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Scandal’s fallout still settling in Palm Beach

Scandal’s fallout still settling in Palm Beach

Palm Beach, Fla.


In Palm Beach, Fla., the first Sunday in February was the kind of warm, sunny day that snowbirds fly south for. On the grounds of Holy Name of Jesus Church in West Palm Beach, Boy Scout Troop 197 was holding a pancake breakfast to raise money for the troop. Inside the church, parishioners got what was for many of them a first look at their new bishop. Replacing the homily, a video giving parishioners the pitch for the Diocesan Services Appeal opened with Bishop Sean O’Malley speaking to the importance of the appeal, previously known as the Annual Bishop’s Appeal.

The new name, like the new bishop, reflects a tumultuous year in the Palm Beach diocese. On March 8, 2002, Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell resigned following publication of an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that reported O’Connell had engaged in sexual improprieties with a seminarian more than 25 years earlier. O’Connell’s swift resignation was the second of a bishop in Palm Beach. His predecessor, Bishop Keith Symons, left the Palm Beach diocese in 1998 when it was revealed that he had sexually abused five young men earlier in his career.

Here in Palm Beach, the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church has been hard to miss, impossible to ignore. With not one but two bishops removed for sexual abuse, local Catholics have come face to face with the scandal in ways that Catholics in some other dioceses have not. The fallout is still settling; the taking of stock ongoing.

According to some, the response to the scandal has been more sadness than anger. “There’s an underlying depression, I think. You want to hope for the best. People move on, but it was a real blow,” said Fr. Brian Flanagan, a priest at St. Ann Church in downtown West Palm Beach.

Danlis Leyva, a parishioner at Holy Name of Jesus Church, compared the effect of the scandal to the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia and the loss of the seven astronauts on board. “Everybody feels sad.”

Local Catholics said the shock of O’Connell’s resignation came as a double-whammy. “When you feel people were healing from the wounds of the first [resignation], to have that happen again … it was just very hard and very devastating,” said Susan Cutaia, a eucharistic minister at St. Joan of Arc Church in East Boca Raton, a chair for legislation advocacy for the Council of Catholic Women, and a businesswoman.

Despite having what she considered a strong faith, Cutaia said she, like many other Catholics, was shaken by the revelations concerning O’Connell. Her predominant feeling is disappointment, she said.

“I better understand what it means now to say we are one body, and when one of us sins, we all feel that. It doesn’t mean that the sins of the priest were any greater or lesser than our own. It means we held [priests] in higher regard,” Cutaia said.

The shock, sadness, anger and sense of betrayal many Catholics in Palm Beach describe on hearing that O’Connell had resigned because of charges of sex misconduct were all the stronger for O’Connell being a popular and loved figure who was, by many accounts, an outstanding bishop.

Cutaia recalls O’Connell visiting a religion class she taught at St. Joan of Arc even before he was appointed bishop. “Bishop O’Connell -- we all had the highest regard for. He was the most wonderful person with the kids.”

O’Connell was equally popular with the priests in his diocese. Fr. Pierre-Louis Dumarsais, a Haitian priest at St. Ann Church, spoke regretfully of the loss of O’Connell and the feeling of frustration and even desperation the resignation had evoked because of the caliber of the man. “He was a people person, a great man really,” Dumarsais said.

“He was charming. He was unsparing of himself. He was a workaholic. He gave himself very much to everybody, to all kinds of people. He was very generous of his time, and he gave it 100 percent. That makes it all the more tragic,” said Fr. James Murtagh, who was appointed apostolic administrator for the diocese following O’Connell’s resignation and is currently vicar-general. Murtagh, who will go on sabbatical this month, declined to give O’Connell’s whereabouts but said he is not in ministry.

Murtagh, who came from Ireland in the 1960s, is widely credited with bringing the diocese through a difficult and turbulent period. The diocese arranged listening sessions for parishioners to vent their feelings as well as workshops with psychologists who met with parishioners to discuss the psychological findings about pedophilia and other forms of sex abuse. Counselors also met with sex abuse victims who wanted counseling and with priests, many of whom were reeling from the resignation.

Murtagh said he found the listening sessions held throughout the diocese “instructive.”

