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Woman told of allegations by students at seminary

By Phillip O'Connor
Of the Post-Dispatch
Monday, Nov. 15 2004

It was 1992, and Catholic youth worker Donna Cox could no longer ignore the stream of complaints she heard from students who were uncomfortable with priests at St. Thomas Aquinas and elsewhere.

For a dozen years, Cox had traveled throughout the diocese to lead student retreats, rallies and confirmations. Often she held counseling sessions where students discussed personal problems. It was in those sessions that the descriptions of abuse allegations surfaced: lingering hugs, sideways leers, inappropriate touching.

Cox said she took her concerns to Sister Mary Margaret Johanning, then chancellor of the diocese and now deceased. Johanning promised to help and took her to see Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe.

Soon, Cox said, she began meeting with Johanning once a week to relay complaints or concerns.

"She kept telling me to come to her and not to tell anyone we were meeting or what we were discussing," Cox said.

Over the course of that year, Cox said, she named about a dozen priests to Johanning - including several at St. Thomas.

Among a handful she heard consistent complaints about were Anthony J. O'Connell, (who already had moved on to Knoxville, Tenn., as a bishop), Manus Daly and John Fischer, as well as two other priests.

But months went by and nothing happened. She eventually shared her frustrations in a confessional setting with another priest. Against her wishes, he went to diocesan leaders to complain about the lack of action, she said.

Cox said she was told the next day she'd done a terrible thing and would never receive ministry work from the church again. Within days, the diocese canceled a year's worth of retreats that Cox had been scheduled to conduct, she said.

"I was basically blackballed by everyone," Cox said.

In the intervening years, the five priests whom Cox identified to the diocese have been removed from service after subsequent accusations of abuse. Another was sent for counseling.

Cox, who has since left the Roman Catholic Church, said she knows of at least 10 former St. Thomas students who confided their abuse to her who have yet to make known their allegations. She said she contacted a few in recent years about coming forward, but they declined because they fear the reaction of their families.

Through her ministry work, she also became friends and confidants with several priests, including some who told her they, too, had been abused at St. Thomas, Cox said. 

She is concerned that St. Thomas not only may have been a haven for abuse but also may have given rise to a whole new generation of abusers. Said Cox: "It was a melting pot that led to abuse and abusers coming out of there."

Reporter Phillip O'Connor
E-mail: poconnor@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8321