Secrets, Sins and Silence
By Phillip O'Connor
Secrets, Sins and Silence
[See also Will public debriding bring private healing of the wounds at St. Thomas Aquinas? by Bishop John R. Gaydos, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 22, 2004.]
On March 7, 2002, a group of 10 Roman Catholic bishops in Florida issued a statement that expressed their "abiding concern and compassion" for sex abuse victims of priests.
O'Connell, who served on the faculty at St. Thomas for 25 years, described his actions with Dixon, whom he called a great friend, as a misguided attempt at counseling.
"I deeply regret anything that has happened to him," O'Connell said. "For those who will be angry, I certainly ask, when the time is right that they pray for my forgiveness."
He then added, "there could be one other person of a somewhat similar situation in a somewhat similar time frame who might come forward."
To whom O'Connell was referring may never be known. But at least two other former St. Thomas students were in contact with O'Connell over the next few days.
Hearing the news
Matt Cosby had barely communicated with O'Connell in more than a decade when he saw the news reports about Dixon coming forward. O'Connell had abused Cosby over eight years beginning at St. Thomas when he was 15, according to a suit Cosby filed. Cosby was now 34.
Cosby thought he might be the other person O'Connell believed might come forward. Cosby had confronted O'Connell about the abuse several years before. He had asked for and received about $11,000 from the bishop to help pay for a car and to furnish an apartment.
He'd believed O'Connell when the bishop told him he had been the only victim. Now knowing that O'Connell had lied, Cosby grew angry. He wondered how many other victims there might be.
On March 9, Cosby called a priest in the Jefferson City Diocese, Brian Driscoll. The diocese's priestly and religious vocations director, Driscoll had driven Cosby to Knoxville, Tenn., years before so Cosby could talk with O'Connell about the abuse and ask the bishop for money for a car.
Driscoll gave Cosby O'Connell's number in Palm Beach, Cosby said. O'Connell and Cosby talked about three hours later.
Cosby said O'Connell had apologized and offered whatever he could to help Cosby get through the situation.
In a second phone call later the same night, Cosby said, he asked several times how many others O'Connell had abused. O'Connell didn't answer.
Early the next morning, O'Connell sent an e-mail -- not to Cosby, but to another former student of St. Thomas Aquinas. The man was now 50 and still clung to his dream of becoming a priest. For these articles, the former student asked to be identified by his initials, T.L., to help protect his family and his privacy.
T.L. said O'Connell began to abuse him in the late 1960s while T.L. attended St. Thomas. T.L. was kicked out of St. Thomas during his junior year after he confided to O'Connell that he was sexually attracted to other students. Even then, O'Connell held a powerful control over T.L. He continued to seek him out for sex until T.L. was well into his 30s, according to a suit T.L. filed against O'Connell and the Jefferson City Diocese.
In 1994, T.L. said, he told church officials of the abuse and asked them to get O'Connell help. He also told them rumors of the abuse at St. Thomas. He then confronted O'Connell, who promised T.L. that he was getting help and that such behavior was no longer occurring.
Since then, O'Connell had sent T.L. a few hundred dollars nearly every month, according to the suit. The payments eventually totaled about $21,000, the last coming just days before O'Connell resigned, T.L. said.
"Please know that you are in my feeble prayers these days," O'Connell wrote in his e-mail to T.L. "Please keep me in yours."
Almost immediately, T.L. responded that he was praying for the bishop.
"I am totally unworthy, as I have been all along, of your love, prayers and forgiveness," O'Connell responded. "Just know that I'll continue to help you in every way I possibly can, no matter where I am."
About the same time, Cosby wrote O'Connell an e-mail that listed several demands.
He asked for a face-to-face meeting, an apology to both him and his parents, help in finding and paying for a therapist, and financial restitution for the abuse.
After several days passed without word from O'Connell, Cosby grew anxious and angry. He felt as though the bishop wasn't taking him seriously, as though he didn't think Cosby would do anything.
