Parishioners want photos of molester bishop removed from walls of schools

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2004

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Two years after the resignation of a Roman Catholic bishop in a sexual misconduct scandal, one of his former dioceses is still struggling with whether to remember him or take his photo out of church-owned buildings.

While officials in the Knoxville Diocese say removing all traces of the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell would be historically dishonest, other Catholics are outraged at the idea of giving him a place of honor.

Church leaders in this eastern Tennessee diocese of 51,000 ''have not really bothered to say to the Catholic people, 'Wait a minute, this man molested children,''' said Susan Vance.

A former nun and teacher, Vance is working with two other women to have all images of O'Connell removed from church property, including a portrait at Knoxville Catholic High School, where Vance's son is a student.

But the Rev. Vann Johnston, chancellor for the diocese, said retaining O'Connell's images including a near life-size bust in the diocese's chancery office is not about forgiveness.

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.

Whether to erase all traces of an abuser is a question that's coming up in parishes and dioceses elsewhere, following two steady years of sex abuse scandals and a church-sanctioned report that said nearly 4,400 clerics were accused of molestation nationwide from 1950 to 2002.

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.

In the case of O'Connell, now 65, he 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 in just a single church. In 1998, he became bishop of Palm Beach, Fla.

But in March 2002, O'Connell resigned from his Florida post, acknowledging 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 in two lawsuits suggesting at least four victims, also admitted he could have had been involved with ''one other person of a somewhat similar situation, in a somewhat similar time frame.''

The bishop, however, has refused to identify the second victim, saying it would violate his rights against self-incrimination. His defense has relied heavily on the statue 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.

O'Connell could not be located for comment and his Chicago-based attorney did not return calls. Johnston told The Associated Press to call the Diocese of Palm Beach for O'Connell's current address, but officials there would only say he was in ''an undisclosed location.''

Palm Beach took a different view of the importance of O'Connell's 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 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.

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