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  Place of Honor for a Pedophile

By Dan Moffett dan_moffett@pbpost.com
Palm Beach Post
January 11, 2004

Last week, the Catholic Church released results of an audit that found that about 90 percent of the nation's dioceses are complying with new policies to prevent child abuse and remove pedophile priests.

Since auditors did not have access to personnel files and had to rely on information offered by bishops, there is good reason to take the report with a dose of skepticism. Institutional narcissism has compounded the problems in the past and is sure to do so again.

Beyond the measurements of internal audits, anecdotal reports suggest that some church leaders still do not understand the nature of the damage they should be trying to repair. They still don't see pedophilia as the heinous crime it is.

For example, go to Catholic High School in Knoxville, Tenn., today, and you will find a color portrait of Anthony J. O'Connell hung prominently in a main hallway. Photographs of O'Connell also are on display in the principal's office. Until last year, the family life center at nearby St. Mary's Church was named for O'Connell.

Many Knoxville Catholics find this outrageous, given that Anthony J. O'Connell is an admitted pedophile.

Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast Catholics learned this firsthand from a news conference in March 2002, when he resigned as their bishop and admitted to sexually molesting two teenage boys. Actually, O'Connell began by admitting improper touching with only one boy in what he portrayed as misguided sexual therapy -- then he grudgingly admitted that, yes, there was one other boy -- and after he walked away from the microphones and cameras and went into seclusion, several more victims also came forward. It was a minimalist confession.

With pedophiles, the truth most always comes out in increments, if it comes at all. The truth with O'Connell is that he is a charming, gregarious sexual offender who would be serving time behind bars right now were it not for the legal system's inadequate statutes of limitation and the culture of institutional narcissism that covered his trails.

Leaders of the Knoxville diocese are choosing to ignore the disgraceful part of O'Connell's past and focus instead on the positive things he did as bishop there from 1988 to 1999. So they proudly display his pictures, keep his name alive and send him "prayer bouquets" from church services. Months after his public confession, church leaders are doing much to rehabilitate his reputation.

Susan Vance thinks this is appalling. A former Dominican nun and parishioner at St. Mary's, Ms. Vance led the campaign to remove O'Connell's name from the life center building. She prevailed, but only after a yearlong struggle that brought her hate mail, nasty phone calls, scornful looks at Mass and the disdain of the new bishop, Joseph Kurtz.

"Only the church would allow a building to be named after a pedophile," she says. "You tell someone who's not Catholic this happened and they look at you as if you're kidding."

Ms. Vance, whose son attends the high school, believes it is wrong to memorialize O'Connell's image. Her supporters include victims of sexual abuse and their advocates, as well as SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests), which she has joined. The diocese's reasoning for keeping the pictures is that people should forgive, not cast the first stone, and remember the good.

"They do not understand the tremendous pain he caused his victims," Ms. Vance said. "Remembering him like this is another way to keep victims powerless. It is hurtful."

A church that has used symbolic messages for centuries should recognize the consequences of enshrining pedophiles in the presence of children. The issue is less about forgiveness than it is about prevention. A young victim of abuse who looks at O'Connell's heroic portrait will wonder what good it would do to come forward and report crimes when criminals are revered. Who would listen?

Ms. Vance is driven, in part, by an experience more than 30 years ago. When she began her life as a nun teaching school in Cleveland, a priest came to her and told her to pay special attention and "be nice" to a boy named Johnny. The priest said Johnny had emotional problems and often hid, crying in the basement because another priest had abused him.

"I was young and naive, and I didn't know what that meant," she says. "I thought we were talking about spanking. Years later, I realized how terrible it must have been for him. I think about him every day."

Ms. Vance says she will not rest until O'Connell's pictures come down. She will continue to practice the faith she loves and disregard her attackers.

"Johnny, this is for you," she will tell herself. "This is for not helping you."

 
 

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