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Catholic Bishop in Florida Quits, Admitting Sex Abuse in the 70's

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN - The New York Times, March 9, 2002

The Roman Catholic bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., resigned yesterday after admitting that he sexually abused a teenage seminary student in the 1970's.

The bishop, Anthony J. O'Connell, is the first prelate to resign in the latest wave of scandals involving pedophilia and sexual abuse among priests.

Pope John Paul II assigned Bishop O'Connell to lead the Palm Beach Diocese in 1999, to help it heal after the resignation of Bishop Joseph Keith Symons, who admitted that he had sexually molested five boys earlier in his career.

"I'm mortified and I'm saddened and embarrassed and ashamed," Bishop O'Connell, 63, said at a news conference in Palm Beach yesterday, surrounded by more than two dozen of his priests.

Bishops across the country have announced the suspension or forced resignation of dozens of priests since the most recent pedophile accusations began emerging publicly in the Archdiocese of Boston in January. But the case of Bishop O'Connell involves the intersection of sexual abuse accusations with another matter that the church has traditionally handled with utmost secrecy: the selection and assignment of bishops.

The story of Bishop O'Connell and the seminary student was first reported yesterday, by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The onetime seminary student, Christopher Dixon, says Bishop O'Connell, then a rector, took advantage of him sexually when he sought help after being molested by two other priests.

The episode led two decades later to a lawsuit by Mr. Dixon that was settled by the Missouri diocese where the seminary was situated. The settlement, in which Mr. Dixon was paid $125,000, was reached in 1996, three years before Bishop O'Connell was selected to serve in Palm Beach.

The settlement, like most reached by the church in resolving sex abuse suits in recent years, had a provision under which both sides were to keep it confidential. Mr. Dixon, now 40, recently decided to break that clause.

Mr. Dixon ultimately joined the priesthood but later left in anger over his abuse. In a telephone interview yesterday, he said that when he first learned that Bishop O'Connell had been appointed bishop of Palm Beach, he thought, "If I had skeletons like that in my closet, I'd say, `No thanks.' "

"I wanted to get on the horn, warn people about him," Mr. Dixon said, "but I've only now gotten the courage."

Church officials say it is quite possible that the Vatican did not know about the lawsuit or the settlement, either at the time or later, when the bishop received the Palm Beach appointment.

In fact, there is no routine in place, no central registry, for dioceses to report to the Vatican the names of clerics against whom lawsuits or credible accusations have been brought.

So it is likely that the papal nuncio in Washington, the pope's representative there, never knew about Mr. Dixon's lawsuit. The papal nuncio is responsible for selecting three candidates for an open bishop's seat and forwarding their names to the Vatican, where the Congregation for Bishops chooses one and recommends him to the pope.

A lawyer for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., the diocese that settled the case, said yesterday that it had never occurred to church officials there to inform the Vatican or anyone else in the church about it.

"Quite frankly, I would say it was a lapse in judgment," said the lawyer, Lou DeFeo. "I was in conversations at the time, and no one in the conversations even thought, `Should we call someone?' There needs to be some kind of known procedure. Who's the 911 in the church to call if you have information, a credible claim of some kind?"

In the interview yesterday, Mr. Dixon said he was a 13-year-old student at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., when he was first abused by Father O'Connell, then a priest serving as the seminary's rector, or top official.

Mr. Dixon said he had gone to Father O'Connell to confide that he had been abused by two other clergymen: the Rev. John Fischer, who was his parish priest and head of the Catholic elementary school he had attended, and the Rev. Manus Daly, the dean of students at the seminary.

"I was confused," Mr. Dixon said. "I was upset and didn't know what to do. O'Connell said he was trying to help me come to terms with myself, with adolescence, confusion about my sexuality. And in order to try to help me come to terms with my own body, he ultimately took me to bed with him. No clothes. We were naked."

Mr. Dixon said that he was certain the episode had involved sexual gratification for Father O'Connell and that the same thing occurred three or four more times over the following two years.

But even as Bishop O'Connell apologized for wrongdoing, he implied at his news conference yesterday that he still believed he had been trying to "work with the youngster who had personal issues to deal with."

Yet he also said he had been influenced by the mores of the time, when "Masters and Johnson was big" and there was a climate of sexual experimenting.

Asked whether there might be other accusations against him, the bishop said he expected that one more might surface, made by "one other person of a somewhat similar situation in a somewhat similar time frame."

Mr. Dixon says it was not until he was assigned as a priest to teach at the same Hannibal seminary, with Father Daly in charge, that he began to suffer severe emotional problems because of the earlier abuse.

In 1996, the diocese sent him to a treatment center. There, in therapy for severe depression, he came to terms, he says, with the abuse and his anger. He soon resigned from the priesthood and sued the church and the three clerics.

He now manages a housing agency for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. But "I don't consider myself a Catholic anymore," he said. "The hypocrisy just kills me."

This week the Diocese of Jefferson City removed Father Daly from the position of pastor in St. Bonaventure Church in Marceline, Mo. Father Fischer was removed from the priesthood in 1993 after others had accused him of sexual abuse, said Mr. DeFeo, the diocesan lawyer.

The settlement reached by Mr. Dixon and the diocese explicitly says that the church does not acknowledge the validity of his claims. But Mr. DeFeo said that even when the settlement was signed, Bishop O'Connell did not deny the accusations. At the time, he had already attained the rank of bishop, having been appointed the first bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., eight years earlier.

Bishop O'Connell acknowledged yesterday that when he learned he was a candidate for the Palm Beach Diocese, he did not mention the settlement to church officials.

"When I asked why they wanted me to come here," he said, "the papal nuncio at the time said, `You have the gifts we're looking for.' I had to agree with him I had those gifts, and I thought this incident was settled to everybody's satisfaction, and it was sealed. And while I would always be conscious of it and doing penance for it, nevertheless I didn't bring it up at the time. So nobody, nobody who made the appointment knew."

Bishop O'Connell remains the bishop of Palm Beach until the Vatican decides to accept his resignation. He said yesterday that he planned to "retire to a quiet place and rest for a while, pray and wait for my superiors to decide what to do."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests