Ex-R.I. priest guilty of sex charges in N.J.; William C. O'Connell also has four lawsuits pending in Rhode Island brought by men who say they were molested by him

By Elizabeth Abbott
Providence Journal-Bulletin
December 21, 1994

Former Rhode Island priest William C. O'Connell pleaded guilty in a New Jersey courtroom Monday to two felony charges of sexual misconduct involving young boys in the shore community of Lower Township, N.J.

Under a plea bargain, O'Connell, 72, pleaded guilty to sexual assault and endangering the welfare of children, assistant state prosecutor Barbara Bakley said yesterday.

More than a dozen lesser charges against O'Connell, including showing pornography to minors, were merged into those two counts, she said.

Appearing before Superior Court Judge Carmen H. Alvarez in Cape May County Court, O'Connell admitted he masturbated while watching two boys under age 13 wash his car, Bakley said.

(Under New Jersey law, sexual assault encompasses several scenarios, among them masturbating in the presence of minors.)

He also admitted he photographed a teenage boy in sexually explicit poses over a three-year period, and he allowed two other boys to watch pornographic films at his cottage in Lower Township, Bakley said.

In exchange for the guilty plea, the state will recommend that O'Connell be sentenced to 10 years in prison, with no parole for five years.

O'Connell agreed to serve his sentence at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, N.J., a facility that specializes in the treatment of compulsive sexual disorders, such as pedophilia, she said.

Sentencing is set for Jan. 23. Until then, O'Connell will remain in the Cape May County jail, where he has been held since his arrest, July 6, on 20 charges of sexual misconduct and obscenity involving young boys.

When Lower Township police raided O'Connell's bungalow, they found thousands of photographs of boys, many of them from surrounding communities, and numerous pornographic videos.

O'Connell moved to Lower Township in 1991. Previously, in Rhode Island, he had served a year in a prison work-release program after pleading no contest in 1986 to two counts of second-degree sexual assault and one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for acts involving three teenage boys.

In New Jersey, O'Connell integrated himself into the community and hid his past from his neighbors, Lower Township police have said. His arrest shocked residents and triggered criticism of Church officials - including Bishop Louis E. Gelineau - for not notifying the community that a convicted sex offender had moved into town.

(William Halpin, Bishop Gelineau's spokseman, has said the bishop did not know where O'Connell went after leaving Rhode Island.)

Several parents in the Lower Township area are among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed last month in a New Jersey Superior Court against Church officials in that state and Rhode Island. The suit alleges, among other things, that New Jersey Church officials knew of O'Connell's past, yet allowed him to volunteer at local parishes, where he was in contact with young childen.

O'Connell also is the subject of four pending lawsuits in Rhode Island courts by men who say they were molested by the priest in Rhode Island.


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