Priest abuse case involving ex-SLU president takes a new turn

St-Louis Post-Dispatch/April 30, 2010

Former St. Louis University President Daniel O'Connell is at the center of an unusual lawsuit involving allegations of sexual abuse by church clergy.

The breach of contract lawsuit, filed late Wednesday in St. Louis Circuit Court, accuses the Jesuits of the Missouri Province of violating terms of a 2003 settlement, which followed allegations that O'Connell abused a college student. The terms called for the organization to keep the priest out of teaching or ministry positions that would allow one-on-one contact with women.

O'Connell was SLU's president from 1974 to 1978.

The 2003 settlement stems from allegations of a 1983 encounter by an unidentified New York woman involving O'Connell, who was then a chaplain at Loyola University in Chicago. The 20-year-old woman alleged that the sexual relationship took place in Rome, where she was studying abroad through a Loyola program.

Wednesday's lawsuit, which seeks nearly $1 million in damages and other costs, says O'Connell has been allowed, on at least two occasions, to teach seminars and classes — at Georgetown University and at Fordham University.

"Going to a seminar to teach places him in the very same position he was in when he committed the original offense," said Rebecca Randles, the Kansas City attorney representing the woman, who received $180,000 in the 2003 settlement with the Jesuits.

Randles said the case is unusual in that victims rarely, if ever, turn to the courts to enforce a nonfinancial aspect of a settlement involving clergy abuse.

The Jesuit order released a statement Thursday saying it has not yet seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on specific claims. However, the group said it does not believe the 2003 agreement has been violated: "It is the opinion of the Jesuits of the Missouri Province that they have honored the terms and conditions of the agreement."

A spokesman would not discuss whether O'Connell is living among the Jesuits in St. Louis.

St. Louis University officials said O'Connell has had no affiliation with the school since he served as president. "Any allegations against him are unrelated to his time at the university," the school said in a written statement.

The lawsuit also has attracted the attention of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. A small contingent of members gathered outside St. Louis University on Wednesday afternoon for a press conference.

David Clohessy, the group's national director, acknowledged that no allegations of misconduct by O'Connell have been made during his tenure at SLU. But Clohessy urged former students and employees to come forward if they knew of any abuses.

"He held the supreme position of power for years at this university," Clohessy said.

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