2003: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post: Elizabeth Clarke, Joel Engelhardt, Gary Kane, Christine Stapleton
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Final bishop offers his resignation: O'Connell: Incident misguided counseling

March 9, 2002

By Joel Engelhardt and Elizabeth Clarke

PALM BEACH GARDENS — In the same forthright style that endeared him to the priests and parishioners of the Palm Beach Diocese, Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell admitted Friday to two cases of sexual misconduct 25 years ago and announced his resignation.

‘‘I want to apologize as sincerely and as abjectly as I possibly can. I am truly and deeply sorry for the pain and hurt and anger and confusion as it will result from all of this,’’ O’Connell said at a news conference at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola.

An apologetic O’Connell verified that he tried to counsel a victimized teen in the late 1970s by going to bed with the boy, as reported Friday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They were naked, but both the victim, Christopher Dixon, and O’Connell said they did not engage in any sexual activity beyond touching.

O’Connell, 63, said an additional victim from the late 1970s could come forward but never has.

His resignation came the day after he and Florida’s nine other bishops pledged to report, investigate and root out sexual abuse from their churches.

A row of 27 priests stood vigil behind O’Connell as he explained his decision to resign and leave his fate to Rome. In a meeting earlier, the priests begged O’Connell to stay, said the Rev. Seamus Murtagh, the diocese’s vicar general. O’Connell remains bishop until the Vatican responds, perhaps asearly as next week.

Stunned parishioners expressed anger and disappointment Friday, both with O’Connell and the leadership that brought him here. Many were embarrassed for their church, one they feel faces such problems far too often. They lauded O’Connell’s spiritual leadership until now and many, although not all, offered support for him to stay in his job.

O’Connell came to the five-county diocese in January 1999 to replace another disgraced bishop, the Most Rev. J. Keith Symons, who left after admitting to molesting five altar boys in the 1950s and 1960s. O’Connell’s gregarious and straightforward style is credited with restoring the confidence of the diocese’s 250,000 members.

Unlike Symons, who quietly left town only to turn up 11 months later at a Michigan convent, O’Connell stayed to address the members of his diocese, which stretches from Boca Raton to Vero Beach.

His 10-minute statement echoed the conflict that rages in a church that believes firmly in forgiveness but is ravaged by allegations of misconduct by its most holy and exalted members.

O’Connell said the people who selected him to succeed Symons didn’t know about the allegations even though the church paid Dixon $125,000 to settle allegations against O’Connell and two other priests in 1996.

‘‘When I asked why they wanted me to come here, the papal nuncio at the time said, ’You have the gifts that we’re looking for,’ and he named them off,’’ O’Connell said. ‘‘I had to agree with him that I had those gifts. And I thought that this incident was settled to everybody’s satisfaction.

‘‘While . . . it would always color my approach to things, nevertheless, I didn’t bring it up at the time. So nobody who made the appointment knew.’’

Two key players in O’Connell’s selection — the Most Rev. John C. Favalora, archbishop of Miami, and the Rev. Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg — issued statements Friday grieving at the news but did not address whether they knew about O’Connell’s misconduct.

For no one to know isn’t surprising, said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has made a career since 1984 of suing the church over sexual abuse by priests.

‘‘The way the Catholic Church in America operates, it is to keep the secret,’’ Anderson said. ‘‘They are effectively fugitives from the truth because they continue to deny that there is an enormous problem.’’

The bishop in the Jefferson City, Mo., Diocese, which paid the settlement, had no reason under church rules to tell the Palm Beach search committee about the charges, Anderson said.

Church law requires silence in instances of misconduct by priests, Anderson said. In a practice that dates back centuries, only bishops have access to * records of misconduct, he said. And typically, they don’t share them with other bishops, he said.

O’Connell said the secrecy surrounding his settlement convinced him to remain silent.

‘‘My understanding was that he (Dixon) made the settlement with the diocese . . . he asked for confidentiality for his own reasons and I thought that brought all of that to a conclusion,’’ O’Connell said.

Dixon, a former priest, said he came forward publicly in light of other charges against priests in Boston and the St. Louis area.

Only recently has the Vatican outlined a change in policy that encourages leaders to report sexual misconduct to church courts but does nothing to encourage the notification of lay courts.

The issue has raged in Boston, where 90 priests or former priests face accusations of molestation dating back 50 years, including one former priest accused of abusing nearly 200 children.

O’Connell submitted his resignation within the past two days to Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo in Washington, the apostolic nuncio or pope’s ambassador to the United States. Montalvo, who could not be reached Friday, cannot accept the resignation, however. Only the pope can do that.

