ALLEGED ABUSE VICTIMS ASK ALUMNI TO SEEK HELP
BY CHERYL WITTENAUER
Posted on May 6, 2004
ST. LOUIS -- Five graduates of a defunct Hannibal seminary launched a national letter-writing campaign Thursday, urging alumni to seek help if they were sexually abused by the seminary's former director, who later resigned as a Florida bishop after acknowledging he molested a student.
One of the men, Christopher Dixon, who left the priesthood and now works for Catholic Charities in St. Louis, said he and other alleged abuse victims want to reach out to other former students of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, offer support and tell them "they don't need to suffer in silence."
Dixon and four others signed and sent letters to about 300 seminary alumni and friends and asked them to circulate it more widely. They said the Diocese of Jefferson City, which ran St. Thomas from 1968 until 2002, refused to provide an alumni mailing list.
A separate letter from Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests went out Thursday to the bishops of Missouri's four dioceses, some of which may have sent young men to study at the seminary, although St. Louis said it did not. SNAP asked the bishops to help contact alumni and direct them both to counseling and police and prosecutors.
The letter from Dixon and the other graduates says they were sexually abused by the Rev. Anthony O'Connell, the seminary's former director, and that there may be dozens more "still suffering in secrecy, silence, shame and self-blame."
O'Connell, a former priest in the Diocese of Jefferson City, worked at the diocesan seminary for 20 years, first as teacher, later as dean of students and eventually as its director.
O'Connell left St. Thomas in 1988 to serve as bishop in Knoxville. He resigned in March 2002 as bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting repeated abuse of an underage student at the Missouri seminary he led. Other victims later sued.
The diocese said it closed the seminary in 2002 because the scandal exacerbated its financial problems and low enrollment.
The letter says students also may have been sexually abused by several other "predators" who taught at the seminary. It says lawsuits are pending against O'Connell and two other priests, as well as former Jefferson City Bishop Michael McAuliffe, who "protected O'Connell throughout his career" and promoted him as bishop of the new diocese of Knoxville, Tenn.
The chancellor of the Jefferson City diocese, Sister Ethel-Marie Biri, said Thursday that Bishop John R. Gaydos wrote to seminary alumni in March 2002, inviting them to seek help. She said some called to say they wouldn't come forward, though others did and are getting help through the diocese. Some men said they had been abused by seminary staff who have since died.
"We can't undo what was done, but we can do the right thing now," Biri said. "We know from research that therapy and support can help someone move on and live life in a healthy and good way."
She said the diocese was committed to helping abused seminarians heal.
Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. bishops' conference, said at the time it was "a travesty" that the Jefferson City diocese failed to notify Catholic higher-ups about O'Connell's past sexual abuse before he was appointed a bishop in Florida.
Since March 2002, O'Connell has lived "a life of seclusion and prayerful penance" at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Moncks Corner, S.C., said Mary Jeffcoat, spokeswoman for the monks.
She said O'Connell's activities are restricted and monitored to ensure no minor is placed at risk. She would not say whether O'Connell received psychological counseling, citing privacy concerns.
Dixon alleged he was sexually abused as a boy by his parish priest in Hannibal, then later by a priest at the seminary. He sought the counsel of O'Connell, who also abused him.
Dixon eventually became a priest but later quit after being assigned to teach at the seminary and work with one of his former abusers. In 1996, he filed a lawsuit and eventually settled with the diocese. He broke his silence in 2002, he said, when he couldn't bear to see offending priests "promoted as bishops."