“One of my surprises was that it was primarily the retired people who were coming to the listening sessions, not the young. I came to the conclusion that the older generation was more affected than the younger and more inclined to put priests on a pedestal. The older generation felt more pain, maybe because they invest more,” Murtagh said.

Notwithstanding charges by local attorney Edward Ricci that the diocese has been insufficiently attentive to financial and sexual scandal, Murtagh said most people have been very supportive.

“I’ve been astounded by the maturity of the faith of the people,” Murtaugh said.

The Palm Beach diocese is a young diocese, established in 1984. Even before its first bishop, Thomas Daily, departed to become bishop in Brooklyn, a sex abuse policy existed. After O’Connell’s resignation, an ecumenical lay board reviewed the policies of the diocese and any old cases that may have existed. But unlike some other dioceses in the United States, there were no known cases at that point of priests sexually abusing minors in the Palm Beach diocese’s 18-year-old history nor any settlements involving sexual abuse of minors. What sexual scandal surfaced involved priests in relationships with women rather than with minors. A priest who caught the attention of the newspapers, Fr. Frank Flynn, was accused of preying on women who came to him as a priest. The diocese was already screening candidates before O’Connell’s resignation; now it has widened its background checks on priests, teachers, employees and volunteers with access to children.

All of this is standard operating procedure in dioceses these days, but Murtagh says there was nothing standard about the sex abuse scandal as it affected the Palm Beach diocese.

“In so many ways, our situation is different from other places around the country,” he said, pointing out that although the diocese lost two bishops, the sex abuse they were charged with occurred outside the diocese and took place in both bishops’ past.

“It’s really a one-man story here,” agreed Tom Blackburn, a Catholic who is an editorial writer at The Palm Beach Post. “Our problem has been with our bishops, not with our priests.”

Tom Tracy, a free-lance writer in Palm Beach and former editor of the diocesan newspaper The Florida Catholic, said O’Connell was a casualty of the larger sex abuse scandal affecting the Catholic church in the United States.

Hurt, anger and confusion

“I believe O’Connell’s resignation was a direct result of the situation in Boston. It was a ripple effect,” Tracy said. Had circumstances been different, Tracy said it is possible O’Connell might have weathered the revelation that the diocese of Jefferson City had paid Christopher Dixon, a former priest who had studied at St. Aquinas Seminary when O’Connell was rector there, $125,000 to drop charges against O’Connell and two other priests in the diocese. The diocese did not admit to Dixon’s allegations in making the 1996 settlement.

Six years later, troubled by stories of clerical sex abuse in Boston, Dixon came forward to say O’Connell had invited him to bed under the guise of counseling when he was attending St. Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., during the 1970s. An Irish immigrant who was ordained in the diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., O’Connell had worked at the seminary for 25 years as a teacher, principal and rector before being made bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., in 1998. After Dixon left the seminary, a friendship between him and O’Connell continued. O’Connell was one of the guests Dixon invited to his ordination to the priesthood in 1990.

At a news conference announcing his resignation, O’Connell apologized for the hurt, anger and confusion that his actions had caused.

O’Connell was flanked at the news conference in Palm Beach by a dozen diocesan priests, giving the impression to some members of the public that they supported him 100 percent and triggering criticism. Approximately a hundred priests in the diocese signed a petition asking O’Connell to remain as bishop.

“This is the second time around, so we tried to improve the situation,” Murtagh said of the news conference. “I’m not sure we did. The first time, Symons just disappeared. The second time O’Connell met with the priests and there wasn’t a dry eye. The response of the priests was, ‘Can’t we save this bishop?’ The priests were shocked. The charges seemed so out of character. He’d never given you an indication that he was into power. Never. Never. He lived for people.”

Since his resignation, three other former seminarians at St. Aquinas have come forward to accuse O’Connell of sex abuse.

Murtagh said different segments of the Catholic population in Palm Beach responded to the scandal in different ways. The Haitian community was largely unaffected, he said, while the Hispanic community was more inclined to make allowances for erring priests than the Anglo community.

“It’s like your own father going through a public disgrace,” said Murtagh. “Everybody will respond differently depending on your relationship with that father, but there’s no way you can avoid it.”