Before he left for work on Monday morning, March 18, Cosby sent another e-mail asking O'Connell to respond. This time, he added that he might seek legal advice.
That same day, another former seminarian, Michael Wegs, filed a suit against O'Connell alleging that the priest had abused him at St. Thomas in the late 1960s.
When Cosby learned during the day of Wegs' suit, he decided he could no longer trust the bishop. He left an angry message with O'Connell saying he wanted to talk immediately. He wasn't going to be manipulated anymore.
O'Connell tried to reach Cosby by phone twice more that night.
"I would plead with you, Matt, for the love of God to hold up on anything that you might be inclined to do between now and then, with publicity, with a lawsuit or anything else," O'Connell said on a message recorded by Cosby's answering machine. "I really want to try and salvage whatever I can for you personally. That's the most important thing to me. And so I'm grateful. I have no right to expect this from you, but I'm grateful for your willingness to meet anyway."
But Cosby was finished talking. He already had contacted a lawyer that day. Within a few days, T.L. did, too.
The seminary closes
On May 20, 2002, citing "insurmountable" costs and low enrollment, the Jefferson City Diocese closed St. Thomas Aquinas.
"We cannot ignore the impact recent headlines will have on future enrollment, which has been in decline for some years," Bishop John Gaydos said in a letter to diocese priests that announced the closure. "With only 27 students this year, the school was already economically unsustainable. The events of the past six weeks have only hurried the inevitable.
"I do not relish this decision, but I do think it is best for our diocese," he said. "It is sad that the end comes in the shadow of scandal, but we must not let that be the memory of St. Thomas. It has given many young men a solid first step in their journey to the priesthood. For many more it has provided a unique and invaluable foundation for their higher education and formation for their roles in the life of the church."
A few days later, Gaydos said: "I'm very apologetic for the crimes and sins and maybe how we've handled it. We're concerned the victims themselves did not feel free to come forward."
The diocese sent a letter to all St. Thomas alumni asking anyone who was abused to contact the diocese.
The closing saddened many alumni who carried only fond memories of their years at St. Thomas. Hundreds of boys had attended the seminary and enjoyed their years there. Most had emerged unscathed. They were now accomplished and successful -- among them lawyers, businessmen, civic leaders and priests.
Some expressed sympathy for the victims and disappointment that the men they viewed as role models engaged in such abuse. Others refused to believe it.
"Some sort of misunderstanding or inappropriate joke has come back 20 years later to torture an innocent man," one alumnus wrote in an e-mail to Wegs, referring to Daly.
Calls for an investigation
In May of this year, Wegs, Cosby, Dixon and two other victims, sent a letter to St. Thomas alumni and others associated with the school. The letter called on the Jefferson City Diocese to open the priest personnel files and to investigate the numerous sex abuse allegations at St. Thomas and how the diocese responded. The victims believe the diocese shielded several sexual predators and should have disclosed O'Connell's actions rather than allow him to be promoted.
Several priests in the Jefferson City Diocese also are pushing for the diocese to disclose the names of priests guilty of abuse, said the Rev. James Offutt. Some dioceses under pressure elsewhere have released lists of names of known or suspected perpetrators.
Offutt was in the same seminary class as O'Connell. Fellow students considered the bright, popular, affable and outgoing Irishman their "class bishop," or leader. The revelations about his past devastated classmates, Offutt said.
"One of the things that just kind of boils me and a few other people is the fact that (former Jefferson City) Bishop (Michael) McAuliffe, knowing what he did about Tony O'Connell, still promoted him and had him keep on going as a climber in the bishops ranks," said Offutt, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Centralia, Mo.
Offutt said he also sat in with Bishop McAuliffe when he confronted another St. Thomas faculty member, the Rev. James P. McNally, about allegations made by former seminarian David Bange that McNally had abused him.
McAuliffe, 83, is living in a nursing home in the Kansas City area and could not be reached for comment.
