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  Accuser Decries Bishop's 'Plantation' Life

By John Lantigua john_lantigua@pbpost.com
Palm Beach Post [Palm Beach FL]
May 17, 2004

The revelation that disgraced former Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell lives in seclusion at a scenic Catholic monastery in South Carolina has reopened old wounds among his victims, led some to speak out publicly for the first time and prompted bitter calls to jail the former leader of the Palm Beach Diocese.

Four men, all of whom claim O'Connell sexually exploited them when they were minors and students at a Missouri seminary, expressed their outrage to The Palm Beach Post, condemning the leniency both church and state showed O'Connell. The men said the church is doing more to help O'Connell than to help his victims.

Going public for the first time, Mike Wegs, 50, of Minneapolis said church lawyers questioned him so aggressively last year during a deposition session about O'Connell's sexual relationship with him and his painful family past that he attempted suicide and was hospitalized for weeks.

"He should be in jail," Wegs said of O'Connell. "He violated the ultimate trust. He corrupted an entire institution. He corrupted the ideals and morals of young boys.

"But nothing will happen to him. He will not go to jail. He has lost his power and access to Palm Beach society, but he won't suffer more than that. He won't be defrocked. He's just waiting out the storm, and what better place to wait it out but at a Southern plantation?"

At least 9 men accuse him

O'Connell, who resigned as head of the 250,000-member, five-county Palm Beach Diocese 26 months ago, has lived since then at Mepkin Abbey, a Catholic monastery on 3,200 acres of a former rice plantation, near Monck's Corner, S.C.

O'Connell resigned on March 8, 2002, admitting he had improperly touched one young man and acknowledging that another might come forward. He is now accused of different forms of sexual abuse of at least nine men. Three, including Wegs, have filed suit, and one settled out of court.

Until April, when The Post published an account of the bishop's life at the abbey, none knew where O'Connell was after his resignation.

"I wish he would stand trial for what he did, suffer the consequences of his actions and go to prison. But that isn't going to happen," said Christopher Dixon, 42, of St. Louis.

Dixon said O'Connell abused him while he was a student between the ages of 15 and 18 at the seminary.

"I don't think justice has been done. So many of us who were victimized by him still deal with it, day by day, and O'Connell is leading a relatively easy life," said Dixon, who settled for $125,000 with the Jefferson City, Mo., Diocese rather than sue O'Connell.

O'Connell was an instructor, dean of students and, later, rector at the seminary from 1964-83. All four of the alleged victims said they were 13 to 15 when they first had sexual experiences involving O'Connell.

During private counseling sessions, they said, O'Connell encouraged them to tell him their sexual fantasies and also to write them down so he could read them.

"We called it 'bucket.' We called it that because we turned out those fantasies in buckets," said another of O'Connell's accusers, a 51-year-old man from Richmond, Va., who used an assumed name, Alexander, for this article. He had not previously spoken publicly about O'Connell.

All of the men said the counseling sessions led to more serious sexual situations with O'Connell.

They said their youth, combined with O'Connell's dominating personality, made them especially vulnerable to the priest's sexual manipulation. They described O'Connell as a witty, entertaining and commanding man who quickly won the devotion of his charges.

Another alleged victim is a computer programmer living in Boston who is known in court papers as "John T. Doe." His name is Timothy Link. This is the first time he has revealed his identity.

"I was young and insecure, and he had a hold on me," Link, now 50, said of O'Connell. "I felt like I needed him. I felt like I loved him."

He said that led him into a relationship that lasted much longer than the others: from 1968, when he was 14, until 1991, starting at the seminary and going on occasionally in hotel rooms in Kentucky, Missouri and Massachusetts, and in the bishop's residence in Knoxville, Tenn.

Link said their last sexual encounter occurred when O'Connell was in Boston in 1991 to attend the funeral of the mother of Cardinal Bernard Law, who once had been bishop of the Springfield, Mo., diocese and was an old friend of O'Connell's. Law was forced to resign as head of the Boston Archdiocese in 2002 after it was revealed that he had shuffled sexually abusive priests from parish to parish for two decades.

