My friend the abuser

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Article Spirituality Parish Life
Am I to judge a mentor and friend only by his greatest sin?

A death in the family is often an occasion of mixed emotions—sadness and gratitude, maybe even a little regret. I felt all that and more when I heard of the death of my former bishop, Anthony J. O’Connell, the first bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, who welcomed me as a seminarian in 1993 and was a fixture in my life for many years after. He moved to the Diocese of West Palm Beach, Florida in 1998, where his past caught up with him. When news of his abuse of a high school seminarian in the 1970s came to light in 2002, he resigned and spent the rest of his life in a monastery in South Carolina.

When I got the news of my bishop’s resignation, I remember feeling both disbelief and shock. How could the man we called “OC”—my mentor—have been an abuser who admitted to lying naked with and fondling a teenage student multiple times over several years as rector of St. Thomas Seminary, a now-closed high school seminary in Hannibal, Missouri?

On my way to college seminary I had actually met O’Connell’s victim, then a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, who was then a teacher at St. Thomas. I also encountered O’Connell’s successor as rector, who later was also accused of abuse. And I met Jefferson City’s vocation director, who, it turned out, was in an abusive relationship with the 21-year-old president of our seminary college student body. That “relationship” had been going on for at least six years and would continue for three more before the whole thing finally blew up.

I was horrified, but deeply conflicted as well. I cared about Bishop O’Connell a great deal. He was a stellar bishop to our little Tennessee diocese: positive and energetic, encouraging, compassionate, friendly to conservative and liberal alike, pastoral, kind, a real servant-leader. There seemed to be no hard edge in him, and he admitted his own struggles with the church as readily as he confessed how much it meant to him. Everyone loved him, and many still did even after his sins came to light.

He was also unfailingly encouraging to me. “Don’t worry, Bryan,” he once said to me in his signature Irish brogue after a particularly difficult and disappointing year of seminary. “You are worth more to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”

It seemed to be just what I needed to hear. But now I ask myself: Was he just “grooming” me, as so many abusers do? Was he just “grooming” everyone? Was he a complete and total fraud?

As much as I may hate to admit it, OC 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 and sinful, an unconscionable betrayal of trust. As his victim tells it—and I must believe him—OC ruined his life. I shudder to think how many other victims may have suffered at that seminary.

Yet I also knew Bishop O’Connell to be a gifted leader and a kind and compassionate pastor—I’d even say a marvelous human being, though with a terrible secret flaw through which he brought great harm to his victims, to the church, even to me.

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 has 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, no matter how great his sinfulness.

As death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean has said, we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. I’d like to think OC spent what was left of his ministry trying to make amends, knowing full well that he couldn’t.

And there is no making amends for it—not this side of heaven anyway. But OC was still my friend, and I’ll still be praying for his eternal rest and his share of the resurrection. I must hope that, in the eternal grace and mercy of God, even this terrible breach can be healed.

This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 7, page 8).