A Catholic Student's Story

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Anthony O'Connell

His pseudonym is John C.C. Doe in the civil suit filed Friday in the state circuit court of Hannibal, Mo., — the third filed so far against the now resigned Palm Beach bishop, Anthony O'Connell. Doe is 34 years old, and what he says happened to him starting 19 years ago, when he was a 15-year-old, "barely 5-feet-tall and 100 lbs," plunged him into a suicidal depression that has haunted his adulthood as well as what should have been the most carefree years of his life. It started in1982, when he entered the St. Thomas Aquinas preparatory seminary in Hannibal largely because of his admiration for a childhood parish pastor who "represented the awe I had for priests."

When Doe got to St. Thomas, the man he found who was most like that priest was Father Anthony O'Connell — whom the students called simply "O'C" — the seminary's co-founder and rector, who became Doe's spiritual counselor as well as his English grammar teacher. O'Connell, then 44, was a burly, 5'11", 250-lb Irishman who had come to this country in the 1960s and had set out to create a model seminary. What Doe alleges O'Connell left behind instead was a pattern of sexually abusing the boys in his charge — and a swath of broken souls who lost their faith because of what he allegedly did to them.

More important, because Doe feels that O'Connell and the diocese of Jefferson City conspired to conceal what O'Connell had been doing — and because Doe has material evidence in the form of e-mail and taped phone messages over the past two weeks of O'Connell urging him not to come forward with his own tale of abuse — he and his Minnesota attorney, Jeff Anderson, feel they have grounds to sue O'Connell and the diocese under federal racketeering (RICO) laws usually used to convict mafiosos. "Crime is crime," says Doe, "whether it's for God or for Tony Soprano." Though no one brought a formal suit against O'Connell until 1996 (which was subsequently and secretly settled), Anderson claims he and Doe have evidence that the Jefferson City diocese had been receiving complaints about sexual abuse by O'Connell as early as 1967 — and that, under Catholic canon law, the diocese would have been required to keep archival files on those accusations, documents that Anderson says he intends to subpoena. Aides to O'Connell say the bishop is "in seclusion" and will not comment.

It was in that first year at St. Thomas that Doe, then 14, had a sexual experience with a fellow male student, creating wrenching confusion about his sexuality — emotions that he took to O'Connell the following autumn for counseling. The sessions, at first, were always at night in O'Connell's office, just 15 feet from his bedroom. One night, in November of 1983, after Doe had come to the office for a prayer session, Doe says O'Connell concluded it by giving him a bear hug — and grabbing his crotch. "I was shocked," says Doe, sobbing in an interview with TIME; but given how slight in both stature and experience he was, "it was overwhelming," and difficult to resist.

After that, Doe alleges, O'Connell had the boy, then 15, write a journal explicitly detailing his sexual thoughts and fantasies — all under the guise of "saving" C.C. Doe from his homosexual tendencies. In a phone conversation with O'Connell two weeks ago on March 9, the day after O'Connell resigned as bishop in Palm Beach, Doe says O'Connell told him that those sessions were meant "to help me see that I was not gay, that it was possible for two men to physically touch naked in bed, but that didn't mean you were a homosexual."

But Doe says O'Connell eventually used the journal as an overture for touching the boy, pulling him on to his lap and masturbating Doe. During Doe's last two years at St. Thomas, "my meetings with him were not in his office but in his bed. When we moved there, there was always a lot of wrestling. He placed my head down between his legs. My feeling is that he was frustrated because I would not have oral sex with him."

These sessions, which often lasted from 10 PM to 4 AM, went on sometimes two, three times a month — basically, says Doe, whenever O'Connell had the urge, until Doe graduated from St. Thomas in 1986 (in the summer of 1984, while O'Connell drove Doe home for vacation, Does says he and the priest even stayed overnight in a hotel room, where they slept together naked). In the late 1980s, as Doe was pursuing ordination — and even after O'Connell was named bishop of the newly formed diocese of Knoxville, Tenn. in 1988 — O'Connell kept pursuing Doe, who admits he felt compelled to meet with the prelate whenever O'Connell called. "We'd meet and he'd say, 'Get undressed and get in bed,' and I did." When O'Connell became a bishop, says Doe, "I thought this was all over for me. In my mind I was thinking he'd be holier now, he would certainly not want to continue doing this sort of thing." But O'Connell did. Finally, in 1991, Doe severed contact with the bishop — but says the abuse at St. Thomas and afterward left him dealing with serious depression and suicidal tendencies. He once attempted a drug overdose on aspirin and Tylenol, and spent much of his young adulthood mutilating his arm and wrists.

Doe says he decided to file suit when he heard, as a result of O'Connell's resignation this month, that there had been other victims. "I believed that I was the only one," says Doe, who is now openly gay and works in health care at a Missouri hospital. "The man was my friend, I thought he was my mentor. I felt affection for him; he was the man I most wanted to be like. It makes me angry to know that other people were hurt."

Doe was so upset, in fact, that he called O'Connell on March 9 to confront him. O'Connell was depressed. Still, Doe says it was obvious that O'Connell, in the conversation, "was trying to control me." That was evident in e-mail and phone messages O'Connell left for Doe over the past two weeks. In the e-mails, copies of which TIME has obtained, O'Connell says, remarkably, "I am praying and fasting for you." The following day, O'Connell adds: "I surely want to seek healing for you and from you." In response to Doe's demands for face-to-face meetings, an apology for him and his parents, assistance in finding further therapy, financial assistance to pay for it and financial restitution for the abuse, O'Connell writes, "I will do some consulting as to how best to do what you ask. In the meantime, for whatever it may be worth, I am offering part of this pain so that it can be redemptive in some way for yourself."

But by this time, Doe was moving away from reconciliation and toward litigation — and O'Connell could sense it. In a panic, he left three phone messages last Monday, the last one not so subtly urging Doe not to go public.

Doe attorney Anderson says he is taking the hardball approach in these suits because church authorities "change what they say but they don't change their actions. So it remains the same: denial, denial, denial and keep it secret. Only do something when it leaks out, and then do damage control." If O'Connell's phone messages to Doe are any indication, control is something the church may well already have lost.