US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Anthony J. O'Connell: My friend, my bishop, and an abuser

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I don't feel like I can let this week pass without acknowledging the death of my former bishop, Anthony J. O'Connell, formerly of the diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee--our first bishop--who then moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, where his past caught up with him. When news of his abuse of a high school seminarian came to light in 2002, he resigned and spent the rest of his life in a monastery in South Carolina. He died this week of melanoma (h/t to NCR for his obituary).

I have to write about Bishop O'Connell because I cared about him a great deal. He was a stellar bishop to our little Tennessee diocese. He was positive and energetic, encouraging, compassionate, friendly to conservative and liberal alike, pastoral, kind, a real servant-leader. He welcomed me when I said I wanted to be a seminarian for our little diocese, and he encouraged me when I moved on.

He was also an abuser who admitted to lying naked with and fondling a 14-year-old high school student multiple times as rector of a now-closed high school seminary, where at least two other priests to my knowledge also abused students.

Still, "OC," as we seminarians called him, always keeps the sex abuse crisis complicated for me. It's so easy to imagine all offenders as monstrous child rapists--and what OC did was monstrously wrong, sinful, a betrayal of trust. And yet I knew him to be a wonderful and gifted leader and a kind and compassionate pastor--I'd even say a marvelous human being.

I've become progressively and obstinately angrier about clerical child sexual abuse as time has passed--the addition of a niece and nephew to my own family have probably hardened me further, for which I do not apologize--but OC always reminds me that even an abuser is still a human being, a child of God. I'd like to think OC spent what was left of his ministry trying to make amends--and knowing full well that he could not do that.

And there is no making amends for what he did--not this side of heaven anyway. But he was still my friend, and I'll still be praying for his eternal rest and his share of the resurrection.