‘Shame, hopelessness’: Holyoke’s Fran O’Connell recalls alleged abuse by former Holyoke Catholic teacher

MassLive.com/The Republican [Springfield MA]

June 6, 2021

By Stephanie Barry

By most accounts, Fran O’Connell seemed to have the world at his feet as a teen in the 1970s. But on one evening, he found himself holding his father’s gun to his temple.

At 14 years old, O’Connell was a brute of a boy. He stood over 6 feet tall and was a dominant athlete at Holyoke Catholic High School. He came from a large, Irish-Catholic family. A natural leader, he was the kid who organized neighborhood kickball and pick-up games. He turned his fair share of heads among his female classmates. His dad was among the Holyoke Police Department brass, serving as chief for a time.

These factors combined offered O’Connell a solid pedigree in a working-class city that valued family and faith — and applauded his thunder on the basketball court and football field.

But on that night, he took his father’s revolver down from a shelf, emptying the bullets onto a bedspread one by one.

“I put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger, just to prove to myself I had a way out,” said O’Connell, now 62. “My plan was not to kill myself on that day. I just wanted to convince myself I had an out.”

The kid who appeared to have it all had become trapped in what he describes as an abusive relationship with a teacher at Holyoke Catholic, he said.

O’Connell first met Robert Ellis Hosmer Jr. in 1973. He was a freshman at Holyoke Catholic, where Hosmer was a new theology teacher. Hosmer almost immediately began paying him special attention and playing to his insecurities, O’Connell said.

“He treated me as more than just a ‘dumb jock’,” said O’Connell, who spoke publicly for the first time about the abuse as Hosmer’s name was among a new list released on Wednesday by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield of 40 clergy and laity credibly accused of sexual molestation.

To a blue-collar boy in the 1970s, Hosmer seemed learned and worldly. O’Connell kept an affinity for art and literature tight to the vest, lest it cut into his credibility as a “tough guy.” Hosmer tapped into that, however, nourishing an impressionable adolescent.

The teacher groomed him masterfully, paying O’Connell special attention in class, offering him after-school tutoring and urging him to play the more high-brow game of tennis. He bought the boy a racket, tennis whites and expensive sneakers. O’Connell’s high-top canvas Converse wouldn’t do. In his 20s at the time, Hosmer squired his student to museums and posh restaurants, schooling him on the proper use of silverware and suitable dinner attire.

“The bait and hook was set right there at 14 years of age. I thought: ‘If a guy as smart as Bob Hosmer was paying this much attention to me, I must be really special,’” said O’Connell, who went on to found a successful home nursing care business and run for mayor of Holyoke.

The grooming and seduction escalated during his sophomore year, according to O’Connell. It began with hugging and an occasional kiss on the cheek, or the neck. They exchanged “I love yous.” Hosmer began critiquing his young charge’s friends, girlfriends, and even O’Connell’s father. The tough cop didn’t see his son as a whole person, the teacher opined. His friends were not up to snuff, nor were his girlfriends, Hosmer sniffed. Only he understood O’Connell’s true self, he told the boy.

Hosmer lived with his parents in West Springfield at the time, according to O’Connell. One night, O’Connell alleges, Hosmer invited the teen to his home for dinner. As O’Connell got up to leave, Hosmer pressed him against the wall, kissed him deeply on the mouth and thrust his hand down the front of O’Connell’s pants.

“My whole body became corpse-like, rigid. I just shut down. I got in my car and took back roads all the way home. On the way, I accidentally ran over a cat and I felt nothing. I was just completely numb,” O’Connell said.

The physical relationship went no further. Still, they continued what O’Connell called an “intimate relationship” after he graduated high school and went on to study nursing at Columbia University in New York City. And, even after O’Connell married his high school sweetheart and the couple had three daughters.

Hosmer also regularly criticized Hosmer’s now-ex-wife. She wasn’t “good enough” for him, Hosmer argued, O’Connell says.

O’Connell is ashamed to say a part of him bought it. Today, he laments not treating his ex well enough. In retrospect, he believes he was damaged goods.

“I was a shell of a person because of what was happening. I was hiding in plain sight because I couldn’t bear for anyone to see me,” O’Connell said. “I was like a secret agent with a secret life.”

O’Connell’s father fell ill in the 1990s and O’Connell, by then a nurse practitioner, began caring for him. It was only then that O’Connell says he realized Hosmer had been wrong about his father. The elder O’Connell did love his son. He was proud of him. O’Connell says it was this revelation that broke the spell his former teacher had over him.

Their contact fell off until 2007, when O’Connell encountered Hosmer by chance in the parking lot of a nursing home. O’Connell’s beloved aunt Rita was there, the true and early cultivator of her nephew’s love of literature and the language. She had given him a dictionary and a copy of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” when he was a child.

O’Connell asked Hosmer if he remembered him. Of course he did, Hosmer responded, before launching into a story about how his mother was suffering from dementia.

O’Connell snapped.

“I told him he had ruined my life. I yelled at him. He looked stunned. This man of words barely said a thing,” O’Connell recalls.

He didn’t physically harm Hosmer. But, O’Connell says, he wanted to. That was the last time O’Connell saw his alleged abuser.

For his part, Hosmer went on to be a professor at Smith College in Northampton. A spokeswoman for the prestigious Seven Sisters school confirmed Hosmer joined the English Department there in 1989 and was promoted to senior lecturer in 2001. He retired on Dec. 31, 2016, with emeritus status, according to spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel. Hosmer taught single courses in 2017, 2019 and 2020, she said.