That’s because Pope John Paul II appointed O’Connell as he appoints all bishops. But he doesn’t make those decisions alone. Typically, a diocese seeking a new bishop begins by requesting recommendations from that diocese’s * lay leaders, priests and other employees.

Ultimately, the prospects are reviewed by the archbishop, the papal nuncio and the Vatican Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Three finalists are forwarded to the pope.

No matter what happens, O’Connell said he remains haunted by his past.

The bishop asked his diocese to pray for him and said his heart bleeds for Dixon. He described the relationship as an experimental therapy that looked better in the context of the 1970s than it does now.

Dixon, who is now 40, came to O’Connell as a ninth-grader trying to cope with previous molestation by a priest. O’Connell was the rector of the school, the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo.

O’Connell started at St. Thomas upon his ordination in 1963 and said he left the school reluctantly in 1988, when he was called to be bishop of the diocese in Knoxville, Tenn.

Calling his approach stupid and naive, O’Connell, who was then in his 30s, said he let the tenor of the times dictate. He cited the sexual studies of Masters & Johnson and new approaches in Catholic theology at the time.

‘‘I’ve always been one who thought you could change things. I think that’s part of my strength. But I also preach that in our strength always lies also the potential for our greatest weakness, the shadow side. I was as wrong as I could be in taking that kind of approach with him and I am so sorry,’’ O’Connell said.

The relationship involved only fondling, both O’Connell and Dixon said.

‘‘There was nothing in the relationship that was anything other than touches. . . . There was nothing beyond that,’’ O’Connell said.

However, Dixon, who left the church in 1996, said O’Connell’s approach went beyond therapy. Once O’Connell came to Dixon’s home and undressed him, Dixon said Friday.

O’Connell’s remarks show he’s beyond denial but indicate he is minimizing the effects of his behavior, a classic response, said David Clohessy, national director of the support group Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

Clohessy, who said he once was abused by a priest, knew O’Connell in the 1960s when O’Connell was at St. Thomas.

‘‘He fits a certain profile of abuser in that he’s very warm and charismatic and outgoing and gregarious,’’ Clohessy said. ‘‘To rob a bank you need a weapon, and to molest a child you need charm and charisma and all those other traits, which he has in abundance.’’

Such traits are often overlooked in a world gripped by misguided stereotypes, Clohessy said.

‘‘Even in this day and age when we ought to know better, we still cling to that dangerous illusion that the molester is the obvious social misfit,’’ he said.

(Staff writers John Pacenti and Christine Stapleton and staff researchers Monica Martinez, Madeline Miller and Sammy Alzofon contributed to this story.)

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Memories won't leave him alone

March 9, 2002

By Christine Stapleton

It started in the fifth grade. Chris Dixon remembers it ‘‘like it was yesterday.’’ His Catholic church in Hannibal, Mo., had just introduced ‘‘face-to-face’’ reconciliation — confessing your sins in the open to a priest instead of in the secrecy of a dark confessional. Dixon, an altar boy who also played the organ for school Masses, wanted to check it out.

‘‘I came up with whatever sins a fifth-grader has and he asked me, ’Do you kiss your father?’ ‘‘ Dixon recalled. When Dixon explained that he not only kissed his father but also his mother ‘‘10 times before going to bed every night,’’ the priest, the Rev. John Fischer, asked him if he wanted to kiss Jesus. Then, Fischer pulled Dixon toward him and kissed him on the lips, Dixon said.

‘‘I knew it wasn’t right, but I trusted him because he was a priest,’’ Dixon said. ‘‘This is the classic example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’’

That began eight years of sexual abuse in the 1970s by three priests in Missouri, including Anthony J. O’Connell, now bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Dixon said.

Dixon met O’Connell when he entered high school at the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, also in Hannibal. O’Connell was the rector of the school. Dixon wanted to tell someone about what the priest had done to him in elementary school.

‘‘I was a relatively naive and honest boy,’’ Dixon said. ‘‘I told him what had happened to me under the guise of wanting to come to terms with adolescence, going through puberty, being a teenager, and he said he wanted to help me.’’

‘‘We talked and talked, and he thought helping me come to terms with my body was to lie in bed naked with him,’’ Dixon said. ‘‘He pressed his body against mine and hugged me.’’ That happened three or four times over four years. O’Connell also went to Dixon’s home one summer day when Dixon’s parents were at work. ‘‘He had me take down my pants,’’ he said. All of the incidents involved fondling, not penetration, Dixon said.

Dixon said the abuse began when he was in the ninth grade and continued through the 12th grade, according to The Associated Press.

