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  Former Seminarians Want Alma Mater Investigated
Faculty Accused of Sexual Abuse

By Dennis Coday dcoday@natcath.org
National Catholic Reporter
May 14, 2004

Five former students of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Hannibal, Mo., who allege that as minors they were sexually abused by seminary faculty 25 years ago, have kicked off a campaign to find more victims among the school's alumni.

The men, now in their 40s, are writing letters to former students of the now-closed residential high school seminary asking them to come forward with stories of their own abuse or eyewitness accounts of abuse of others.

The letter begins:

"We were sexually abused by Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell as devout, impressionable and vulnerable young boys just beginning our studies for the priesthood at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo. (STAS).

"Sadly, we know we are not alone. We suspect there may be dozens of us still suffering in secrecy, silence, shame and self-blame."

The letter is signed by Michael Wegs, Matthew Crosby, Chris Dixon and two men known as John Doe I and John Doe IV. All five have lawsuits pending against O'Connell and other former seminary faculty as well as the dioceses of Missouri and current and past bishops of Missouri.

O'Connell, 66, served as teacher, rector and spiritual director at the seminary from 1964 to 1988 when he was named the first bishop of Knoxville, Tenn. In 2000, he became bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., but resigned in March 2002 after he admitted to inappropriate behavior with Dixon.

In 1996, Dixon, a former priest for the Jefferson City, Mo., diocese, accused O'Connell and two other priest-faculty -- Manus Daly and John Fischer -- of abusing him as a student at St. Thomas Aquinas. The Jefferson City diocese paid Dixon $125,000 with the understanding that he would not make his accusations public.

Fischer, 66, was removed from the priesthood in 1993 after other allegations of child abuse. Daly, 66, was a pastor for Jefferson City until he was removed from active service in March 2002 because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors against him.

Jefferson City Bishop John Gaydos closed the high school seminary at the end of the school year in 2002, because he said it was "economically unsustainable." In an April 19, 2002, letter to priests of his diocese Gaydos wrote, "We cannot ignore the impact recent headlines will have on future enrollment. The events of the past six weeks have only hurried the inevitable."

Wegs, who now lives in Minneapolis, told NCR that he hopes the letter will spark an investigation into the seminary, which opened in 1957. He said that during O'Connell's tenure at the seminary he was entrusted with the education and spiritual lives of hundreds of boys. Wegs believes that O'Connell violated that trust scores of times. "I have talked personally with 10 of his victims," Wegs said.

He also notes that O'Connell, who also served on the diocese's personnel board, had control over not only the formation of seminarians but also the careers of priests. "Students he abused, he later installed as faculty," Wegs said. Dixon is a case in point, he said. Because of the power O'Connell wielded, he could continue his abuse, Wegs said.

The statute of limitations has protected O'Connell from criminal charges, but civil law suits are pending against him, according the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests -- SNAP.

O'Connell sat for depositions for these civil cases last year, but for each question put to him, he asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself, according to Wegs' lawyer, Patrick Noaker.

O'Connell's whereabouts had been secret until recently. A reporter for The Palm Beach Post found him living among the 27 monks of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. He moved there three days after he left his office in Palm Beach.

Catholics in Knoxville, Tenn., have been campaigning unsuccessfully since last year to have photographs of O'Connell removed from prominent displays on church properties, notably in the chancery offices and at Knoxville Catholic High School (NCR, Feb. 6).

 
 

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