Parishioners want photos of pedophile bishop removed
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Two years after a Roman Catholic bishop resigned in disgrace, admitting he inappropriately touched at least two teenagers when he headed a Missouri seminary, his pictures still adorn the halls of his former diocese in Knoxville.
"We have a Catholic population, frankly, that thinks the man is a saint. A sinner turned saint," said Susan Vance, a former nun and teacher who is working with two other mothers to have all images of the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell removed.
Vance, whose son attends Knoxville Catholic High School where O'Connell's portrait hangs in a hallway beside the aging photographs of other clergy, blames the leadership of the Diocese of Knoxville, which serves 51,000 Catholics in 44 parishes across eastern Tennessee. "They have not really bothered to say to the Catholic people, 'Wait a minute, this man molested children,'" she said.
The Rev. Vann Johnston, chancellor for the diocese, said retaining O'Connell's portraits, pictures and a near life-size bust in the diocese's schools, youth ministry offices and the main office is not about forgiveness, but history.
The images "are purely a remembrance of our historical roots," he said.
"The parishioners realize how awful sexual abuse is, and it is especially sad and awful when someone who has been held in such high esteem has been involved," Johnston said.
Recent revelations of more than 10,000 abuse claims against nearly 4,400 Catholic priests from 1950 to 2002 has forced similar debates in other parishes. A priest's picture was removed from an Ohio high school, while an Iowa parish remade a stained glass window to erase a priest's name.
The O'Connell case varies from the others by degree.
O'Connell, now 65, arrived from Missouri in 1988 to become Knoxville's founding bishop. He stayed 10 years and his pictures can be found throughout the diocese, not just a single church. In 1998, he became bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., and is now its bishop emeritus.
Unlike other accused priests, O'Connell confessed. He admitted, as he resigned in March 2002, that he sexually abused a former student through the pretext of "experiential" counseling while rector in the 1970s at the now-closed St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo.
"I was as wrong as could be in taking that kind of approach, and I'm so sorry," he said then. "For those who will be angry, I certainly ask, when the time is right, that they pray for my forgiveness."
O'Connell, who has been sued by three of possibly as many as 10 former seminary students who claimed he abused them, also admitted he could have had been involved with "one other person of a somewhat similar situation, in a somewhat similar time frame."
The former bishop, however, has refused to identify the second victim, saying it would violate his rights against self-incrimination, and his defense has relied heavily on the statute of limitations, said Pat Noaker, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney representing the victims.
"It wasn't one lapse. This is a predator," said Noaker, saying the alleged abuse went on for years and continued with two victims even as adults when they visited O'Connell in Knoxville.
One lawsuit said O'Connell hosted sleepovers in Knoxville that the children dubbed "Bunkin' with the Bish," but Noaker said he was unaware of any Knoxville victims.
O'Connell could not be located for comment.
The Knoxville Diocesan Council of Catholic Women sent him "gift offerings" in a "spiritual bouquet" a year ago to mark his 40th anniversary as a priest.
But Johnston told The Associated Press to call the Diocese of Palm Beach for his address, and officials there would say only that O'Connell was in "an undisclosed location." Palm Beach took a different view of the archival importance of his photographs.
"We went through the same thing (as Knoxville) after he left," Palm Beach diocese spokesman Jim Brosemer said, "and there isn't a picture (of O'Connell) up anywhere to be seen around here."
The Knoxville diocese agreed in 2003 to remove O'Connell's name from the family life center at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Oak Ridge. O'Connell "gave his blessing," the parish priest said at the time.
"I think that was a case where it was recognized by the pastor and many of the parishioners that naming a family life center was an honorary action rather than an historical action," Johnston said. "There was a distinction made there."
Joseph Kurtz, Knoxville's current bishop, said in an October letter to the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) that the ceiling of St. Paul's Basilica in Rome contains images of popes through the centuries, both good and bad.
"This practice in some of our schools is not an attempt to justify or honor what is dishonorable in the past history of the church but to acknowledge our roots," Kurtz wrote.
David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, can't see the distinction. "From our perspective, publicly honoring an admitted sex offender sends a very powerful, very chilling message to abuse victims," he said. "And actions speak louder than words."
Vance asked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington to intercede. But Sheila Horan, deputy director of the conference's Office of Child and Youth Protection, said the conference doesn't have any authority in the matter and won't be an arbiter. "I will call the diocese," Horan told the AP, "but it will be on my time."
Meanwhile, the former bishop's picture remains in a hallway at Knoxville Catholic High, just around the corner from Principal Aurelia Montgomery's office. She thinks the issue is overblown.
"Someone asked me what would it take for you to take that picture down? I said, well if we removed all archival history, it would come down with the rest of them," she said.
"It is part of history. That is the reason it is there. It doesn't have anything to do with anything else."
ON THE NET
SNAP of Tennessee: http://rememberthesurvivors.com/
Diocese of Knoxville: http://www.etcatholic.com/