Schmeidel also confirmed the college was informed of O’Connell’s allegations in 2001. O’Connell sent then-acting president John M. Connolly a letter detailing his experience with Hosmer, hoping to spare another young person. College officials did exactly nothing.

In response to questions posed by a reporter with The Republican and MassLive earlier this week — plus the list published by the diocese — the college posted a statement to its website Wednesday evening.

“As soon as the college was notified of this list, we began a full review of the lecturer’s employment records. Included in those records is a 2001 letter from an individual to the college, alleging that this lecturer abused him in the 1970s when he was a student at the high school where the lecturer taught before Smith. The college administration consulted with its legal team at the time who advised no action on the college’s part. Twenty years later, this advice seems anachronistic and irresponsible,” read the statement, signed by college president Kathleen McCartney and Michael Thurston, professor of English Language and Literature.

Schmeidel said the women’s college received no complaints about the professor, but said he will not be invited back to lecture. Hosmer did not respond to a request for comment.

The Springfield diocese in 2009 sent O’Connell a letter after he came forward with his allegations about Hosmer, deeming those accusations “credible.” It was three sentences long.

“We do understand how difficult this has been for you and wish you continuing strength on the road you are traveling,” reads the letter, signed by the then-chairwoman of the Diocesan Review Board.

O’Connell was interviewed by a Massachusetts state trooper in connection with his allegations against Hosmer in 2010, but the investigation apparently fizzled.

The Catholic diocese in 2011 established an initial list of clergy the diocese believed had been credibly abused of sexual abuse. Hosmer’s name did not appear on the list until now. For whatever reason, the diocese made the decision to exclude lay personnel until the list was revised this week. The diocese also added dozens of names of dead priests and religious order priests — tripling the length of the record. It rocketed from 21 to 61 names.

The new accounting also reveals O’Connell was not Hosmer’s only accuser.

Another man last year filed a lawsuit in Hampden Superior Court against Hosmer, the diocese and the Rev. Eugene Honan, who also worked at Holyoke Catholic from 1972 to 1982. Both O’Connell and attorneys for the “John Doe” in the lawsuit say Honan was informed of Hosmer’s abusive tendencies, but did nothing.

Laura Mangini and Rob DiTusa are Springfield attorneys representing Doe in his lawsuit against the church.

“Here’s the thing about the Catholic church — you’re running a high school and you’re put on notice that you have a predator who’s grooming and sexually abusing students, but you don’t do anything about it because you’re a bunch of hypocrites,” DiTusa said. “You’re valuing money, reputation and control over the health and well-being and safety of children.”

He added that Catholic school teachers and priests were not only authority figures, but “authority figures from God” in the eyes of the students and many of their parents.

Mangini and DiTusa said O’Connell’s story of bending under the control of the highly intelligent, charismatic Hosmer is a familiar one.

“I think we are going to find, as we dig deeper into the case, that Fran’s story is not entirely unique,” DiTusa said. “And I think people at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield already know that.”

The diocese offered little in the way of a response, citing the ongoing litigation.

“While we are unable to comment on specific litigation, our goal is to always try to settle these matters rather than litigate. For a variety of reasons that is not always possible. But even as a lawsuit proceeds, we remain open to providing a fair settlement,” said Carolee McGrath, spokeswoman for the diocese.

Honan was mostly removed from public ministry in 2010, and also features on the diocese’s list as having abused an adult man. That man, Richard Koske of South Hadley, gave an interview to The Republican in 2018. He says Honan plied him with booze and raped him while he was a handyman at a rectory in Northampton where Honan resided in the 1990s. Koske sued the diocese and received a $20,000 settlement in 2013.

O’Connell said he has no plans to sue the diocese, and was gratified when Hosmer’s name was finally added to the public list of abusive clergy and lay personnel. Diocesan officials have vowed to make that inventory “a truly living document.”

O’Connell has remarried, is semi-retired and recently welcomed his first grandson. These days, he splits his time between his family farm in New Hampshire and a winter home in Puerto Rico. He lost a brother, also a Holyoke police officer, to suicide in 2016. He says he has made amends with his first wife, Anne. He has told her often that he wishes he had been a better man, and a better husband when they were married.

Of his history with Hosmer, he expects it may be difficult for many to fathom why he didn’t, or couldn’t, cut ties earlier with his former teacher.

“Not a lot of people are going to understand how a grown man would stay in a relationship with an abusive predator as long as I did. But survivors of sexual abuse know this already; they know the shame, hopelessness and embarrassment. They know the collateral damage to relationships. They’ll know all of it,” he said.

The lifelines, O’Connell adds, are those who see him and understand.

Fran O’Connell was a star basketball player at the former Holyoke Catholic High School during the 1970s. He is shown here during the 1975-1976 season. (Photo courtesy of Fran O'Connell)
Fran O’Connell was a star basketball player at the former Holyoke Catholic High School during the 1970s. He is shown here during the 1975-1976 season. (Photo courtesy of Fran O’Connell)
Fran O’Connell, a Holyoke native, is shown here on his family farm in New Hampshire. O’Connell alleges he was sexually abused by former Holyoke Catholic High School theology teacher Robert Hosmer while a student there during the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Fran O'Connell)
Fran O’Connell, a Holyoke native, is shown here on his family farm in New Hampshire. O’Connell alleges he was sexually abused by former Holyoke Catholic High School theology teacher Robert Hosmer while a student there during the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Fran O’Connell)