PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – A Roman Catholic bishop has offered to resign after acknowledging he inappropriately touched a teenager more than 25 years ago, becoming the highest-ranking clergyman brought down by a growing church sex scandal.
"I am truly deeply sorry for the pain, hurt, anger and confusion I have caused," the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell, bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, said on Friday. "I've been loved since I entered this diocese, far more than anyone should be loved."
O'Connell, 63, admitted to the allegations made by Christopher Dixon, his former student at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., where O'Connell was serving as rector at the time.
Dixon, now 40, said the two touched inappropriately in bed after he sought out O'Connell for counseling. Dixon said the abuse began in 1977, when he was 15, and continued until 1980.
O'Connell said the encounter came during 1970s-era "experiential" counseling sessions with the teen.
"I was as wrong as could be in taking that kind of approach and I'm so sorry," O'Connell said. "There was nothing in the relationship that was anything other than touches."
"For those who will be angry, I certainly ask, when the time is right, that they pray for my forgiveness," he said.
Asked if he had been involved with any others, O'Connell said there could be "one other person of a somewhat similar situation, in a somewhat similar time frame." He would not elaborate.
O'Connell offered his resignation to the pope's top representative in the United States. As in the case of all offers by bishops to resign, the decision to accept or reject the request will be up to Pope John Paul II.
The Vatican's press office said Saturday it would publish the pope's decision once it's is made. The office did not say how soon that might be.
The nation's latest and biggest sex-abuse scandal involving priests began in the Archdiocese of Boston, where Cardinal Bernard Law admitted that a former priest molested children for years but was kept on the job anyway, being shuttled from parish to parish. More than 130 people have come forward to say the defrocked priest, John Geoghan, abused them.
Since January, when the Boston case gained national attention, dozens of priests out of more than 47,000 nationwide have been suspended or forced to resign, and priests' names have been turned over to prosecutors.
O'Connell, who has been a priest for 38 years, came to Palm Beach in 1999 to succeed J. Keith Symons, the first U.S. bishop to resign because of sexual involvement with boys.
After that scandal, Florida's bishops began background checks for all clergy, lay employees and volunteers who work with children, elderly and disabled people.
O'Connell said he failed to tell his superiors about the relationship when he was asked to replace Symons. "It should have come up from myself," he said.
Since his admission was first reported Friday by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, dozens of priests and laypersons in the diocese have spoken out in support of O'Connell, calling him a good and faithful man who should remain as bishop.
"We all have made mistakes. None of us are perfect," said Shelly Jent, a Catholic school teacher in West Palm Beach. "The last perfect person they crucified."
The bishop's admission came only hours after Florida's bishops issued a statement calling sexual abuse "both criminal and sinful" and assuring their 2.2 million followers that the church has procedures to deal with such allegations.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests in St. Louis, called O'Connell's disclosure "one more painful reminder that an enormous gap exists between the church's wonderful, flowery words and its leaders' terrible deeds."
In Dixon's case, the Jefferson City, Mo., Diocese paid a $125,000 settlement in 1996 after Dixon promised not to pursue further claims against the diocese, O'Connell and two other priests. The diocese did not admit any wrongdoing.
The other priests Dixon agreed not pursue further claims against were the Rev. Manus Daly, who allegedly abused Dixon at the seminary, and the Rev. John Fischer, who allegedly began abusing Dixon at a Catholic school when he was 11. Daly was removed from a Marceline, Mo., church this week and Fischer was removed from the priesthood in 1993 after allegations involving other children.
Dixon said he thought he could trust O'Connell when he told him about the abuse from Fischer. "But under the guise of trying to help me come to terms with my own body, he ultimately took me to bed with him," Dixon said.
Dixon himself was a priest for five years before he was diagnosed with depression in 1995. He said the depression came after he was assigned to work at the Hannibal seminary under Daly — a move that brought back memories of abuse. He later left the priesthood.