Former seminary student files suit

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

A lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of a former Missouri seminary student alleges that he was sexually exploited by former Florida Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell at the seminary from 1967 to 1971.

The lawsuit comes less than two weeks after O'Connell resigned after admitting he sexually abused another former seminarian, Christopher Dixon, now 40, in the 1970s, also at St. Thomas Aquinas Preparatory Seminary in Hannibal. O'Connell was rector at the seminary for several years.

The lawsuit, filed in Hannibal, names O'Connell, the seminary, the Jefferson City Diocese and Jefferson City Bishop John Gaydos.

O'Connell has been in seclusion since resigning as bishop on March 8.

The name of the 47-year-old accuser, who lives in Minnesota, has not been made public. He was 15 when the abuse began, attorney Jeff Anderson said.

In a prepared statement, the Jefferson City Diocese said it "had no previous knowledge of these allegations, nor any advance contact from the defendant or his lawyers. We have yet to receive any notice from the court. We have no information regarding the identity of the plaintiff. Given this lack of information, we are not in a position to make any further comment on the case."

The accuser said in a news release that he decided to come forward "in hopes of maybe preventing harm to others." He believes the abuse contributed to years of depression and anger. He said he has had trouble holding down a job and has undergone psychotherapy.

The lawsuit claimed the abuse began when the student went to O'Connell for counseling about problems in his family life. It accused O'Connell of steering the conversation toward the student's homosexual fantasies. That eventually led to encounters in the sacristy, a room at the seminary chapel, Anderson said.

Reasons for resigning

The lawsuit does not contend physical abuse by O'Connell, but rather "sexual exploitation and infliction of emotional distress," Anderson said.

Until O'Connell's resignation over the allegations by Dixon, the accuser thought he was the only victim, Anderson said.

"He thought he was to blame. Victims like this suffer in secrecy and silence and shame thinking they are to blame. They don't tell, they don't report," Anderson said.

O'Connell resigned a day after Dixon, now of St. Louis, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the bishop touched him inappropriately in bed during counseling sessions in the late 1970s.

In 1996, the Jefferson City Diocese paid $125,000 to Dixon, who said he was abused by three priests, including O'Connell, while he was a student.

Meanwhile, a retired Missouri priest, the Rev. Joseph Starmann, said another alleged seminary victim, a 38-year-old father of three, was abused by O'Connell but refuses to speak out.

Starmann said in an interview Monday that the man doesn't want his three teen-age children to know about the abuse. But Starmann, of Winfield, Mo., said the man has "never gotten it together" after being abused at the seminary around 1980. Starmann said he didn't know details about the abuse.

Starmann said neither he nor the man ever reported the allegations to the church or to police, something he said he regrets.

The man has been in trouble with the law, his marriage fell apart, and he filed for bankruptcy. Now, Starmann said, the man's whereabouts are unknown.

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