Turbulent Year for Diocese, Church

By Mary McLachlin
March 9, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH -- The Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach, like most other dioceses, used to call its big money-raising campaign of the year the Annual Bishop's Appeal.

This year, it's the Diocesan Services Appeal, and everybody understands why.

A year ago this weekend, the Catholic Church's sex scandal fell like an errant mortar shell on the local diocese.

On March 8, 2002, jolly and revered Bishop Anthony O'Connell, sent here only three years before to repair the damage from the previous bishop's sex-abuse history, stood in front of a phalanx of supportive but stunned priests and said it was true: He had coaxed a teenage student to lie in bed naked with him while he was rector of a Missouri seminary during the 1970s.

O'Connell called it experimental therapy, a misguided attempt at counseling. And, he said almost as an afterthought, there might be a second accuser.

So far, three more have come forward.

The year since O'Connell's resignation has been one of unprecedented upheaval for the diocese and the Catholic Church, which have seen:

More than 1,000 sex-related lawsuits filed -- and more looming -- against priests, bishops and dioceses, including three against O'Connell and at least two against the Diocese of Palm Beach. The local diocese faces potential claims totaling at least $10 million from legal actions in progress or in negotiation.

Criminal charges filed and guilty verdicts recorded against priests throughout the U.S., including one in Palm Beach County.

The forced resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the sex-abuse scandal.

Accusations of sexual advances by a male employee against Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, who led the Palm Beach Diocese for seven months after the removal of Bishop J. Keith Symons in 1998. Symons admitted molesting five boys in his early priesthood.

Disclosure of a $400,000 embezzlement case that the Palm Beach Diocese had kept secret.

A drop in church attendance to 41 percent, the lowest level ever among Catholics, according to a Gallup Organization poll, and an increase from 30 percent to 40 percent who said they would give less money to the church.

Uncounted millions of dollars paid to settle victims' claims and to fight others.

"I'm not sure anybody can reliably identify the total impact," said Robert Sherman of the Greenberg, Traurig law firm's Boston office, which has pressed claims against dozens of priests there. "It's obviously tens of millions of dollars, but we don't know how many.

"The archdiocese just settled with a group of victims a year ago for $10 million, but that's only the beginning. What they're paying in pastoral support (and) for counseling for victims is enormous. What they're paying in legal fees is enormous."

Scandal snowballed

The shock wave of O'Connell's downfall and the snowballing effect of the overall sex-abuse problem pried open records that had not been disclosed. The Palm Beach Diocese assembled a 17-member community panel to review its sex-abuse policies, and the panel reported the diocese had paid more than $900,000 to settle seven abuse or harassment claims during its 18-year history.

Diocesan lawyers now are dealing with allegations against the Rev. Francis Maloney, a retired priest, and Matthew Fitzgerald, a defrocked priest, both accused of sexual misconduct toward teenage boys or young men. A hearing is set for April 22 on the diocese's move to dismiss a suit filed against Fitzgerald by two brothers who say he fondled them.

After O'Connell's public admission, three men filed lawsuits against him, alleging he also molested them when they were students at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo. The church shut down the seminary last year.

One suit is based on the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and alleges the entire church hierarchy, including the Palm Beach, Knoxville and two Missouri dioceses where O'Connell served, maintained a cloak of secrecy to protect sexual predators.

The accuser said O'Connell began a sexual relationship with him in the late 1960s when he was 15 and continued it until the 1990s, then paid him $21,000 and offered to give him money for the rest of his life to keep quiet about it.

A judge dismissed the suit in September, saying the five-year statute of limitations had expired.

"While I find that certain conduct, if true, by some of the defendants is despicable... I have to decide the case by the law," said the ruling by St. Louis County Circuit Judge Mark Seigel.

O'Connell's lawyer has moved to dismiss parts of the remaining two suits, which are still waiting for rulings. Attorneys Jeff Anderson and Pat Noaker of St. Paul, Minn., who represent O'Connell's three accusers and more than 200 other alleged victims of clerical abuse, have appealed the ruling on the suit based on the racketeer act.

They argue the statute of limitations didn't begin until O'Connell's confession last March that he'd had a sexual relationship with yet another seminarian, which opened the door for other alleged victims. The Jefferson City Diocese had paid the other former student, Christopher Dixon of St. Louis, $125,000 to settle his abuse claim before it came to court.

