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  Former Students Describe Pattern of Abuse at Missouri Seminary

Associated Press, carried in Kansas City Star [Missouri]
November 14, 2004

ST. LOUIS - Former seminarians say the Jefferson City Diocese refuses to acknowledge the scope of a pattern of widespread sexual abuse they say they endured at a now-shuttered Roman Catholic seminary in Hannibal.

The men are calling for a full accounting of how the diocese handled the cases of priests accused of sexual abuse at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary and throughout the diocese, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in a copyright story Sunday.

Two years ago, Anthony J. O'Connell resigned as bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting repeated abuse of an underage student at the Missouri seminary he led.

O'Connell worked at the diocesan seminary for 20 years, beginning in 1963, first as teacher, later as dean of students and eventually as its director. He later served as bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., before the Florida appointment.

At least five former seminarians say they were abused by St. Thomas faculty members, and at least 10 more have privately told counselors, lawyers or family members that they were sexually molested while students there.

Before the scandal broke, a few victims were receiving secret payments over the years to help them buy cars, pay for college or cover their bills. The church offered others a quiet settlement or counseling.

But a growing number are angry that no one in the diocese heeded warnings about O'Connell and others that might have stopped the abuse sooner or prevented O'Connell's rise through the church hierarchy.

They also are angry that Missouri prosecutors have not pursued charges against any of the accused. Nor have they subpoenaed church personnel records that might include information on abuse cases.

Former students worry about their fellow alumni, several of whom they say were abused at St. Thomas but have not come forward. And they say they know of at least two former seminarians who became abusive priests themselves.

Bishop John R. Gaydos declined to be interviewed. He said in a statement that he did not want to risk violating the "well-deserved confidentiality" of "those who have been injured." The diocese has said it is assisting victims with comfort, counseling and in some cases, money.

The diocese has defended itself from suits filed by abuse victims by saying the former students came forward too many years after the incidents allegedly occurred.

O'Connell also declined to comment. He is said to be living "a life of seclusion and prayerful penance" at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Moncks Corner, S.C.

He has faced suits from at least three victims. At least six other former students have accused him of sexual abuse in interviews with lawyers or the Post-Dispatch. In court filings, O'Connell denied all the allegations of sexual abuse.

The diocese has said it closed the seminary in 2002 because the scandal exacerbated its financial problems and low enrollment. Its grounds were sold Aug. 31 to a Hannibal church.

But for victims, the memories of that place and those times continue to haunt.

Former seminarian Michael Wegs said St. Thomas offered a chance to escape his abusive and alcoholic father in Moberly. Wegs found solace in O'Connell, who counseled him after evening prayer. But eventually, Wegs said in court depositions, O'Connell led him into sexual conversations, during which the priest masturbated.

Another former St. Thomas student, identified only as T.L., and who has filed a lawsuit as John Doe, said his abuse began in 1968, when he disclosed to O'Connell his attraction to boys, his guilt and confusion.

O'Connell soon turned the sessions into discussions of sexual fantasies, calling it psychological testing, T.L. said. The former student said he was 14 when O'Connell began abusing him, and that the abuse lasted about a year before the boy was dismissed from the seminary.

Neither seminarian ever told anyone at the time what was happening.

Chris Dixon, who grew up about a mile from St. Thomas in Hannibal, said he suffered sexual abuse by his parish priest, only to be targeted by O'Connell and another priest at the seminary.

Dixon said he confided to O'Connell about his sexual experimentation and the guilt he felt.

Again, Dixon said, O'Connell turned the lengthy sessions into discussions of sexual fantasies and eventually convinced Dixon to become more physically intimate with him.

Another former seminarian, Matt Cosby of Marshfield, said he also was struggling with his attraction to boys and confided in O'Connell. Some time later, Cosby said, the priest became Cosby's spiritual advisor and asked the student to keep a journal about sexual fantasies.

 
 

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