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USA : Sexual Abuse Victims Settle Cases Against Bishop

Two former seminarians have settled their civil sex abuse lawsuits against a Catholic Bishop who publicly resigned after admitting that he molested at least one young boy.

Matthew Cosby of St. Louis and Michael J. Wags of Minneapolis, announced today that hey have agreed to settle their civil suits against Anthony J. O’Connell, the former bishop of Palm Beach, and a priest with the Diocese of Jefferson City where the suit originated. O’Connell now lives at Mepkin Abbey, just south of Charleston, South Carolina.  Wags, 50, and Cosby, 36, filed suit against O’Connell in March 2002 after St. Louisan Christopher Dixon disclosed that he had received a secret settlement in the early 90s from the disgraced bishop and the Jefferson City diocese.  Dixon alleged that O’Connell molested him when he was a high school student at the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, a college prep school for prospective priests, operated by the Missouri diocese in Hannibal.

“I am a cradle Catholic.  I am a first born son,” Wegs said.  “I am the child that my parents entrusted to the church with the hope and belief that they had given of themselves to the services of God.  Instead, I became the object of emotional abuse and sexual gratification of a pedophile who used the sanctity of the priesthood to molest boys like me within his care,” he added.  Wegs, who grew up in Moberly graduated from St. Thomas in May 1971.  He had hoped to become a priest.  “My mother who is a good and holy woman, deserves an apology not only from O’Connell,” Wegs said, “but also from Bishop F. McAuliffe (retired) and Bishop John R. Gaydos, who conspired against her well-being and personal faith to protect a pedophile.   Wegs received a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia (1975) and attended Kendrick Seminary, St. Louis (1977-1979).  He is an award-winning journalist and public relations professional.  Cosby graduated from St. Thomas in May 1986.  Today he is employed by Barnes-Jewish Hospital where he works as cardiac research and analysis technician.  Wegs, who has a seminarian with diocese 1967-1979, alleged that O’Connell sexualized and manipulated his guidance counseling sessions, called spiritual direction, over a two year period (1968-1970).   In addition, his suit alleged that O’Connell masturbated in his presence in the chapel sacristy or robing room.  “I am relieved that Gaydos and the Diocese of Jefferson City have acknowledged the harm that O’Connell did to me during my youth at St. Thomas,” Wegs said.  “I’ve carried this burden and memories of those events with me for nearly 40yrs, and now I will be able to move forward knowing that O’Connell has finally been called to task for abusive behavior that has seriously affected my life.” 

Cosby concurred with Wegs.  “While O’Connell took a lot of the happiness I should have had as a youth, I no longer allow him or his actions to sadden or control me, “he said.  “I still have problems as a result, but filing and seeing this through to the end has helped me see that I truly am a survivor despite his victimization.”  Cosby said that if he had filed a suit against O’Connell and diocese as early as 1999, Missouri’s statute of limitations would have protected his case.  “But for all he took away, I am reclaiming back what is mine, albeit a bit later in my life,” Cosby said.  “My faith which has been distorted and alien, is in renewal.  And while I am not a ‘practicing’ catholic now, I am a more spiritual and compassionate person, in spite of the example that O’Connell provided for me.  “My prayer is that anyone who has abused by his man or any other religious figure would seek help” he said.

O’Connell’s 25-year tenure (1964-1989) at St. Thomas allowed him to oversee more than 100 boys and young men on an annual basis.  He also worked as the diocese vocation director and recruiter during this period; and he was a key member of the priest personal board (1974-1989), supervising parish placements and employment files.  In 1989, O’Connell was appointed the first bishop of Knoxville.  In 1999, he succeeded Bishop J Keith Symmonds of Palm Beach who has forced to resign after he admitted he molested boys in Florida.  Likewise, Symmonds’ predecessor what forced out when he was identified as a serial sexual predator.

Wegs said he agreed to settle with O’Connell and the Missouri diocese to preserve a court ruling he won in Marion County Circuit Court in Hannibal.  In his opinion, Judge C David Darnold ruled that “Churches can be held to the same standard as any other entity that is in the position of caring for children”.  Darnold’s opinion also noted that churches can be sued for the negligence of its clergy; and that members of the clergy are indeed Church employees not contract workers.  By classifying clergy as contract workers, religious denominations often are able to limit their legal liability.  The diocese will pay Wegs, $20,000; O’Connell $5,000.  The diocese will pay Cosby $27,000; O’Connell $5,000.  “Missouri has a very repressive statute of limitations which church leaders take advantage of to protect themselves instead of protecting youngsters.”  Wegs said.  “Given this, I decided it was better for my healing and the well being of other victims to move one small step forward and settle this case.”  “I am saddened by the tactics that the church and their defense team used to protect O’Connell,” said Cosby.  It seemed that there was no question that he did what he did, but instead, they used the statute of limitations as a defense.  “And, yet, O’Connell pled the Fifth Amendment for every question asked.  He even cited the prospect of self-incrimination in admitting that he ever knew either of us.”

Wegs, who is co-founder of the Minnesota Chapter of SNAP, said he hoped that his case would encourage other Missouri residents to support efforts to reform outdated state laws on child abuse.  He said that responsible lay Catholics and the public at large would have to provide the energy and votes to change any legislation designed to protect children.  “Our former teachers and classmates are now in positions of authority in diocese, Wegs said.  “I would hop that they would forsake the past and begin to manage the church in an accountable and transparent fashion.  But considering the way they dealt with me, I doubt that they will never even consider the advancing an open, just and responsible system.”   O’Connell thus far faced no criminal charges.  “But we strongly hope that more of his victims will report to police and prosecutors about this dangerous man,” said Barbara Dorris, a spokesperson for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those abused by priests.  “SNAP leaders are especially hopeful that a recent court ruling which enables delayed prosecution of child molesters, “will mean that someday O’Connell will be behind bars, where he can’t hurt kids anymore,” said David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director.

O’Connell, a native of Ireland was ordained in 1963 and worked at many of the Missouri diocese’s mission parishes in central and northern Missouri, including: Indian Creek, Kahoka, Novinger, Ewing, Canton, Brookfield, LaGrange, Clarence, Louisiana, Clarksville, Monroe City, Palmyra, Shelbina and Bevier.  O’Connell now lives at Mepkin Abbey, Just north of Charleston, South Carolina.  Wegs said he expects O’Connell to return to his native Ireland when the multiple civil lawsuits against him are settled.


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