For nearly 20 years after the abuse, Dixon, now 40, hid what had happened to him. During those years, he finished the seminary and became a Catholic priest. The church first assigned him to the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, Mo., where he served as an associate pastor and teacher. Then, in 1993, he was reassigned to St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal — the same school where he says O’Connell had abused him. By then O’Connell had been transferred to Knoxville. But the new rector, the Rev. Manus Daly, also had abused Dixon when he was a student there, Dixon said.

‘‘As a result of the stress, I became depressed,’’ Dixon said. ‘‘I woke up one morning and said I’m either going to kill myself or get help.’’

Church officials recommended he get treatment in St. Louis, Dixon said. O’Connell learned of Dixon’s troubles and wrote him a letter.

‘‘There’s an extra weight in my heart because of your suffering,’’ O’Connell wrote in the Nov. 19, 1995, letter. ‘‘I keenly remember how tough relationships were for you. If I could relive those days again, I would surely have recommended better help for you than I was able to give. To the extent, Chris, that through my own misguided help or failure to respond in a way that would be more helpful to you, I am profoundly sorry and abjectly apologize.’’

O’Connell went on to praise Dixon as a priest, and said he had always "loved him like a brother’’ and would keep Dixon in his prayers.

‘‘Again, for anything I’ve contributed to your present cross, whether by omission or commission, I beg your forgiveness,’’ O’Connell wrote, then signed the letter, ‘‘with prayer and warmest wishes, love, Tony.’’

The letter infuriated Dixon.

‘‘I thought, you know, this is just another masterful way of him to love up to me so I can’t see what went on,’’ Dixon said. ‘‘I was fooled for many years. I knew in my gut it wasn’t right, but he was a man so loved and respected by so many, including my family. Here I am, a little boy. Who’s going to believe me? They’re going to think I’m making it up.’’

Dixon wrote back.

‘‘I said to him, 'Do you remember when,’ and then I outlined every ’when,’ " Dixon said. ‘‘I wanted him to admit what he did, get help, and I wanted restitution. I got a response that was cold as ice, at least compared to the earlier letter.’’

At that point, Dixon decided to leave the priesthood and hire a lawyer. In 1996, with the threat of a lawsuit looming, the Jefferson City diocese settled out of court for $125,000, Dixon said. The diocese did not admit any wrongdoing, and Dixon promised not to pursue further claims against the diocese, O’Connell and two other priests, The Associated Press said.

He got a job working as the operations manager of a housing agency run by Catholic Charities in St. Louis.

Dixon, who today speaks openly about the abuse, remained quiet about the settlement and what happened to him until this week. The recent sex scandal in the Boston diocese and the church’s reaction to it, coupled with the removal of Daly from a Marceline, Mo., church this week, prompted him to speak out. Fischer was removed from the priesthood in 1993 after allegations involving other children.

‘‘Wow,’’ Dixon replied when learning Friday afternoon that O’Connell had submitted his resignation. As for O’Connell’s explanation that ‘‘it was the ’70s’’ and sexual therapy, such as ‘‘Masters and Johnson,’’ were popular, Dixon said: ‘‘That’s so sick. He used to say that, that these were the premier sex studies of the time.’’

Although Dixon wasn’t aware of any other victims, he wasn’t surprised to learn that O’Connell admitted ‘‘there may be one more.’’

‘‘It makes me feel better, to know I’m not the only one, to know I’m not alone, but I can’t really feel good about it,’’ Dixon said. ‘‘I’ve exposed him for who he really is. I wished I had done it sooner.’’

What still makes Dixon angry is his belief that church officials knew of O’Connell’s history when they appointed him bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach in 1998. He was bishop of Knoxville before that.

‘‘That’s what makes it smell and taste like such a conspiracy,’’ Dixon said. "I’m not accusing everybody, it’s just a conspiracy of secrecy.’’

Dixon hasn’t lost his faith in God. But he has no faith in "institutionalized religion.’’

‘‘They are the epitome of hypocrites,’’ Dixon said.

(Staff researcher Sammy Alzofon contributed to this story.)

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Final bishop says past 'always hung over me': Anthony J. O'Connell was called to replace another bishop, who quit in a sex scandal three years ago

March 9, 2002

By Gary Kane

WEST PALM BEACH — Moving to Palm Beach County three years ago spared Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell the question he hasn’t had to publicly answer until today.

Had he remained in Knoxville, Tenn., the bishop would have been expected to sign an affidavit declaring that he had never been accused or convicted of any sexual misconduct.

‘‘The policy was promulgated by the bishop and then he left,’’ Knoxville Diocesan Chancellor Rev. Vann Johnston recalled Friday. ‘‘The bishop did not sign those papers.’’