Link said O'Connell eventually paid him $21,000 in "hush money."

Priestly robes helped control

All of the men said O'Connell's priestly robes contributed to the control he was able to exert over them.

"Priests were magical back then," Alexander said.

The men said O'Connell, as the seminary's dean of students, had his own office and bedroom in the same building as the student dormitories. This brought him into constant contact with the seminarians, including at night when he made rounds of the students' bunkhouses.

They said money they received from home was turned over to O'Connell, who doled it out. He also reviewed reading materials brought from outside the seminary.

"You were in his office at least once per week, and you were always in there alone," Alexander said. "He's a large man and he had an intimidating physical presence. And he was a guy who could bounce you from the school without talking to anyone."

Statute of limitations fight

The men say that shame and their youth were the major reasons they didn't come forward years ago. That delay has resulted in claims against priests being thrown out because of the statute of limitations.

Link's case recently was rejected by a Missouri court on that basis, but he is appealing. Wegs' case and that of another accuser against O'Connell are in Marion County Circuit Court in Missouri. County Prosecutor Tom Reddington did not return calls for this article.

Patrick Noaker, a Minneapolis attorney who represents Wegs, Link and the other man who has brought suit against O'Connell, insists that the statute of limitations does not cover all of the bishop's alleged crimes. In legal briefs, Noaker has argued that the statute should apply only when victims understand the damage that has been done to them, and in many cases that realization does not come until much later.

All of the men interviewed said they tried to forget the events, but that the sexual experiences had caused psychological problems in later life.

Dixon, the only one of the four who became a priest, eventually left the priesthood. He is a social worker for Catholic Charities in St. Louis.

Link said he started experiencing outbursts of anger about five years ago.

"It was affecting my work, the way I dealt with others," he said. "I had issues with authority and with people who don't do what they are supposed to do. I would lash out at people. I would make scenes in public. I feel the majority of it was caused by the abuse."

On Aug. 6, 2003, Wegs was deposed by Edward Goldenhersh, an attorney representing O'Connell and the Jefferson Diocese where the abuse allegedly occurred. Wegs was asked in detail about the episodes with O'Connell. He also was questioned about his family, including his father's alcoholism and violence, and the sexual and criminal problems of his siblings.

"Two days later, I took an overdose of trazodone," Wegs said, referring to an antidepressant.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Larry Berger of Minneapolis, confirmed that Wegs had tried to take his life, that he had been hospitalized for two weeks afterward and that sexual abuse he had endured as a minor probably had been a factor.

Like their attorneys, Wegs, Dixon and Link feel that the statute of limitations should begin to tick once a victim realizes the extent of the damage.

James Geoly, a Chicago-based attorney who also represents O'Connell, said the courts had disagreed with that position on the statute of limitations.

"After 30 years, how is a person to know exactly where you were on a certain date, who you were with?" Geoly said. "Witnesses die or memories fade."

He also defended O'Connell's refusal to answer questions during depositions. The bishop took the Fifth Amendment numerous times.

"He has a constitutional right not to incriminate himself," Geoly said.

Accusers want defrocking

Some of his accusers also think the church should punish O'Connell more seriously. O'Connell chose to go to the South Carolina monastery after his resignation, but the Vatican has allowed him to stay there and say Mass.

"I'm appalled that the Vatican has anything to do with him," Alexander said.

"I feel he should be defrocked and not be allowed to perform priestly duties of any kind," Link said.

Again, Geoly disagreed.

"If you kick him out of the church, he will be at large in society," he said. "This way, the church can keep track of him, take responsibility for him."

O'Connell's accusers, all of whom at one time wanted to be priests, said the abuse affected their relations with the church. Alexander and Wegs said they no longer attend church.

Link still goes.

"I lost trust in the church," he said. "I questioned everything they teach. How much can you truly believe? I at least still go to Mass and hope that helps me. But to be a priest was a dream of mine, and I feel O'Connell took that away from me."

 
 

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