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Florida Bishop Admits Sexual Abuse

March 8, 2002

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A Roman Catholic bishop has admitted sexually abusing a student when he was a rector at a Missouri seminary more than 25 years ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday.

Calling his behavior ``naive,″ Rev. Anthony J. O’Connell acknowledged the abuse of his former student, 40-year-old Christopher Dixon, in an interview with the newspaper Thursday night after he signed a statement that day with Florida’s other bishops denouncing such abuse.

Dixon, who became a priest but later left the clergy, accuses O’Connell of taking him to bed after he sought out O’Connell for counseling at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo. Dixon said the abuse began in the ninth grade and continued through the 12th grade.

``I have thoroughly regretted it, and I apologized to him when he made his complaint,″ said O’Connell, 63.

In a secret settlement with Dixon in 1996, the Jefferson City, Mo., Diocese gave him $125,000 with the promise he not pursue further claims against the diocese, O’Connell and two other priests. The diocese did not admit to Dixon’s allegations in the settlement.

Dixon made similar allegations against two other priests, including 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 prior to Dixon entering 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.

In a brief statement released Thursday, Florida’s 10 bishops _ including O’Connell _ called sexual abuse ``both criminal and sinful″ and assured their 2.2 million followers that the church has procedures to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct.

The statement was released in the wake of growing allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Boston and around the country.

Sam Barbaro, a spokesman for the Palm Beach Diocese, had no immediate comment Friday and wouldn’t say what action, if any, would be taken against O’Connell.

The Florida bishops’ statement said procedures are in place ``to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct by church personnel or volunteers.″

O’Connell was named as a bishop in November 1998. Earlier in 1998, his predecessor in Palm Beach, J. Keith Symons, became the first U.S. bishop to resign due to sexual involvement with boys.

In 1993, Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe, N.M., resigned over involvements with several women, some teen-agers. And Bishop Joseph Ferrario of Honolulu was accused of molestation in 1989 but repeatedly denied the charge and a court dismissed a 1991 suit against him.

Overseas, the Vatican is investigating allegations against Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan, Poland. Austria’s primate, Cardinal Hans Groer, was accused of abusing boys in 1995 and went into exile but did not directly admit guilt.

U.S. Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta and Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann of Santa Rosa, Calif., resigned after sex scandals involving adults.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago was charged with abuse in a 1993 lawsuit but the accuser later recanted.

O’Connell was described as ``warm, charming, gregarious and personable″ by David Clohessy, whose brother Kevin was recruited into the priesthood by the bishop during the early 1970s.

Clohessy is national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in St. Louis.

``It’s ironic because those traits are precisely what lead some Catholics to disbelieve allegations against him,″ Clohessy said. ‘``Oh, not Bishop Tony, he’s wonderful.’ It’s those very traits that make youngsters feel attracted to him and lull parents into complacency.″

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