One month after establishing the Knoxville Diocese Policy and Procedure Relating to Sexual Misconduct, O’Connell received a call to comfort and lead the Diocese of Palm Beach, which was reeling from a sex scandal involving its own bishop. The Most Rev. Keith Symons had resigned in disgrace after admitting inappropriate sexual contact with young boys early in his 40-year ministry.

The church turned to O’Connell to ease the hurt and confusion caused by the Symons affair. The bishop pledged to devote all his energies to healing his new diocese. And though he felt most were ready to move past the scandal, he said he would be careful ‘‘not to brush it under the rug.’’

Even in his role as healer, O’Connell wrestled with his past.

‘‘It always hung over me,’’ he said during a news conference Friday. ‘‘I don’t think I’ve ever preached without being conscious of it and especially in these recent times.’’

Earlier in the week, O’Connell offered his resignation. He knew the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would disclose his long-held secret. A former priest had told the newspaper that O’Connell and two other priests had sexually abused him as a student more than 25 years ago. The paper published the story Friday.

The 63-year-old bishop discussed the revelations with several diocese priests, who stood behind him at the news conference. Many of the same clergy marched in the procession that opened O’Connell’s installation as the diocese’s third bishop on Jan. 14, 1999. O’Connell celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving that day and became spiritual leader of 250,000 Roman Catholics in five counties. Taking a cue from Pope John Paul II, O’Connell traveled extensively to establish himself as a presence in both the church and secular community. He logged 30,000 miles in his first year in the diocese.

His high-energy style became his hallmark. For example, in November 1999, O’Connell traveled to Gambia, Sierra Leone and Senegal as a board member of the Catholic Relief Services, rushed to Washington to attend the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and capped the month by celebrating Mass at St. Jude Church in Boca Raton, where the reliquary of St. Therese of Lisieux concluded a 117-city tour of the United States.

The bishop also has been very active in recruiting young men for the priesthood, sometimes hosting dinners for dozens. He said Friday he took "severe exception’’ to the insinuation by the St. Louis newspaper that there was a ulterior motive for the dinners.

O’Connell said he accepted his appointment to the Diocese of Palm Beach as an act of obedience, not choice, just as he had done in 1988 when he became the first bishop of the new Diocese of Knoxville. He received the papal appointment to Tennessee while teaching physics and chemistry at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo.

The seminary was O’Connell’s first assignment after his ordination in 1963. In his 25 years at the boys’ high school, he served as dean of students, spiritual director, principal and rector.

It was there he encountered Christopher Dixon, a young student who went on to become a priest in 1995. Dixon says O’Connell, who was the school’s rector at the time, invited him into bed under the guise of counseling. He maintains that the abuse continued throughout his four years at the seminary.

O’Connell moved to Knoxville believing he had left behind his ‘‘stupid and foolish’’ mistake.

‘‘My understanding was that he made the settlement with the diocese, he signed off, he asked for confidentiality for his own reasons and I thought that brought all of that to a conclusion,’’ he said Friday.

The Jefferson City Diocese in Missouri did reach a $125,000 settlement with Dixon in 1996, in which he agreed not to pursue further claims against the diocese, O’Connell and two other priests. The diocese did not admit to Dixon’s allegations in the settlement.

Meanwhile, no one in Knoxville knew of the settlement or the allegations.

‘‘I’ve just heard about this today,’’ said Johnston, the diocese’s chancellor. ‘‘It will be received with great sadness and total surprise.’’

The faithful in rural east Tennessee remember O’Connell as an incredibly caring leader, who donned a Santa Claus suit for the poor children from the mountains and marched arm in arm with black clergy in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Though the diocese is in the heart of the Protestant Bible Belt, it grew more than 50 percent during his stay.

‘‘He was beloved. Everyone just thought that he walked on water,’’ said an employee of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville.

O’Connell was born in Lisheen, County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. He left home when he was 12 to attend boarding school with the Presentation Brothers, a religious order of laymen in Cork. He later attended a Jesuit college and was convinced he would not teach but be a priest. He began applying to bishops for acceptance as a candidate for priesthood. He was turned down 36 times, he said.

He went to Birmingham, England, when he was age 20 to teach in a Catholic high school. Within four months, a letter came from a friend telling him that a new diocese was starting in Missouri and the bishop was so desperate he would take anyone. He left for Jefferson City, Mo., in 1959 and was accepted into a seminary in St. Louis.

On Friday, O’Connell spoke as though he was again leaving a place where he found love, respect and trust.

‘‘I’m truly and deeply sorry.’’

Stories copyright 2002 The Palm Beach Post. Reprinted with permission.

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