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  How a Priest's Past Was Hidden
In 1984, the Rev. John P. Connor Molested a Boy. Courts and the Church Concealed His Crime

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer
April 21, 2002

Four years after he molested a 14-year-old boy in South Jersey, a priest was back on the job in the Philadelphia suburbs, serving as a parish priest in Conshohocken for five years.

The pastor who supervised him there says he did not know that the Rev. John P. Connor had been arrested for sexual assault in Camden County in 1984, and did not restrict his access to young people.

Father Connor, now 70, admitted molesting the boy. "It was just touching," he told The Inquirer last month. "I was bombed out of my mind." He said he was "very sorry" for the suffering he had caused.

He said it was the only time he ever did such a thing, and the newspaper found no evidence to the contrary.

The penalty for his crime consisted of eight months' psychiatric treatment in a church-run rehabilitation clinic.

After that, prosecutors and church officials alike wiped his record clean. The church says the clinic gave Father Connor "a clean bill of health"; his former pastor at St. Matthew's in Conshohocken calls him "a wonderful man."

Even so, a close look at his career since his arrest shows how the court system and the church have sometimes failed to keep admitted molesters away from children.

His history is emblematic, too, of how those institutions' responses to clerical sex abuse have evolved over the years:

His crime was concealed from parishioners and public. He was treated and returned to duty. His victim's claim was settled quietly out of court. He was transferred, first to Pittsburgh, then to Conshohocken, then to Bridgeton, N.J.

There, the Diocese of Camden made him a hospital chaplain - an assignment that kept him away from children and was typical of the "restricted ministry" that the church once routinely imposed on some troubled priests.

It was not until February, as shock waves from the child-abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese spread across the country, that Father Connor was one of dozens of priests removed from all duties.

On Feb. 26, Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, leader of the diocese to which Father Connor belongs, issued a statement saying in part that "to our knowledge, there is now no priest in the diocese in any type of ministry who has been credibly accused of child sexual abuse."

Diocese spokesman Andrew Walton said on Friday: "Because our first concern is the protection of children in our care, the diocese made a decision to relieve Father Connor of his assignment."

For the victim and his mother, Father Connor's shuttling from diocese to diocese tells a story of justice turned upside down. In their eyes, it was the victim, not the assailant, who was punished, suffering a humiliation so great that he fled his school, changed his name, and moved far away.

"Our world was ruined," the boy's mother said in a recent interview. As for Father Connor, she said, "his life never changed."

Like some of the other families victimized by abusers in the clergy, she wants the abuser's name made public.

"They hid something that never should have been buried," she said.

His students knew him as Father Jack.

In 1984, Father Connor was a 52-year-old religion teacher and golf coach at prestigious Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken.

It was there that he met and befriended his victim, a freshman honors student with grades in the top 3 percent of his class and a dream of going to MIT.

The victim's mother, now a nurse in Bucks County, asked that neither she nor her son be identified by name. The Inquirer's policy is to not identify victims of sex crimes without their permission. The mother asked that her son be identified by his Catholic confirmation name, Robert.

She also asked that the paper not contact her son, who is now 31 and lives on the West Coast. Doing so, she said, would "only bring back his nightmares."

On a weekend in October 1984, Father Connor asked the boy's mother whether he could take her son on a golf outing to the Shore - and have him stay overnight at his trailer in Cape May County, to help fix the roof.

To her lifelong regret, she agreed. Why? "He was a priest," she said.

After a round of golf, Father Connor took Robert back to the trailer and served him beer, she said. Then, she said, the priest told the boy he was about to have "a religious experience."

Precisely what happened next is not described in any court file; those records have been expunged. This account is based on a letter from prosecutors to the family, as well as interviews with the victim's mother, current and former New Jersey law enforcement officials, and Father Connor himself.

In the trailer, Father Connor molested the boy.

In his interview with The Inquirer, Father Connor described the episode as "touching" and did not elaborate. Robert has described it as mutual masturbation.

Father Connor now blames his conduct that day on alcoholism. He says it was a one-time occurrence; the boy's mother believes the priest planned to do it again. She says Father Connor invited Robert for another sleepover the next weekend.

But Robert had already told an older cousin, who told his mother.

She contacted police, and a sting was set in motion.

When Father Connor knocked on the family's door the next Saturday, "It took every bit of self-restraint not to kill him," Robert's mother recalled.

She told the priest that her son could not go, and Father Connor left.

County detectives then tapped the family's phone and instructed Robert to call the priest.

"I'm going to call the police if you don't apologize," the boy said.

Father Connor said he was sorry - and that provided the evidence prosecutors needed. Two days later, police arrested him in the principal's office at Bishop Eustace and turned him over to Cape May County authorities.

