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Forgive me Father, but it is you who sinned

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2002


Every Catholic child learns the solemnity of confession. He learns it so well, he never forgets it. With the extreme earnestness that is possible only during the naivete of childhood, you take responsibility for even the tiniest transgression. You come clean.

Then you utter prayers in penance.

Only then are you forgiven.

The lesson drummed into the heads of schoolchildren continues to elude those at the top of the Catholic Church.

Last week, Florida's Catholic bishops issued a joint statement condemning sexual abuse by priests.

Officially, the statement was issued to reassure Catholics troubled by the burgeoning scandal in Boston, where scores of priests are under scrutiny for possible sexual abuse. But the statement amounted to a pre-emptive PR strike at home.

For soon after it was issued, the bishop of the Palm Beach diocese, Anthony J. O'Connell, admitted he was among the abusers. He had fondled a teenage boy repeatedly between 1977 and 1980 while he was the head of a boys' school in Hannibal, Mo.

Confession is supposed to be a voluntary admission of sin, but there was nothing voluntary in O'Connell's disclosure.

His hand was forced by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which published a story last week on the allegations made by O'Connell's victim, Christopher Dixon, now 40.

If ever there was an instance to illustrate how far-reaching sexual misconduct is in the Catholic clergy, this is it. For O'Connell had taken over the diocese from another abuser, then-Bishop J. Keith Symons. Symons was the first American bishop to resign as a result of sex offenses against children.

You'd think that history would have made church leaders extra careful about picking a successor. And you'd be wrong.

In 1996, the church in Missouri paid Christopher Dixon a $125,000 settlement as compensation for O'Connell's abuse. Somehow the facts of the case did not follow him. O'Connell was promoted in 1999 to Palm Beach where the task he set for himself, he said then, was to heal the community that had been wounded by Symons' transgressions.

O'Connell has said there may be another victim. But there may be more. David Clohessy, a St. Louis man who runs a national support group for those abused by priests, told me Monday that he has spoken to two other people who said they had been abused by O'Connell. Clohessy's group is called SNAP, or Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

I was raised in the Catholic Church. I still carry those rules of confession in my head. They exert an enormous pull on me, strong as an ocean current. This is a universal for Catholics, practicing or, like me, not. We suffer from an excess of conscience.

The church does not. If it did, men like Keith Symons and Anthony O'Connell would have been punished and pushed out long ago. If it did, honesty -- not secrecy, hypocrisy, denial -- would have the highest value.

Christopher Dixon had turned to O'Connell when he was a teenager, looking for advice because another priest had fondled him. O'Connell's response was only more of the same, under the ruse of showing Dixon that nothing was wrong with his body.

The enormity of the damage done to Dixon, who became a priest but gave it up as a result of all but suicidal depression, escaped the bishop completely. Denial was the order of the day when he spoke to reporters last Friday. "I thought closure was reached when the (court settlement) was reached," O'Connell said.

In other words, he thought Dixon should have moved on. O'Connell certainly had, with the aid and comfort of his church.

-- Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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