A Cancer That Spread to the West

By Donal Lynch
Irish Independent
February 1, 2009

That was how one paper described the revelation that nearly a third of clerical abuse in America had an Irish stamp on it. From bishops to seminarians, the Irish clergy in the US have been involved in a spectrum of sexual activity ranging from womanisers violating the celibacy laws of the church to the most malevolent paedophiles. For all those involved, the cost has been enormous. Donal Lynch reports from America

The parishioners of the affluent Palm Beach diocese in Florida were more used to seeing an affable and somewhat avuncular Anthony J. O'Connell. Now he was ashen-faced and a film of sweat glistened on his brow. The atmosphere in the Cathedral was tense. Everyone was waiting for O'Connell to speak. As a vigil of priests stood behind him, looking pensively at their shoes, their bishop sternly told the journalists assembled that the swirl of rumours of the previous 24 hours were true. He had sexually abused two boys -- one had yet to come forward -- and had tendered his resignation to the pope.

The Catholic community in Palm Beach -- a group that counted several of the Kennedys, who had a home in the area, among its number -- was shocked. O'Connell's resignation had come just a day after he and Florida's nine other bishops had publicly pledged to purge their church of sexual abusers.

O'Connell had been a popular and unifying figure credited with restoring much-needed confidence to the area's quarter of a million Catholics. Beyond that he was renowned as something of a socialite cleric, charming people with what one local paper called his "mellifluous Irish brogue" and hosting lavish fundraisers at the opulent Bishop's residence that he had discreetly traded up to after arriving in Palm Beach. Now the words "disgraced paedophile" would precede his name from Palm Beach all the way back to his birthplace in Ballynacally, Co Clare.

O'Connell was one of the first high-ranking bishops to fall in a wave of revelations that started in Boston and swept all across the United States in the earlier part of this decade.

What was remarkable about this purge was the role that Irish-born clerics played. Taking criminal and civil cases together, Irishmen formed an usually high percentage of the priests who were judged to have abused American children.

In Los Angeles, home to America's largest Catholic population, nearly a fifth of the lawsuits brought to date against the Catholic church in the US have involved Irish-born clergy -- a wildly disproportionate number. In the country as a whole more than $2bn has been paid out as a result of what one newspaper called "this cancer that spread west," in reference to the fact that the initial spate of revelations of clerical abuse had come back in these priests' home country. If priests of Irish ancestry are counted, almost one-third of all of the clerical abuse had an Irish stamp on it. The result has been that some dioceses are now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, with the church having to sell off billions of dollars of land to pay its burgeoning legal debts. The very groups of men who helped to build up the Catholic church in America -- the Irish religious -- have now almost torn it down.

O'Connell was representative of a lot of Irish priests who went to America. He grew up in the strictly Catholic Fifties, played hurling and football in Clare and even as a young man was sexually inexperienced. His mother wanted him to be a priest and his choice of this path was a source of great pride for his family. There is also some evidence that, like many who were later revealed to have abused young people, his path on the road to the priesthood was not an altogether smooth one. While still a schoolboy at Mungret College in Limerick he found it as hard to get into a seminary as some students find it to get into medical school. His first sponsor, in Birmingham, Alabama, abruptly dropped him and he had some difficulty in finding another route to the US. The reasons are unclear but, at a time when American parishes were crying out for Irish priests, the fact that he had to shop himself around was a premonition of the trouble to come.

As far back as the early part of the 20th century Ireland was sending vast numbers of priests to work and teach in America but the Church kept most of the best and brightest prospective seminarians at home in Maynooth. This did not go wholly unnoticed and even in the Forties and Fifties some clerics in America were expressing disquiet at the standard of seminarian that was being shipped to them from Ireland.