This year, as part of a nationwide survey done by a church review panel, the Jefferson City Diocese reported 69 direct sexual abuse allegations against 27 priests since 1956. The 27 priests, whose names were withheld, represented 6 percent of the priests who served in the diocese, Gaydos said.
"There is no bright side to this sad revelation," Gaydos said in February. "But I can assure you, once again, that we have no priest in ministry who has ever had a credible allegation of sexual abuse against them."
As of September, the diocese said it had paid $591,000 in settlements and assistance to victims.
What the diocese hasn't told anyone is how many children may have been abused, by whom and how recently. And diocesan officials haven't disclosed the full extent of the abuse at St. Thomas.
After the seminary scandal became public two years ago, O'Connell resigned, and another priest accused of abuse, Manus Daly, the school's former rector, was removed. Yet, the diocese has never told parents, parishioners or the public about McNally.
Now victims and their families want to know what additional secrets the diocese may be hiding.
Legal tactics criticized
The diocese says it has not provided the list of names of those removed from ministry over allegations of sexual abuse because, until 2002, the criteria used for removing priests were inconsistent.
"They may not have all been examined in the same light," said church attorney Bernard Huger. "The bishop is just not going to go back and provide a list."
Gaydos also declined requests for an interview for this series of articles. "
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," he responded by letter.
He said he regretted any abuse that may have occurred and that the diocese would continue "to reach out to the victim for healing."
That's a far cry from the tactics used by the Jefferson City Diocese's lawyers, said Pat Noaker, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates, a law firm in St. Paul, Minn., that has represented more than 1,000 victims of priest abuse in more than 40 dioceses.
Noaker, who has represented several of the St. Thomas victims, said the lawyers representing the Jefferson City Diocese are among the most aggressive in fighting within the legal system and that they are "downright abusive to victims."
Huger, who sat in on many of the victim depositions, defended his firm's actions in representing the church.
"Sometimes it's uncomfortable for people to get direct questions," Huger said. "But our goal is always to be polite and respectful to the person whose deposition is being taken. But if people find that the questions make them uncomfortable and it's hard for them, that's really inevitable in the process of taking a deposition."
Noaker sees another possible motive. "I expect that it's quite calculated that they really want people not to take the litigation route and take much less (money) from the victims' assistance coordinator," he said.
On the other hand, Noaker lauded Sister Ethel Marie Biri, the diocese's chancellor and victims assistance coordinator, whom he called "among the best in the business."
Biri has been the point of contact for most of the abuse victims who have approached the diocese -- typically years after the abuse occurred. "I say to them, 'I can't go back and undo what happened, but what I want is to do the right thing now,'" she said.
But Biri is also protective of accused priests. "They are human beings. They are not evil people," she said. "I don't want to judge anyone."
Where they are today
The St. Thomas Aquinas property was sold in August. The Evangelical Free Fellowship, a Hannibal church looking to expand, paid $243,000 for the building and 6 acres. The diocese said proceeds from the sale will help pay for help for victims and therapy for perpetrators, as well as for legal and administrative fees.
Today, O'Connell, 66, the former bishop, lives at Mepkin Abbey, a scenic Catholic monastery near Monck's Corner, S.C., 30 miles north of Charleston.
There, he follows the same routine as the monks. His days may be spent sorting eggs, gardening or working in the office. He can celebrate Mass only with another priest and cannot preach, said spokeswoman Mary Jeffcoat. At least nine former St. Thomas students have told lawyers or the Post-Dispatch that O'Connell sexually abused them. Of those, three sued.
After Dixon's settlement became public in March 2002, the Jefferson City Diocese removed Daly from St. Bonaventure Parish in Marceline, Mo., and sent him to treatment.
Bishop Gaydos said that Daly was removed from Marceline because he had never received sexual-offender treatment after being named in a sexual abuse allegation in 1996. Instead, he had been evaluated and given a sabbatical year for spiritual renewal.
Daly, 67, has moved back to his native Ireland, according to Biri. In addition to Chris Dixon, at least one other student alleges he was abused by Daly.
