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Spotlight Report

Bishop resigns in Fla. over charges

By Bill Dedman, Globe Correspondent, 3/9/2002

The Roman Catholic bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., resigned yesterday, admitting that as a priest he had fondled a teenage boy at a Catholic seminary in Missouri in the 1970s. He became the highest-ranking cleric brought down by the sexual abuse allegations that have spread from Boston to other dioceses.

''I am truly deeply sorry for the pain, hurt, anger, and confusion I have caused,'' Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, 63, said yesterday, in admitting the allegation at a news conference after submitting his resignation.

O'Connell's resignation followed a story yesterday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which published an interview with the victim, now a 40-year-old former priest living in St. Louis. O'Connell was named in the story and acknowledged the accusation. O'Connell also said there might be ''one other person of a somewhat similar situation.''

The paper had contacted O'Connell on Thursday just hours after he and the nine other bishops in Florida issued a statement denouncing clergy sex abuse as ''both criminal and sinful.''

The pope in 1998 promoted O'Connell from bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., to bishop of the larger diocese of Palm Beach, despite the church having paid a private settlement to his victim in 1996.

The victim, Christopher Dixon, had gone to O'Connell in 1977 seeking counseling after he had been abused by two other priests. But the counseling turned into fondling in the priest's bed. In letters to Dixon after he complained in the 1990s, O'Connell apologized for his ''misguided help.''

O'Connell is the first bishop named as an abuser since The Boston Globe reported that the Boston Archdiocese reassigned priests despite knowing of sexual abuse allegations against them. In previous years, other bishops have acknowledged sexual misconduct, including the bishop O'Connell replaced in Palm Beach, which has 237,000 Catholics.

''I don't feel like a victim now,'' Dixon said in a telephone interview after O'Connell resigned. ''But this is bittersweet. Had this been taken care of appropriately years ago, we wouldn't have to be going through this now.''

Dixon said the touching began in 1977 when he was a sophomore in high school. He already had been molested at age 11 by a priest at a Catholic school in Hannibal, Mo., and had been touched by another priest at age 14 at St. Thomas Aquinas, in Hannibal, the seminary high school of the diocese of Jefferson City, Mo.

Dixon, who is gay, said he was struggling with his sexual orientation, feeling guilt and shame, and told O'Connell, who was his school counselor, about the abuse.

''We would talk for endless hours about my acceptance of who I am, my body. ...'' Dixon said. ''He engendered a lot of trust. With a view to trying to accept my body, he took me to bed with him, naked, and rubbed his body up against mine. I thought, `Well, this man is a man of God and how can he be wrong?' But I just knew something was wrong, or I wouldn't have been feeling so sickly and nervous.''

Dixon said O'Connell fondled him three or four times over two years. The young man went on to become a priest in that diocese, and in 1995 he was assigned to work and live in the same seminary where he had been abused.

He told a senior official about the abuse in the diocese, and was provided outpatient counseling in St. Louis. He also received a letter from O'Connell, who by then was a bishop in Knoxville, serving 45,000 Catholics.

''I left you a birthday message on your machine,'' Dixon said O'Connell wrote him in 1995. ''You're very much in my prayers and affection today since I heard that you're undergoing severe depression. It is extra hard to think what you may be going through. If I could relive those days again, I would surely have recommended better help for you than what I was able to give. To the extent, Chris, that through my own misguided help or failure to respond in a way that would be more helpful for you, I am profoundly sorry, and I abjectly apologize.''

Dixon wrote back to O'Connell, saying that he now understood clearly that he had been abused. ''I can't imagine,'' Dixon wrote, ''how such a violation of the helping relationship could ever be justified by someone in a position such as yours.'' He asked for reassurance that O'Connell was in treatment, and would make restitution to him.

O'Connell's final letter back to him, in May 1996, was brief and emotionless. ''Dear Chris, many thanks for your letter. ... It was good to hear from you. ... I can assure you that I pray at Mass every day. ... Yes, I have been and am working in therapy and will continue to do so as I strive for greater self knowledge and insight.''

Dixon hired a lawyer, approached the diocese about his abuse by O'Connell and the two other priests, and in 1996 received a settlement of $125,000. He signed a confidentiality agreement, which he broke this week.

Now working for a Catholic housing agency in St. Louis, Dixon said he is no longer a practicing Catholic. ''I lost my faith, and I don't want to look for it anymore, at least in that institution,'' he said.

Dixon decided last week to call the St. Louis newspaper. With other victims coming forward because of the Boston scandal, he said, he felt safer in the crowd. ''I do not want these men in a position where they can continue to do what they've done,'' he said.

Reacting to the resignation of O'Connell, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed sorrow and regret. ''On behalf of the bishops,'' said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, ''I renew our pledge to work toward eliminating this kind of misconduct from the life of the church.''

A national spokesman for victims expressed sadness for all concerned. ''I feel for O'Connell's victims and for Florida Catholics, who must be stunned and traumatized,'' said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, located by coincidence in St. Louis, where he said he knew O'Connell.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/9/2002.
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