However, with the population in the US growing and congregations swelling these reservations were drowned out in the quest to fill pulpits at all costs. There were also other incentives than the desire to spread the Good Word. The Catholic church in America had more money than the church at home and actively courted prospective priests in the same way today some colleges court students. In his fine book, An Irish Tragedy, Joe Rigert notes that many Irish students, "pleading poverty in the old country" spoke of "dollar dioceses" and getting cash incentives in envelopes. Many of these seminarians went west in the hope of finding the same thing that any young man travelling to America during that era would want: money, sunshine, a Cadillac, free love.

O'Connell was turned down three dozen times before finally a small diocese in Missouri agreed to pay for his seminarian studies and his ordination as a priest. Once there, his rise through the clerical ranks was meteoric. He became a staff member at the seminary and was appointed spiritual director in 1968 and rector in 1970. In 1988 the diocese of Knoxville was created and O'Connell was to be its first bishop.

Much later, it would be revealed that during his time in Missouri O'Connell began molesting boys. Some of those who made allegations told of O'Connell masturbating them and rubbing his body against theirs, passing it off as sex education.

There was, however, more to O'Connell than some ruthless sexual predator. He had a rapport with the boys who attended the seminary and was admired and looked up to. The majority of young men he dealt with were not abused. Others considered what they experienced with him to be a type of "relationship" well into adulthood, with one man almost 25 years old before he recognised even to himself that he had been abused.

What galled O'Connell's victims more than anything was the hypocrisy around his abuse. In some cases he had sexual relations with young men for years but then, if it became known that these seminarians had homosexual leanings he would either allow them to be removed or else take an active role in denying them the priesthood. In private he would suggest to them that the Vatican's stance on homosexuality was wrong and unchristian but he would toe the party line. Perhaps as a mark of revenge some of these young men then began to blackmail him. Fearing he would be defrocked and exposed O'Connell paid these young men thousands of dollars without complaint, in some cases apologising by email for being late with particular payments. It was a tactic that only delayed the inevitable.

If O'Connell was one of the most notorious low points in the wave of Irish-American abuse scandals he was still but a small cog in a huge, dysfunctional machine. In his own state alone two other Irish-born priests were removed for interfering sexually with children. One of them, Hugh Behan, was defrocked and eventually ended up as a greeter at Disney World in Orlando but lost his job when news of his past caught up on him. Similar stories were heard in almost every parish in America and the usual pattern, familiar from instances clerical abuse in Ireland, of moving priests around to different parishes continued in the US. When the law or the press finally caught up with them, many accused priests returned home and lived out their days on a clerical pension. At least one of them, Thomas McNamara of Jacksonville, Florida, continued to molest children back in Ireland.

A few years after O'Connell admitted his misdeeds Cardinal Roger Mahony of California agreed to a $660m class action settlement to 500 victims. The amount of the settlement made headlines but in terms of averting an ever nastier PR disaster for the church it represented value for money -- none of the alleged misdeeds of the accused priests would be heard in open court. Those that did come to light would make O'Connell's actions seem almost innocent.

Oliver O'Grady, from Limerick, was one of a new wave of Irish priests who went to California in the Seventies. O'Grady himself had had a pretty rough background. He claimed he was molested by two priests and his own brother when he was a child. He would later say that he would use the same tactics that the priest had used on him when he began molesting young girls in Stockton, California. The extent of the abuse he carried out was revolting and mind-boggling. He would befriend and have affairs with the mothers of families in order to get to their children. In one instance he molested a daughter and three sons in a family of nine children. He sexually abused two young girls from another family, one of whom was nine months old. Doctors later found that she showed severe genital scarring consistent with being digitally penetrated. Lawyers for O'Grady's victims would later allege that Church authorities had been aware of the priest's actions back as far as 1976 but nothing had been done. Indeed, in one instance O'Grady's bishop Merlin Guilfoyle reprimanded him for apologising to one of his victims. This, Guilfoyle felt, would expose the church to future legal difficulties. Bishop Roger Mahony was involved in an even bigger cover up, claiming he did not see a letter in his church files in which O'Grady admitted abusing a young girl. According to Russell Ron in his New Times piece, "Mouth Wide Shut", two jurors in a later civil trial concluded that Mahony was lying. Mahony would eventually promote O'Grady and write to him, saying "you are in my prayers."

