Skip to comments.Where a fallen (Catholic) bishop goes to heal
Posted on 04/19/2004 6:45:02 AM PDT by NYer
MONCK'S CORNER, S.C. -- The entrance to Mepkin Abbey is a long, private driveway lined with ancient live-oak trees, scenically draped in Spanish moss. Go straight, and you reach a beautiful, terraced garden sewn with azaleas and camellias, overlooking a calm, lonely stretch of the Cooper River.
Turn before that, and you will reach the riverside monastery itself, where 27 Trappist monks live, following a regimen that has its roots in the 11th century. They pray communally seven times a day, and if you arrive at the right time, you will hear the church bells toll. The monks will be found in their white, hooded robes, manning their prayer stalls, singing and chanting the Psalms.
These days, you also will see a guest, not robed but in civilian dress, sitting among them. He is Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, who resigned as head of the Palm Beach Diocese 25 months ago after confessing to sexual improprieties. He has lived here ever since in the seclusion of this Catholic monastery.
O'Connell, once the leader of 250,000 Catholics in the five-county diocese, lives in a 10-by-15-foot monastic cell and follows the rigorous Trappist prayer schedule, which begins at 3:20 every morning. He also performs manual labor and menial tasks demanded by the regimen, including work on the chicken farm the monks operate.
"He is healing himself and turning to God," said Mary Jeffcoat, a spokeswoman for the monks.
Accusations against O'Connell include numerous instances of sexual abuse of minors at a Missouri seminary, where he was stationed from 1964 to 1988. That year he was named a bishop and head of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn. He was transferred to the Palm Beach Diocese in 1999 and was stationed here until March 8, 2002, when the first accusation of sexual abuse emerged and he resigned.
Just three days after stepping down, O'Connell arrived at the abbey, about 30 miles north of Charleston and 7 miles outside the town of Monck's Corner. The municipality is named for an early businessman in the area, Thomas Monck, and not for the inhabitants of the monastery.
"Bishop O'Connell called the abbot and asked for permission to come to the abbey," Jeffcoat said.
O'Connell had never been to the monastery before but had met the abbot, the Rev. Francis Kline.
A Palm Beach Post reporter recently spent three days at the monastery on retreat. In general, those on retreat spend several days at the facility, occupying prayer stalls in church adjacent to those of the monks, eating in a refectory next to but separate from that of the monks. Visitors can arrange meetings with monks to discuss spiritual problems and can also use the gardens and sylvan setting for peace and contemplation.
Mepkin Abbey, founded in 1949, sits on 3,200 acres, most of it wooded and undeveloped. The land was donated to the monks by Henry Luce, a founder of Time-Life publications, and his wife, Claire Booth Luce, a congresswoman, ambassador and author. They are buried on the grounds.
The abbey is beautiful -- the word "Mepkin" comes from a local Native American language and means "serene" and "lovely." But the monastic life is not easy.
"This is a place for people who are making serious spiritual journeys," Jeffcoat says.
The seven prayer sessions start with the 3:20 a.m. "vigils," and during the reporter's stay, O'Connell had the duty of reading aloud from scripture at that service. The last prayer of the day is "compline" at 7:35 p.m., part of which is held by candlelight.
The prayer cycle at the abbey employs the Psalms more than any other resource. They often emphasize mercy and compassion but also explore "the dark night of the soul."
The eight priests in the community -- the rest are non-ordained "brothers" -- concelebrate Mass at 7:30 a.m. every day, and O'Connell joins them in full priestly vestments. But Jeffcoat specified that O'Connell is not allowed to say Mass anywhere except at the monastery.
During the rest of the day, the monks perform lectio divina, private reading of Scripture, and they do several hours of manual work. The abbey's main means of support is a modernly mechanized chicken farm, which produces 30,000 eggs a day.
Jeffcoat said O'Connell is assigned tasks every day, which might include "grading eggs, doing laundry, taking care of infirm monks, or bagging compost," which the abbey also sells.
The Trappists, also known as Cistercians, were founded in 1098 in France. In their early years, they were known for extreme self-denial: almost total silence, little food, sleeping on hard floors and self-inflicted scourging. That punishing regimen was eventually abandoned, although much of the day is still spent in silence.
"I've watched him live this monastic life very faithfully," Jeffcoat said.
But O'Connell's movements are strictly controlled.
"His activities are restricted and monitored by the abbot and the monastic community to ensure no minor is placed at risk," according to a statement concerning O'Connell the monastery issued to The Palm Beach Post.
Jeffcoat specified that O'Connell has absolutely no contact with minors who may visit the monastery on day trips. He also has no contact with adult retreat participants, who often live at the facility for days at a time, she said.
"His infrequent trips away from the monastery are all carefully monitored," according to the official statement.