Economy compounds damage

The scandal has prompted efforts in at least 17 states, including Florida, to repeal or extend statutes of limitations on sexual abuse under both criminal and civil law. The notable exception is Texas, where a bill was introduced to move the age limitation back two years.

O'Connell and his predecessor, Symons, are two of the nine U.S. bishops ousted since the sex scandal started to become public in the mid 1980s. Symons, 70, returned to his home state of Michigan and to a convent to lead spiritual retreats and do limited ministry.

O'Connell, 64, disappeared from public view after his departure, and the church has not disclosed his whereabouts. Hearsay placed him in his native Ireland at one time, in New Mexico at another.

"He is in the U.S. and always has been," said Jim Geoly, the Chicago attorney who represents him. "It was never his intention to flee the country."

The diocese did not respond to questions of whether it is still paying O'Connell a stipend and how much.

O'Connell was the founding bishop of the Knoxville Diocese, serving it from 1988 to 1999. In January, the pastor and parish council of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., voted to remove his name from a building dedicated to him, the Bishop O'Connell Family Life Center. The pastor said O'Connell "gave his blessing" to the name change.

A troubled economy compounded the damage done to the church's financial reserves in the past year. The Boston Archdiocese said it might have to file bankruptcy, but attorney Sherman said that threat seems to have dissipated recently.

"One thing they need to consider is the impact on other dioceses around the country," he said. "Fund-raising is already lagging around the country, and if the Archdiocese of Boston declared bankruptcy, that would make it dry up even more."

On Friday, the Vatican accepted the resignation of the ailing bishop of Tucson, which is on the verge of bankruptcy after settling 11 sexual abuse suits by 16 plaintiffs for $14 million. Six more suits are pending.

The Palm Beach Diocese hasn't suffered the kinds of legal and financial blows dealt to Boston and Tucson, but it definitely is feeling an impact. It hasn't cut its staff, but has told managers to shave 10 percent from their budget requests.

The diocese fell short of its $6.25 million annual appeal goal this past year by 5 percent to 6 percent, said stewardship director Ed Laughlin.

"The economy may have been a greater contributing factor to what happened in our appeal," Laughlin said. "Less than 1 percent of the people who pledged, and then gave us specific reasons for canceling, said it was because of the scandal."

O'Malley a settling influence

The diocese depends on the annual appeal for 60 percent of its operating budget, Laughlin said, with the other 40 percent provided mainly by endowments, and that investment income has shrunk.

Churchgoing Catholics in the five-county diocese have been edging back toward their parishes and their faith like wary trauma survivors after the jolt of two disgraced bishops and months of dismaying revelations. They aren't quite the same as they were before, though.

"People ask more questions now," Laughlin said of the phone calls he gets. "They want more information. They're not as willing to just accept whatever is said."

The key to the recovery, in the opinion of local Catholics interviewed for this story, has been the presence of Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, a Franciscan friar installed in October as the diocese's new bishop. O'Malley, known for his brown robe, sandals and ability to communicate in Spanish, Creole and Portuguese, came from a 10-year tenure in Fall River, Mass., with a reputation for not tolerating any abusive behavior.

One of his first moves, reportedly, was to contact Frank Flynn, a former diocesan priest whom several women had accused of sexual misbehavior going back over 20 years. Flynn had gone back to Ireland, where he continued to minister, but when he returned to Florida, O'Malley stripped him of his credentials and ordered him not to represent himself as a priest again.

"He's been a very settling influence," Laughlin said of the bishop. "He's very steady. People tend to trust him."

Trust remains a lost and elusive thing for Chris Dixon, the onetime seminary student and former priest whose disclosure led to O'Connell's downfall. The teenage Dixon had gone to O'Connell for help because another priest had molested him.

"I've had very strong feelings of sympathy for the people of the Palm Beach Diocese, because I understand the betrayal they feel," he said. "They got rid of one bishop who sexually abused children, and they got another who was guilty of the same thing."

Dixon left the priesthood but still works for Catholic Charities finding housing for the poor. He doesn't attend church.

"My faith has been so shattered, I doubt I'll ever be able to trust an authority in any institutional church," he said. "I spent the majority of my life studying theology, living in the seminary system, wanting to be a priest because I felt that's what God had called me to do, and being open and honest about my struggle.

"Perhaps because of the degree to which I had given myself then, that's why I can't now. It's almost like the more you love someone, the more you hate them later."


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