"I thought the system would give us justice," Robert's mother said.

But things did not play out as she expected. There was no trial. Months later, she learned that a deal had been struck: Lawyers for the Diocese of Camden had negotiated a "pretrial intervention" with the Cape May County prosecutor's office.

Under the arrangement, not uncommon for first-time offenders, Father Connor would not face trial or jail.

If he admitted molesting the boy and stayed out of trouble for a year, all record of his arrest would be erased.

Father Connor was sent to Southdown Institute, a clinic on 100 acres of farmland near Toronto run by the Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference. Southdown treats priests for alcoholism as well as sex disorders; years later, its doctors treated multiple abuser John Geoghan, the defrocked priest at the center of the Boston scandal.

The decision not to seek a criminal conviction was based on "what would best serve society's interest," an assistant Cape May County prosecutor, Kyran Connor, wrote the boy's mother in March 1985.

Kyran Connor, who is not related to the priest and who is now a Cape May County Family Court judge, declined to comment, an aide said.

His letter to the family acknowledged that the decision might "leave certain concerns, feelings and human needs unmet."

Sometime later in 1985, Father Connor completed his treatment at Southdown.

According to Walton, spokesman for the Camden Diocese, Southdown doctors gave Father Connor what Walton called a "clean bill of health" and recommended him for "ministry without restriction."

Officials at Southdown are barred by law from discussing patients. But Donna Markham, president of the clinic, said last week that in her nine-year tenure, Southdown had never recommended an abuser priest for "unrestricted ministry." Markham said she did not know whether that was true before 1993, when she became president.

Generally, church officials have begun to reject the strategy of sending errant priests for treatment and then returning them to duty. As Walton said, "There is a much broader consensus today that such addictions are controllable but not curable."

After his Southdown stay, Father Connor needed a new assignment.

He was sent to work as a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, then under the leadership of Bishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

On occasion, such posts were given to priests as a form of "restricted ministry." Some dioceses, including Philadelphia's, have recently abandoned this approach and instead are dismissing or retiring known abusers.

In February 1988, Bishop Bevilacqua became archbishop of Philadelphia, overseeing about 1,500 priests. Later that year, Father Connor also came to the Philadelphia Archdiocese from Pittsburgh. He was transferred to serve as a vicar, or assistant, at St. Matthew's parish in Conshohocken.

It is not clear whether Cardinal Bevilacqua knew of Father Connor's 1984 abuse when he accepted the priest into ministries in Pittsburgh and later in Conshohocken. Through spokeswoman Catherine Rossi, the cardinal declined to answer The Inquirer's questions about what role, if any, he had in Father Connor's assignments.

Rossi said: "We understand that many parishioners will be greatly distressed to learn of Father Connor's arrest in the early 1980s. People should know that during the time Father Connor was in [the Philadelphia Archdiocese], no allegations of abuse were lodged against him."

In Conshohocken, the priest's duties were unrestricted, as was his access to children.

"I had no idea" about his past, said the Rev. James W. Donlon, pastor of St. Matthew's then and now. He described Father Connor as "a wonderful man who did a lot of great things for our parish."

He criticized the newspaper for revealing the priest's past, saying: "To take away the name of a good man is the lowest thing that can happen."

Father Connor remained vicar of St. Matthew's from 1988 until 1993.

In the early 1990s, the Diocese of Camden faced a wave of lawsuits by people claiming priests had abused them. Payouts were in the millions of dollars.

Father Connor's victim, Robert, contacted a lawyer who in turn contacted the diocese - which settled the claim out of court in 1993 for $48,000.

That year, Father Connor was transferred again. It is not clear whether that was related to the settlement.

He returned to his home diocese of Camden, becoming chaplain at Bridgeton Hospital in Cumberland County. His residence was the rectory of Immaculate Conception parish in Bridgeton. In June, he moved to the rectory at St. John Vianney parish, also in Bridgeton.

That was where he was serving in February when the diocese forced him to retire.

News of Father Connor's removal did nothing to ease the pain of the 1984 abuse, Robert's mother said. "I refer to it as the year my son died."

She said a lawyer for the Camden Diocese had promised her years ago that Father Connor would "never work in a parish again." The lawyer could not be reached for comment last week.

As for Robert, he went on to attend college and graduate school - though not MIT - and earned a doctorate in engineering. He has been married and divorced.

Father Connor, who now lives in a New Jersey retirement home for priests, says he has conquered the alcoholism that contributed to his crime. "I did everything I was supposed to do," he said.

He said he did not think his offense should have become public.

"The record was erased," Father Connor said. "It was like it never happened."

 
 

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