SNAP of Tennessee

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee 

Woman told of allegations by students at seminary

By Phillip O'Connor

It was 1992, and Catholic youth worker Donna Cox could no longer ignore the
stream of complaints she heard from students who were uncomfortable with
priests at St. Thomas Aquinas and elsewhere.

For a dozen years, Cox had traveled throughout the diocese to lead student
retreats, rallies and confirmations. Often she held counseling sessions where
students discussed personal problems. It was in those sessions that the
descriptions of abuse allegations surfaced: lingering hugs, sideways leers,
inappropriate touching.

Cox said she took her concerns to Sister Mary Margaret Johanning, then
chancellor of the diocese and now deceased. Johanning promised to help and took
her to see Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe.

Soon, Cox said, she began meeting with Johanning once a week to relay
complaints or concerns.

"She kept telling me to come to her and not to tell anyone we were meeting or
what we were discussing," Cox said.

Over the course of that year, Cox said, she named about a dozen priests to
Johanning - including several at St. Thomas.

Among a handful she heard consistent complaints about were Anthony J.
O'Connell, (who already had moved on to Knoxville, Tenn., as a bishop), Manus
Daly and John Fischer, as well as two other priests.

But months went by and nothing happened. She eventually shared her frustrations
in a confessional setting with another priest. Against her wishes, he went to
diocesan leaders to complain about the lack of action, she said.

Cox said she was told the next day she'd done a terrible thing and would never
receive ministry work from the church again. Within days, the diocese canceled
a year's worth of retreats that Cox had been scheduled to conduct, she said.

"I was basically blackballed by everyone," Cox said.

In the intervening years, the five priests whom Cox identified to the diocese
have been removed from service after subsequent accusations of abuse. Another
was sent for counseling.

Cox, who has since left the Roman Catholic Church, said she knows of at least
10 former St. Thomas students who confided their abuse to her who have yet to
make known their allegations. She said she contacted a few in recent years
about coming forward, but they declined because they fear the reaction of their

Through her ministry work, she also became friends and confidants with several
priests, including some who told her they, too, had been abused at St. Thomas,
Cox said.

She is concerned that St. Thomas not only may have been a haven for abuse but
also may have given rise to a whole new generation of abusers. Said Cox: "It
was a melting pot that led to abuse and abusers coming out of there."

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