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Diocese says it didn't hide anything, shouldn't be sued

June 19, 2002

Randy Kenner, News-Sentinel staff writer   

Lawyers for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville have filed court papers in Missouri seeking the diocese's dismissal from a sexual abuse lawsuit against former Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell.

The lawsuit also names the Knoxville diocese and its current bishop, Joseph E. Kurtz, as defendants, as well as the Palm Beach, Fla., and Jefferson City, Mo., dioceses.

They are accused in the lawsuit of knowing about - and covering up - the alleged sexual abuse of a minor in Missouri by O'Connell from 1983 to 1991. The sprawling action was filed in Jefferson City in March under both Missouri law and the federal racketeering or RICO statute.

None of the sexual activity alleged in the lawsuit, filed for a 34-year-old former student of O'Connell's, occurred in Tennessee. O'Connell was the bishop here between 1988 and 1998.

The two motions filed this week by attorneys for the Knoxville diocese argue that it did not have any involvement in any illicit activity by O'Connell, did not conceal anything and should be dismissed from the lawsuit.

"The (lawsuit) does not identify any activity by this defendant (the Knoxville diocese) in Missouri;" one of the motions states, "and the allegations directed at Co-Defendant O'Connell involve conduct beyond the scope of his agency on behalf of the Diocese of Knoxville."

Church officials here have said they were unaware of the allegations against O'Connell until March when they became public in Missouri, and O'Connell resigned from his current post as bishop in Palm Beach.

"I'm not aware of anyone having knowledge of it, other than Bishop O'Connell," Father Vann Johnston, the chancellor of the diocese, said Tuesday.

Johnston said no one here took part in any attempt to conceal O'Connell's alleged improper actions.

The first motion filed by the diocese contends the case should be dismissed because it fails to state a claim for relief under either the RICO Act or Missouri law.

The lawsuit, filed by St. Paul, Minn., attorneys Jeffrey R. Anderson and Patrick Noaker, claims the defendants violated the RICO law by engaging in a conspiracy to conceal allegedly criminal actions of O'Connell - which they contend date to his days as a teacher in the 1960s.

Anderson, according to media reports, has filed hundreds of lawsuits against the Catholic church in connection with sexual abuse by its priests since 1983 and has won millions of dollars in damages.

The diocese's second motion argues that the Knoxville diocese does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Marion County, Mo., Circuit Court under the elements of Missouri's "long-arm" statute.

The diocese is represented by Knoxville lawyer John T. O' Conner II and St. Louis attorneys, Gerard T. Noce and Adrian P. Sulser.

O'Connell, a well-liked, Irish-born priest, came to Knoxville from Missouri to found the diocese here in 1988.

He served as the bishop until 1998 when he left to lead the much larger Palm Beach Diocese, where he served until March. That's when the allegations that he had engaged in improper sexual conduct with minors while serving at a Catholic school in Missouri became public.

He subsequently resigned.

Since then, he and the Knoxville diocese have been named in two lawsuits filed in Missouri related to his alleged sexual abuse of the two students.

The second lawsuit, filed by another former student of O'Connell's, was filed in St. Louis.

In a news conference in March, O'Connell admitted to having sexual contact with two students while serving at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Hannibal, Mo.

At the time the allegations against O'Connell became public, he was one of the highest-ranking priests caught up in what has become an ever-growing series of allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the United States.

Since January, one archbishop and three bishops have stepped down and more than 200 priests have been removed from the ministry.

In addition to O'Connell's woes, the diocese here has been rocked by criminal charges against one of its priests.

Father Stephen LaPrad, who served in Lenoir City, was charged earlier this spring with sexual battery in connection with an incident that allegedly occurred in a Knoxville health club in November. LaPrad, who has pleaded innocent to the charge, resigned his position.

Randy Kenner may be reached at 865-342-6305 or