Man Charges Abuse and a Catholic Cover-up

Associated Press/March 23, 2002

St. Louis -- A man who says he was molested at a seminary in the 1980's filed suit in federal court today under a racketeering statute, accusing a former Florida bishop of abuse and the nation's Roman Catholic bishops of a cover-up.

Another Florida bishop today denied sexually harassing an aide.

The suit was filed in Hannibal, Mo., the site of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary. It names Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, a longtime rector at the seminary, along with the dioceses of Jefferson City, Mo.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and West Palm Beach, Fla., where Bishop O'Connell has worked.

The lawsuit also names all Catholic bishops, accusing them of a conspiracy to keep abuse claims secret, often through financial settlements with victims. The suit was filed under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was designed as a weapon against organized crime but includes provisions for civil cases when someone is harmed by a pattern of illegal activity.

"We have the Catholic Church and the seminary that have been infiltrated by predators who prey on children, and they cover it up," said Patrick Noaker, a lawyer for the plaintiff.

The racketeering statute has been used in at least two other church abuse cases, but not successfully.

The lawsuit does not specify financial damages.

Bishop O'Connell resigned his position in West Palm Beach on March 8 after admitting that he had sexually abused Christopher Dixon, now 40, who was a seminarian at St. Thomas in the late 1970's.

The other Florida prelate, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, called a news conference to deny a sexual harassment accusation by William Urbanski, 42, the former communications director for the diocese. Mr. Urbanski said he resigned after Bishop Lynch made unwanted sexual advances, Reuters reported.

Bishop Lynch, 60, said, "I have faithfully and fully lived the celibate vow since the day of ordination."

Mr. Urbanski said he had accepted a $100,000 payment from the diocese, but the diocese called that a severance payment, not a settlement.

In Boston, a senior priest, Msgr. Frederick Ryan, was suspended today after he was accused in a lawsuit of molesting a teenage boy nearly 25 years ago at the archdiocese's chancery. Father Ryan was placed on administrative leave while the matter was investigated, the Boston Archdiocese said.

The Boston Archdiocese's newspaper on Thursday denied that it intended to challenge Catholic Church policy last week when it published an editorial raising questions about celibacy for priests and homosexuality.

A new editorial published on Thursday in the newspaper, The Pilot, says the earlier editorial was misinterpreted. It had raised questions about whether there would be fewer scandals if celibacy were optional for priests, and whether the priesthood attracts an unusually high number of gay men.

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