At the pancake breakfast at Holy Name of Jesus Church, a foursome of retirees talked about the sex abuse scandal in their diocese and in the larger church over pancakes and coffee.

“It shouldn’t have been covered up like that,” said Catherine Castaldo. A few minutes later, Castaldo said, “We’re all human.”

“But you expect more,” argued Vincent Valenti, a retired school bus driver from New Jersey.

Valenti said he felt betrayed by the actions of the clergy in Palm Beach and elsewhere. Priests who sexually abuse young people should not be allowed in ministry and should go to prison for their crime. Still, he said, the scandal hasn’t affected his faith in God or his faith in the Catholic church.

Theresa Bourque, the mother of two Scouts, one of them an altar boy, said the public focus on abusive priests hasn’t affected her faith. If anything, it has made it stronger. “We are the church,” she said. “These people are just human beings. They’re figureheads. They’re figureheads that we look at and want to respect, but they’re all human beings.”

Because of the scandal, Bourque, 45, said she was prompted to speak to her sons earlier and more explicitly about what is and what is not appropriate behavior. But her attitude toward priests is the same as her attitude toward teachers, coaches and Scout leaders. “Keep your eyes open. Don’t be blind.”

Staying faithful

Interviews with Catholics at other churches in the Palm Beach area surfaced similar responses of dismay over the scandal yet continuing support for the church.

Leaving Mass at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach Gardens, Greg and Cathy Hammill, Long Island-ers who spend three months each winter in Florida, said they were disappointed the institutional church had handled the scandal so poorly. “I do believe it’s going to bring a great cleansing,” Cathy Hammill said, adding she believed a great role for the laity in the church lay ahead.

At St. Edward’s Church on Palm Beach Island, Ann Szilagy said she prays more for priests these days. “I think many people will fall away -- the borderline Catholics, people looking for a reason not to attend,” Szilagy said.

Some Catholics voiced bewilderment that O’Connell had accepted the post of bishop, given his past. Still, despite parishioners’ disappointment and anger, Murtagh reported that last year’s Annual Bishop’s Appeal, which kicked off one month after the scandal, was down just 1 percent. Donations in some parishes are down some, but Murtagh said it’s hard to know whether that is attributable to the scandal or to a lagging economy.

“People are always shaken by the scandal. But at the same time, Catholics judge their church by their parish priest,” said Fr. Brian King, a priest at St. Juliana Church in West Palm Beach.

St. Juliana is a predominantly Hispanic parish. King said the response to the scandal at St. Juliana is not typical of the wider church. Many parishioners have tended to view the sex abuse crisis as an Anglo problem and an attack from the outside. “They were very proud of their church, and they weren’t going to let this shake their pride,” King said.

Located downtown, just minutes away from Palm Beach Island, St. Ann Church serves an economically and racially diverse population, including a large Haitian community. Some parishioners leaving the two-hour Sunday evening service celebrated in Haitian Creole had little to say about the scandal, but 16-year-old Georgeline Louis said she believed the scandal was taking a toll. “You think you can trust people in church but now you don’t know whom you can trust.”

Alix Monde, 42, had a measured response. “I don’t agree with what the two bishops did and what some priests are doing. But all of us are human. They received the punishment they deserved because they were rid of their power. As a church we should not be surprised,” said Monde, a customer service representative for Florida Power and Light.

“The Catholic church will regroup, as it has, as it always has meant to do,” he said.

Fr. Pierre-Louis Dumarsais, a Haitian priest at St. Ann, said, “The Anglos they were upset and showed it. For the Haitians, it’s not a topic they would approach you with because sex is not a topic people talk about openly in Haiti. They also wouldn’t bring it up with you out of a sense of respect for you.”

Dumarsais said the effects of the scandal in the church will not be completely negative. “We will become a better church. I think the focus will be more on Jesus and less on his messengers,” he said.

Is the sex abuse crisis in the diocese of Palm Beach over?

“No. Nor do we want it to be,” Murtagh said promptly. He called for full transparency across the board, financial and otherwise in the church. “There should be no premature closing of the accounts on this issue. We should be making a commitment to people to do everything in our power to see that children are protected,” Murtagh said.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003