bishop of the newly created diocese of Knoxville, Tenn.

The installation was a grand affair, with O'Connell receiving the curved staff and tall miter that symbolized his new position of authority in the church.

More than 5,000 attended, including dozens of well-wishers from Missouri. The St. Thomas family viewed the event as a proud moment.

Among them were the Banges, who lived on a farm near their Pike County farm.

David, the oldest boy, had just finished his sophomore year at St. Thomas, and the family considered O'Connell and the other priests of St. Thomas close friends.

David's father, Paul, readily accepted an offer from McNally to drive his son to Knoxville for the installation. McNally, the dean of students at St. Thomas, had befriended David during his freshman year and was his constant companion and mentor.

They shared a hotel room with two other seminarians. Two boys slept in one bed.

McNally crawled in with 16-year-old David.

Another priest had begun to prey on the boys of St. Thomas. The diocese has kept that secret hidden to this day.



Reporter Phillip O'Connor
E-mail: [email protected]
Phone: 314-340-8321