Worker's Warnings on Priests LED to Her Firing
By Stephen Kurkjian
April 5, 2002
ROLLA, Mo. - Last month's resignation of Palm Beach, Fla., Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell following accusations that he molested a Missouri seminarian did not surprise youth worker Donna Cox.
A decade ago, after O'Connell became a bishop, Cox complained about possible sexual misconduct at the seminary O'Connell ran for a quarter century.
But instead of acting on her complaints, which included six other priests, the chancellor of the Jefferson City Diocese swore Cox to secrecy - and then fired her after Cox expressed concern that nothing was being done.
No investigation was ever conducted, even though Cox said she passed on allegations involving two priests at the seminary for high school boys and four priests who served elsewhere, and raised questions about O'Connell's stewardship of the seminary.
In the intervening years, O'Connell was elevated to bishop of Palm Beach from a similar post in Knoxville, Tenn. His resignation brings to five the number of priests Cox identified for the diocese who were later removed from service after subsequent accusations of abuse.
The ensuing decade has brought change for Cox as well. Because of her brusque treatment by the diocese, she left the Catholic Church. She now belongs to a nondenominational church, and works with special needs students at the public high school in this city about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Cox's story is a case study of a whistle-blower ignored, and scorned. But her treatment is far from unique. Other dioceses and archdioceses, including Boston's, often have reacted with hostility, indifference, or false promises of action when confronted with similar accusations, according to victims, attorneys, and people like Cox who went to church officials.
In Middleton, Mass., for example, parents of several students passed on to the Boston Archdiocese reports that youth worker Christopher Reardon may have been acting inappropriately with teenagers months before he was arrested; he later pleaded guilty to multiple counts of child molestation. Their complaints were never pursued. In Springfield, Mass., the Rev. Bruce Teague contended he was removed as pastor of his Amherst church by Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, leader of the diocese, after Teague reported to police that the Rev. Richard Lavigne, who had been convicted of child molestation, was hanging around the church. Teague said he had made the report to police only after the diocese had failed to respond to his warnings about Lavigne's presence around his church.
"In my 17 years of dealing with this problem, I've found that the common denominator among dioceses when faced with an allegation has been to maintain secrecy and avoid scandal," said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a victims' advocate who coauthored a study of clergy sexual abuse for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1985. "Whenever an allegation was raised, the response was to ignore it, shuttle it aside, or coerce the victim into keeping silent."
Sister Ethel-Marie Biri, current chancellor of the Jefferson City Diocese, said she could find no record of Cox's discussions with the diocese in 1991, or that the complaints were ever investigated. But she said she has no reason to doubt Cox's account.
"I think I would like to leave it with this: Most of the names that Donna Cox brought to us have been dealt with in other cases. They are no longer in active ministry," said Biri.
Randy H. Kollars, former head of the the diocese's Youth Ministry program, confirmed that Cox brought the allegations to the church's attention several months before she was fired.
Kollars said that in 1992, he was ordered by the chancellor at the time, Sister Mary Margaret Johanning, to stop contracting with Cox for youth work. Johanning was the diocesan official Cox alerted about the sexual misbehavior.
Cox said Johanning, who has since died, promised her after their initial meeting that the diocese would conduct a private investigation.
Cox recalled that Johanning even brought her in to discuss her suspicions with Jefferson City Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe.
McAuliffe listened silently, she said, and when Cox told him, "Go in peace," as he left, she said, he remarked: "Hearing this, I don't know how I can."
Biri said McAuliffe, now retired, does not recall meeting Cox.
When months went by without action, Cox confided in her parish priest. When he sought an explanation from the diocese, Cox said, she was immediately called by Johanning and upbraided, and then removed from her job.
"It was a great loss to the diocese and the youth ministry to lose Donna because she was such a gifted counselor," Kollars said. "But there was no discussion of the matter. I was told not to use her any longer."
It was during her work as a youth ministry counselor that Cox learned of the inappropriate behavior. Starting in the early 1980s, Cox led teenagers from the diocese in retreats, rallies, and confirmation classes. During those sessions, many of them met with Cox or other counselors to talk about personal problems.
"Too often, I would be told that they were being made to feel uncomfortable by a certain priest. Either it was being hugged for too long, or touched in the wrong place, or suggestive talk about sex or alcohol even," Cox said. "After a while, I realized I was hearing the same [priests'] names."
Separately, she discovered one of her sons had to fend off a priest's advances. Also, she said she continually heard complaints about improper advances on teenage boys at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, the high school run by O'Connell that trained youths intending to enter the priesthood.
One teenager told her his brother was raped by a priest at the seminary, while others told her they warded off advances from several priests there. Cox provided Johanning names of three former seminary priests: O'Connell, its rector from the mid-1960s to 1988, when he was named bishop of Knoxville; and the Revs. Manus P. Daly and John H. Fischer, who had moved on to parish posts. Daly and Fisch er have been unavailable for comment.
The diocese could not sidestep another allegation that arose in 1995. Christopher Dixon, a former student at the seminary, informed the diocese that he had been sexually abused by O'Connell, Daly, and Fischer during the 1970s. A confidential settlement was soon reached between Dixon and the diocese on his complaints against all three men.
After Dixon went public with his story last month, O'Connell resigned, apologizing for his behavior and expressing regret to Dixon. Two other former seminary students since have filed separate lawsuits against O'Connell, alleging that he molested them while he was rector of St. Thomas Aquinas. Also in March, Daly was removed by Jefferson City Bishop John R. Gaydos. Fischer had been forced into retirement by the diocese in 1993, Biri said in an interview, after credible allegations of abuse involving children surfaced against him.
In addition, Cox said she told Johanning that students had complained about the conduct of two other priests, Stephen L. Faletti and Kevin P. Clohessy. Biri told the Globe that both had been removed from active priesthood in the mid-1990s after credible accusations emerged that both had molested children.
Neither Faletti, now retired, nor Clohessy, head of a local Red Cross chapter, could be reached for comment. Clohessy's brother, David, is a leading advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse, having himself been abused by a priest during his boyhood.
No subsequent complaints have been lodged against a fifth priest named by Cox in 1991. As for the sixth, Cox said she only alleged that he was sexually active with adult males. Biri said that priest was sent to serve as a prison chaplain outside the diocese after a credible allegation of misconduct against him surfaced.
Cox wonders if other abuse might have been avoided if the diocese had investigated her accusations in 1991. "If the diocese or chancellor had just said something about the problem back then, everyone would have been put on notice," Cox said. "We would have all avoided a lot of heartache."
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