Prayers didn't help O'Grady in 1993 as he was convicted of "lewd and lascivious acts" on two brothers, John and James Howard. He had molested them for more than a decade when they were aged between three and 13 years old. O'Grady was sentenced to 14 years in prison and when he was released, having served only half of that, he was deported directly back to Ireland. There then followed a huge civil suit on behalf of his victims against the diocese of Stockton. O'Grady professed to be apologetic but refused to actually apologise to his victims and their families. He also minimised most of the instances of abuse alleged against him, claiming that the victims merely wanted more compensation. Some questioned why he would bother doing this seeing that the compensation would be paid out of church coffers.

Joe Rigert had his own theory: "the more likely explanation is that the Church bought him (O'Grady) off ... Whereas O'Grady had first opposed an effort by the diocese to take away his priestly powers, figuring the Church was seeking to duck its own responsibility for the harm he had done, he agreed later to be defrocked. He had changed his mind after the church had offered him $800 a month when he turned 65 (in 2010)".

A suit taken in Ireland against the archdiocese of Cashel and Emly (for ordaining O'Grady in the first place) was dismissed. A judge in California later awarded a $30 million settlement to victims of O'Grady. This was later reduced to $7 million. O'Grady would later be heavily featured in the Oscar nominated documentary Deliver Us From Evil. After the film was released at home in Ireland O'Grady went to ground, moving five times in two years, even as US lawyers vowed to track him down. His current whereabouts are not known.

O'Grady's case presented a familiar blueprint of the abuse, deception and dissembling that emanated from many dioceses in America. He also represented the darkest end of a spectrum of sexual activity that Irish priests in America engaged in. Many were womanisers, violated the celibacy laws of the church and were clearly unsuitable priests but, like Father Michael Cleary and Bishop Eamon Casey, seemed almost innocently gregarious and romantic when compared with the more malevolent paedophiles in their midst.

They became entangled in sexual and financial difficulties not all that different to those that many lay men who went to America in those years had to deal with. During the early Eighties, Fr. Frank Flynn, a priest in Florida had a long affair with a local married woman, Pat Hittel. Flynn was famously charismatic and like many Irishmen in America used his accent to its best effect. Hittel would later die of cancer but excerpts from her posthumously published diaries reveal that if Flynn had done anything wrong it was to use his position as priest to get close to her. An article from the Palm Beach Post from 2002 quotes another woman who said she had to fend off Flynn with a slap.

The overall impression given in the American press was that he was yet another unwelcome export, yet he served as a reminder that not all priests were paedophiles. Some were just men trying to cope in their own haphazard and selfish way with a permissive society so different from the one they had left behind.

History will perhaps recall that Anthony J. O'Connell straddled the boundary of these two sexual extremes. Some of what he did can properly be described as abuse -- and he has owned up to this. But much of it operated in the same uncomfortable grey area occupied by the likes of Cathal O'Searcaigh.

Some of O'Connell's alleged victims themselves considered that they had had a relationship with him well into their 20s and described him as a kind and giving mentor. Others however remained angry and a litany of suicide attempts, depression and self-harm incidents litter the case files of the then-teenagers with whom O'Connell had sex.

Michael Wegs, one of O'Connell's victims told the Palm Beach Post that the bishop had "corrupted the morals and ideals of young boys. But nothing will happen to him. He will not go to jail. He has lost his access to Palm Beach society. He won't be defrocked". Today, O'Connell's lives in a Trappist monastery in a scenic and secluded part of sunny South Carolina. From there, the former "socialite priest," like so many of his Irish colleagues, waits out his infamy while the Church they pledged to help sells its lands to pay off their shameful debts.


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