Bishop Accountability
  The Writhings of Bishop O’Connell
The Pope must rue those who corrupt the young

By William F. Buckley, Jr.
National Review
March 12, 2002

Bishop Anthony O'Connell of Palm Beach said, at the outset of his meeting with the press, his staff, and his fellow priests, that he'd had "a full day." His had proffered his resignation to the Pope as bishop of Palm Beach. And now, he said, "I want to apologize as sincerely and as abjectly as I possibly can." In his meandering address, the bishop said that God had given him "a lot of abilities and great gifts" and that he could "truthfully say I have used those gifts very fully." But one of those gifts is not a gift in the arts of abjection. He apologized for the effect of what he did to the young man, the effect of what he did in deceiving his fellow priests and bishops and the papal nuncio. What he forgot to apologize for was what he did.

To position the story as it might be done by a playwright with an eye to piquancy, here it is.

— The bishop of Palm Beach, in 1998, is revealed to have molested several minors.

— In order to sanitize this extraordinary scandal, the Vatican sends in a fresh, hygienic bishop, Bishop O'Connell, who for 18 years had been in charge of a high-school seminary in Missouri.

— On March 7, the Florida bishops, led by the archbishop of Miami, issued a statement against the sex practices that so many priests have been charged with.

— Among the signers was Bishop O'Connell.

— At this point, presumably reacting to the bishops' statement, one Christopher Dixon in Missouri goes to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and tells of his own abuse at age 15 by Bishop O'Connell at the high-school seminary, of the lawsuit he subsequently filed against the bishop, and of the secret settlement by the diocese.

On this business, Bishop O'Connell, in his abject statement of apology, reported that he had actually only "touched" Dixon; that he was really engaged only in experimental therapy; that back in those days, Catholic theology was to some extent influenced by the teachings of Masters and Johnson. He found it relevant to say that he had, in his three years in Palm Beach, made "wonderful Jewish friends." Also, he has made "wonderful friends in the Muslim community, in the Protestant community, and in the civic community." He said he wanted to apologize to all of them, sincerely and, again, abjectly.

"Obviously," he admitted, "I will have to confess that in some ways I was very misguided back in those years." But he found in the diocese now "a sense of unity now stronger than ever." He proceeded to appeal "particularly to my fellow Catholics, with a reminder that we have only one priest, who is Jesus Christ."

To those who "support him," he asked for prayers and more "expressions of love." To those who are angry, he asked that they "pray for my forgiveness" and "pray for their ability themselves to forgive." He forgot only to ask us to pray that the editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch grow in Christian charity sufficiently to repent having exposed the bishop's exercise in Masters and Johnson therapy with a 15-year-old.

I had a note today from my older brother, who when he served in the United States Senate was familiarly referred to as "the sainted junior senator from New York." He went on to serve as Under Secretary of State, president of Radio Free Europe, and judge in the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington. He wrote to me, "This is an occasion where a papal apology is truly appropriate. The apology should be accompanied by the proclamation of a Church-wide tolerance-of-error policy, explaining that while the Church continues to love the sinner and hope for reformation and salvation, its overarching responsibility to the faithful requires it to defrock or otherwise to isolate any priest who is guilty of sex abuse."

And on the same day I also received an appeal from the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. An enclosure was a photograph of the Pope, his arms extended over the shoulders of a young boy. The text: "Pope John Paul II has embraced young people as a focus of his papacy and has inspired millions of them to follow a path that leads to Christ. He sees young people as a continuing presence in the Church, and as the greatest hope for a truly universal Church." The Pope needs now to speak with the same voice with which Christ rued those who seek to corrupt young people.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.