The Rev. John Fischer, 66, whom Dixon also accused of abuse, was removed as a pastor in 1993 after facing other allegations of child abuse. He could not be reached for comment for these stories.
In a Post-Dispatch article in March 2002, Fischer said he remembered Dixon, but he denied that any abuse took place. "That's not what happened," he said.
The diocese sent McNally to treatment after Bange, a former St. Thomas seminarian, made his allegations in 1996. In a letter to Bange's parents in 1998, Gaydos told them that McNally was in a treatment program for sexual compulsives and undergoing therapy.
McNally, 49, is no longer a priest and has been laicized by the church, according to Biri. He still lives in Missouri and is now married.
McNally and his lawyer declined to comment for these stories. Biri said McNally's lawyer had contacted the diocese and asked them not to discuss McNally's departure or the allegations. In addition to Bange, at least two other former St. Thomas students have surfaced as possible victims of McNally.
The former students
Meanwhile, the St. Thomas victims still struggle to put their troubled past behind them. Several suffer symptoms of childhood abuse, including depression, anxiety and problems with trust and intimate relationships. Several no longer practice their Catholic faith.
Wegs, now 51, lives with his partner in Minneapolis. He has been treated for clinical depression since 1998. Last year, he tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants. He suffers from skin disorders, headaches and anxiety and has had trouble holding a job.
Wegs, who had sued the diocese and O'Connell, reached a settlement in July. The diocese agreed to pay Wegs $20,000. O'Connell agreed to pay him $5,000, but has yet to do so.
T.L., also 51, recently moved back to Missouri from Massachusetts. He suffers from depression. He's had difficulty holding jobs, but he no longer dreams of becoming a priest.
In 2002, a St. Louis County Circuit judge dismissed his civil suit against O'Connell, the diocese and others, ruling the statute of limitation had expired. In October, the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear his case. The diocese did help him purchase a car and with some expenses, Noaker said.
Cosby, 36, lives in St. Louis, where he works as a medical technician.
Of the man whom he once loved and once held such a powerful sway over him, Cosby said he now feels only disgust and revulsion.
"He's not who he portrayed himself to be," Cosby said of O'Connell. "I see him as a sexual predator now completely and totally, and all the things he did good for the Catholic church will always be overshadowed by the fact he abused so many people."
Driscoll, the priest who had agreed to arrange a meeting between Cosby and O'Connell after the scandal broke, left the priesthood shortly after O'Connell's resignation. He has married and lives in Jefferson City. He declined to comment, saying he had been asked by the diocese's lawyers not to say anything.
In July, the diocese agreed to pay Cosby $27,000 in settlement of his suit. O'Connell paid $5,000.
Dixon, 42, no longer takes medication or suffers from the panic attacks and deep depression that took him to the brink of suicide. He has worked for the past five years at the Catholic Commission on Housing but is no longer a member of the church.
"I will never allow someone to have that kind of control over me," he said. "Someone asked me did this experience shake my faith. No. It shattered it. I have no faith anymore in institutional religion. The hypocrisy is daily."
Bange, 32, lives in Jefferson City, is married and has a young child.
He said the diocese paid for psychological counseling and the cost of his weekly drive to his doctor in St. Louis. The diocese also paid 31/2 years of tuition at the University of Missouri, $200 a month to help with his housing costs while in school and paid off about $10,000 in student loans, he said.
For the first time, he feels in control of his life. That's part of the reason he felt able to speak out about his abuse publicly, adamant that the truth be told about the secrets, sins and silence of St. Thomas.
"I would like to think it would somehow help to prevent such a thing from happening again," Bange said.
Throughout his life, his faith in the church led to emotional pain and broken promises, and he fears being let down again.
The church must fully admit to its sordid past to have any hope of a scandal-free future, Bange believes.
"If it does happen, that's great," he said. "But I don't know that I'm going to pin my hopes there."
Part 3: Main Characters
• Anthony J. O'Connell
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