O'Connell, 65, goes to doctor appointments off the grounds of the abbey, "but even then he needs the permission of the abbot, and most of the time someone goes with him," Jeffcoat said. "In that community, you really can't do anything without other people knowing."
O'Connell has telephone and Internet access, but he needs the abbot's permission to receive visitors, and that has been granted on a few occasions.
"People from Palm Beach can't come up here and ask to see Bishop O'Connell," Jeffcoat said. "Well, they can ask, but they won't be able to see him.
"But we don't want anyone to think we are we are hiding Bishop O'Connell from any obligation he may have," she said.
Any civil authorities who need to speak to O'Connell have access to him at the abbey, she said.
At the time of his resignation, O'Connell admitted during a news conference that he had improperly touched a young man at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., some 25 years before. He also said a second man might come forward, but gave no other details. The seminary subsequently was closed.
But his confession was apparently incomplete. Eventually, eight men came forward and accused O'Connell of sexual abuse when they were minors, said Patrick Noaker, a Minnesota attorney representing alleged victims.
One victim, Chris Dixon, received a $125,000 settlement from the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., in 1996. Suits filed by three of the other men accused the Jefferson City and Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., dioceses and also the Knoxville Diocese of covering up O'Connell's activities, transferring him to new posts and advancing his career despite his sexual history.
One of those men, identified only as "John T. Doe," said O'Connell had paid him $21,000 in "hush money" so he would not speak in public about their relationship, which allegedly lasted until 2001 and included an assignation at the bishop's residence in Palm Beach Gardens.
All the legal actions against O'Connell are civil suits. O'Connell has taken the Fifth Amendment during the deposition sessions for those suits, Noaker said. The statute of limitations has protected O'Connell from criminal prosecution, Noaker said.
O'Connell's confession and his resignation caused a cataclysm in the Palm Beach Diocese. Three years before, in 1999, O'Connell had replaced Bishop J. Keith Symons, who admitted molesting five altar boys in the past. Symons returned to his native Michigan and took temporary refuge in a convent there.
With O'Connell's announcement, Palm Beach became the only diocese in the United States to lose two bishops in a row to the sexual abuse scandal, which has continued to convulse the church. Many area Catholics were incensed with the Vatican, which had assigned O'Connell to the diocese despite his history.
It was the Vatican that also made the decision to leave O'Connell at Mepkin Abbey long term, the abbot said. It is not known how long he will be at the monastery or where he will go afterward.
Jeffcoat said the abbey occasionally has played host to other priests accused of sexual abuse, "but none of them for as long as Bishop O'Connell."
"The monks feel they are helping the church and that the church has a responsibility to care for the accused -- to help them heal," she said.
On other occasions, the monks have welcomed victims of sexual abuse and counseled them, although Jeffcoat could not say whether priests had victimized those individuals. She emphasized that O'Connell had had no contact with such victims at the monastery.
Despite those instances, Jeffcoat insisted that "the abbey is not a treatment center" for fallen clergy or anyone else. Jeffcoat would not say whether O'Connell has received psychological counseling, citing privacy concerns.
After Mass, prayers and meals, O'Connell could be seen trudging back to his quarters, head down, maybe in thought, maybe in prayer. He cut a very different figure than he had in Florida. During those days, O'Connell was extremely popular and known for his talkative and sociable nature.
During a short meeting with the Post reporter, the abbot, Kline, said O'Connell had "suffered quite a bit emotionally" after resigning and during his early days at the monastery.
"He's getting better," Kline said.
The archdiocese here apparently "rusticated" several accused priests.
A very good model for public repentance, resignation and retirement to a life of contemplation was a former archbishop of Atlanta and fast-rising star in the hierarchy (Marino?), who suddenly called a press conference, announced his resignation at an early age, announced that he was resigning because he had had a lengthy affair with a woman in archdiocesan employ, and that he would go to a cloistered monastery to restore his relationship with God. He expressed his humble sorrow for having been a near occasion of sin to his lover and asked her forgiveness. He also acknowledged that the monastery would be, for him, the avoidance of the near occasion of sin.
We do not hate these people but we very much hate the sins that have consumed them and their common sense and their spirituality. Once those sins are admitted and forgiveness is sought, the Church at least, if not the victim, ought to forgive. If the victim is inclined against forgiveness the words of the Lord's Prayer ought to come to mind: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" which has rather impressive implications.
How would one know?
One of the saddest aspects of these sordid affairs is you are never quite sure they are sorry for what they did, or just sorry they finally got caught.
After all, he had sex with young boys and then just moved on to bigger and better positions until the sky fell on him. Lack of conscience?
The woman in question, incidentally, appeared quite odd. She seemed to glom onto priests - his case was not the first where she accused a priest of impropriety. I have no idea whatever happened to her.