Priest Breaks Silence on Abuse By Bishop

March 22, 2002 -- Roman Catholic priest Christopher Dixon says he kept his secret about Bishop Anthony O'Connell for more than 15 years. Then he was paid to keep quiet about it for good.

"Silence seemed to be the only option at the time," says Dixon, who ended up leaving the priesthood. "The church is so big and so powerful."

Dixon, 40, broke his silence two weeks ago, going public with his allegation that O'Connell touched him inappropriately in bed when he was a teenager attending the Missouri seminary where O'Connell was rector. The next day, O'Connell stepped down as bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., admitting Dixon's allegation was true, but denying the incident was sexual in nature.

"I trusted this man completely," says Dixon. "He was my idol, my mentor, my shepherd, if you will … and I was betrayed."

As claims of pedophilia rock the foundations of the Catholic Church, Dixon is alleging that he was repeatedly sexually abused by priests. He says he is breaking his silence because he couldn't live with himself or his faith any more. This week, two other former seminarians stepped forward with sexual misconduct allegations against O'Connell, filing lawsuits. One of the cases accuses O'Connell and the three dioceses where he worked of "racketeering" under the federal RICO law, which is usually used against organized crime.

"I was seduced — seduced in one of the most insidious ways I can think of," Dixon told ABCNEWS' chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross.

‘Would You Like to Kiss Jesus?’

Growing up as one of eight children in a Catholic family in Hannibal, Mo., Dixon was raised to respect, honor and trust the priests who were so much a part of his life.

"In my mind, as a little kid, they were pretty close to God, pretty close to Jesus, and I never knew there was a problem with the priests," he says.

The first time he became aware of a problem, he says, was when he was 11, during a face-to-face confession with his pastor, John Fischer.

"He looked at me and he said, 'Would you like to kiss Jesus?' And me being, you know, the kid, I thought, yeah, sure. And he leaned forward and kind of put his hand behind me and pushed me forward and kissed me on the lips," says Dixon. "That was the first of a number of times in the sacristy."

Dixon did not tell his parents. "They loved Father Fischer," he says.

There was more abuse, says Dixon, involving a second priest, Manus Daly, who was then a dean at St. Thomas Aquinas, the all-boys seminary high school he attended in Hannibal.

"We were all in his room watching TV, talking, and I had fallen asleep with everybody there," Dixon remembers. "And I woke up and the only person there was Father Daly … I don't remember if he said a thing, but he did grab my private area and try to do things with it and I said, 'No. No, Father.' He said, 'Why not?' I said, 'Because you're a priest,' and then he said, 'Well, why don't you do it to me?' I said, 'No.' 'Why not?' 'Because you're a priest.'"

Turning to the Rector for Help

Dixon says he was so troubled by his interaction with Daly that he went to Father O'Connell, the rector who was in charge of the seminary. He says he told O'Connell what had happened with both Fischer and Daly.

"I was as honest and open about absolutely everything in my life. I gave him my heart. I held back nothing in telling him about what I thought, what I had felt, what happened to me, everything, hoping that he'd be able to help me," says Dixon.

But after many sessions with O'Connell, says Dixon, the priest took the 15-year-old boy to his bedroom.

"He took off his clothes. I took off my clothes, but I was real shy about taking off my underwear," says Dixon. "But he tried to say, 'Oh, there's nothing wrong with your body. You can take off your underwear. It doesn't mean something sexual has to happen.' And so he crawled in bed and I crawled in bed, too and he started hugging me, you know, even pulled me to where my body was on top of his body."

Though he says he was strong enough to reject the advances from Daly, this case was different for Dixon. "I was convinced that Father O'Connell cared about me and was doing everything he could to help me," he says.

Dixon says such encounters took place several times.

Still, he stayed on course to become a priest himself, with his college and other church studies supervised by O'Connell. By 1990, when Dixon was ordained, O'Connell had become a bishop of the diocese in Knoxville, Tenn. "He was actually one of the bishops that laid hands on my head in the act of ordination," says Dixon.

After three years as a priest, Dixon was assigned to St. Thomas, where Father Daly had taken over as rector. Dixon found himself working in the same institution where he says he was abused, under the supervision of one of the men he claims abused him. "I was terrified," he says. "I felt trapped."

He was so tormented, he says, that he had to tell someone in authority about the alleged abuse by the three priests. In October 1995, Dixon went to the No. 2 official of the archdiocese. What followed was a quick and quiet $125,000 settlement, with the church admitting no wrongdoing and both sides promising to keep the whole thing secret.

Fischer, who is no longer a priest, has denied abusing Dixon. Daly was a pastor in Marceline, Mo., until the Jefferson City Diocese removed him two weeks ago, shortly before Dixon's allegations became public.

Breaking Confidentiality Agreement

Dixon says he now regrets that his silence was bought.

"I have been tempted to go public and felt restrained by the confidentiality agreement," he says, "but when all this other news came out, I thought now is the time … because there may be other people who have been victimized by these men or other priests, and if what I'm doing can help them come forward, this is worth it."

But Dixon's years of silence made it possible for O'Connell to be promoted to the post of bishop in Palm Beach in 1999 — hand-picked by the pope. O'Connell replaced a bishop who was forced to resign because of revelations he had molested several children.

Just hours before Dixon first told his story to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, O'Connell had issued a statement calling the abuse of children by priests "sinful and criminal."

With Dixon's allegations out, O'Connell offered his resignation before a tearful audience of priests and nuns.

"I want to apologize as sincerely and abjectly as I possibly can," O'Connell said at a news conference.

The bishop did not deny what Dixon alleged, but described it as misguided therapy.

"What I was trying to do was work with a youngster who had personal issues," he said. "We're talking about the late '70s. In Catholic theology, there were different kinds of approaches … There was nothing in the relationship that was anything other than touches."

O'Connell denied there was anything "in the ordinary understanding of sexual activity."

Dixon does not accept O'Connell's interpretation. "I guess it depends on how you define things," he says. "It's all touching, OK, that's all it was, fine. Does that mean it's a good kind of abuse as opposed to the bad kind?"

O'Connell, who has since gone into seclusion, denied ABCNEWS' requests for an interview.

Asked how he now feels about the church, Dixon says: "It's not my church anymore. I don't claim it as my church. I don't practice the faith. Someone asked me, 'Has your faith been shaken?' And I said 'No, my faith has been shattered.' I will never trust the church again."