Bishop Accountability
  Bishop quits, admits abuse
Palm Beach leader details '70s sex case

By Amy Driscoll
Miami Herald
March 9, 2002

PALM BEACH GARDENS - The Catholic bishop who heads the Diocese of Palm Beach resigned Friday after confirming reports he had sexually abused a teenage male student at a Missouri seminary more than 25 years ago and admitting to a second ''similar'' encounter.

Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, flanked by two dozen black-garbed priests from his diocese, publicly confessed to the sexual abuse in a news conference, describing his conduct more than two decades ago as ``so stupid and so foolish.''

He immediately offered his resignation to the church's highest-ranking representative in the United States, the Most Rev. Gabriel Montalvo, the Apostolic Papal Nuncio. A secretary at Montalvo's office in Washington, D.C., said no one was immediately available to comment.

''I'd like to apologize -- as sincerely and abjectly as I can,'' O'Connell said. ``I'm truly, deeply sorry for pain and hurt and anger and confusion that I have caused.''

All through his rise in the church, he said, the abuse haunted him.

''It always hung over me,'' he said, his face shiny with sweat as he faced the news crews, parishioners and nuns at the Cathedral of Saint Ignatius Loyola. ``I don't think I've ever preached without being conscious of it, and especially in recent times.''

The revelations of O'Connell's misconduct come at a critical moment for the Catholic Church, which has been shocked by a series of damaging disclosures that dozens of priests in Boston and in other parts of the country had been sexually abusing boys.

It's also a particularly tough -- and familiar -- episode for the Palm Beach diocese. Less than four years ago, O'Connell was appointed to replace disgraced Palm Beach Bishop J. Keith Symons after another sex scandal. Symons was the first U.S. bishop to resign due to sexual involvement with boys. O'Connell said Friday he did not disclose his prior sexual problems to his superiors when he was appointed.


Further compounding the embarrassment for the church: O'Connell's public confession came a day after Florida's Catholic bishops issued a four-paragraph statement calling sexual abuse ''both criminal and sinful,'' assuring their 2.2 million followers that the church has proper procedures to deal with allegations of misconduct. O'Connell was among the 10 bishops signing the statement.

O'Connell's past caught up with him Friday. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he inappropriately touched former student Christopher Dixon while the two were in bed together after the youth sought him out for counseling as a teenage seminary student.

At the time, O'Connell was rector of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., where Dixon was a student.

O'Connell, 63, said Friday he could not disagree with the basic facts of the story. ''I'm not here to defend myself in any way,'' he said.

Dixon, now 40, served as a priest for five years until stepping down in 1995 after he was diagnosed with clinical depression. The depression was triggered when memories of the abuse resurfaced after he was assigned to the same Hannibal, Mo., seminary where he alleges the abuse occurred.

''I had a wonderful way of burying the impact it had on me, emotionally and psychologically,'' Dixon said. ``I was either going to kill myself or get help.''


Dixon said the abuse by O'Connell and two other priests lasted through his high school years.

In a settlement with Dixon in 1996, the Jefferson City Diocese in Missouri did not admit to Dixon's allegations but gave him $125,000 with the promise he not pursue further claims against the diocese or the three priests.

The other priests are the Rev. Manus Daly, who allegedly abused Dixon at the Hannibal seminary, and the Rev. John Fischer, who Dixon said abused him at a Catholic school before Dixon entered the seminary. Daly was removed from a Marceline, Mo., church this week and Fischer was removed from the priesthood in 1993 after allegations involving other children.

Dixon said he thought he could trust O'Connell and told him about the abuse by Fischer.

''But under the guise of trying to help me come to terms with my own body, he ultimately took me to bed with him,'' Dixon said.

O'Connell said Friday he thought the allegations were long in the past until he received a phone call from a reporter two days earlier.

''My heart bleeds for Chris Dixon. I had not heard anything from him since the settlement,'' the bishop said. ``My understanding was that he made the settlement with the diocese, he signed off, asked for confidentiality for his own reasons, and I thought that brought all of that to a conclusion.''


In O'Connell's version of events, he was helping to counsel Dixon in the context of more experimental times in the '70s and simply took things too far.

``I attempted to work with him, to help him to deal with his problems . . . without any of the new light that we have today, the awareness that we have, the consciousness with regard to sexual abuse. . . . I was as wrong as I could be in taking that kind of approach.''

But, he insisted: ``There was nothing in the relationship that was anything other than touching.''

Asked at the news conference whether he had been involved with any other youngsters, O'Connell dropped another bomb. He said there may be ''one other person of a somewhat similar situation, in a somewhat similar time frame,'' and said that person might come forward as well. He declined to elaborate but said he thought Dixon's case was the only one reported.

The Rev. Seamus Murtagh, the diocese's vicar general, said when the priests met with the bishop earlier in the day to hear his announcement, they asked no questions, offering only support.


''They begged this man not to leave this diocese,'' Murtagh said. 'One priest after another stood up and said, `please don't resign.' We preach redemption, we preach forgiveness. We should do more than preach it, we should practice it.''

Shelly Jent, a teacher at a Catholic high school in West Palm Beach, cried following the news conference. She called the bishop ''an incredible man'' and said she hoped he would stay.

''We all have made mistakes. None of us are perfect,'' Jent said. ``The last perfect person they crucified.''

This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.

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