Cottage Was a Frequent Retreat

By Jay Tokasz
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
June 17, 2002

CHAUMONT - A couple of miles east of Lake Ontario, the muddy Chaumont River slithers near the tops of docks after several days of May rain. A weathered cottage perches on a gentle slope here, overlooking the river about 30 yards away.

Decades ago, a Rochester priest allegedly molested boys in the tiny cabin.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester is investigating several complaints of alleged sexual abuse by the Rev. Robert F. O'Neill stemming from the 1970s.

In addition, the Democrat and Chronicle has learned that at least two men claim they were molested in the 1980s when they were teens.

In a telephone interview on Friday, O'Neill said he had been advised by a lawyer not to make any statements regarding accusations of abuse. But he acknowledged that he regularly took teenage boys to the cottage on short retreats, during which kids would help with yard work and hike, fish, swim and play cards.

Many priests held similar retreats for youths, and most kids enjoyed the trips, he said.

"Times have changed. It's different today and those things aren't done," he said.

O'Neill said he hadn't taken kids to the cottage in a "long time, 15 years probably." He later said he was unsure how many years it had been.

According to one parent, however, O'Neill was still inviting boys to the cabin as late as 1998.

Sandy McCormack of Chili said O'Neill asked her son, Collin, who was 16 at the time, to visit the cottage. McCormack refused to allow her son to go.

O'Neill, she said, began asking Collin to the cottage almost immediately after he took over as pastor at St. Christopher Church in Chili, where the McCormack family had been active members for several years.

O'Neill knew all of the McCormacks, but when he called their home he would ask only for Collin, said Sandy McCormack, who became unnerved by the considerable attention her son was receiving from the priest. "I was so uncomfortable with it from the beginning, with that invitation to somebody that he hardly knew," she said.

At about the same time, O'Neill's newest neighbor on the river, Kirk Taylor, was raising his own concerns privately with his wife, who is now deceased, about the priest and his young guests.

"I'm not surprised. My wife and I talked about it. It looked strange. But she said, 'If you can't prove it, don't start rumors,' " said Taylor, who purchased the cottage next to O'Neill's about six years ago. "He always told me they were kids from his parish or something like that."

Taylor said he hoped the allegations against O'Neill were not true. "He is a heck of a likable person," he said. "He is a pleasant person."

McCormack complained to the diocese about O'Neill in 1998. She received assurances at that time from diocesan officials, who told her that he was instructed to refrain from taking kids to the cottage, she said.

Last month, a "For Sale" sign stood near the cabin.

O'Neill's business card, with the diocesan logo, was tacked to the door.

O'Neill, who said he still visits the cottage with his dog, Phantom, confirmed he is trying to sell the property.


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