ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A lawsuit filed Friday alleges that Catholic bishops maintain secret files about priests accused of sexual misconduct, and that the church goes out of its way to keep the allegations from police, prosecutors and the public.
The allegation was part of a lawsuit that was the second last week accusing former West Palm Beach, Fla., Bishop Anthony O'Connell of wrongdoing with underage seminarians when he was rector at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo. The suit was filed in Hannibal by an unnamed 34-year-old former student at the seminary. Details were announced at news conferences in suburban St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn.
The suit claims the abuse began in 1982 when the victim was a freshman, and continued for years, even after he graduated from the seminary for high school-aged boys. It seeks unspecified damages, and names O'Connell and the three dioceses where he worked: Jefferson City, Mo.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and West Palm Beach.
The victim canceled plans to appear at the St. Paul news conference, but in a letter read to reporters, he said he decided to come forward after reading of other victims.
"At the age of 15 I lost my voice," he wrote. "It was taken by a man who was supposed to represent and embody the ideals and virtues of Jesus Christ."
O'Connell resigned as bishop March 8, admitting he abused seminarian Christopher Dixon, now 40, in the late 1970s at St. Thomas. On Monday, a 47-year-old Minnesota man filed suit against O'Connell, claiming he was abused starting in the late 1960s. His name also was withheld.
The latest lawsuit takes on a much broader scope, alleging a conspiracy by all U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to keep abuse claims secret in violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The act, known as RICO, is aimed primarily at organized crime but includes provisions for civil cases when someone is harmed by a "pattern" of illegal activity.
"In this case, we have the Catholic Church and the seminary that have been infiltrated by predators who prey on children, and they cover it up," attorney Patrick Noaker said.
Racketeering lawsuits been used in at least two other church abuse cases, but not successfully. A judge dismissed racketeering charges in a case in New Jersey in 1995, while plaintiffs eventually abandoned a similar claim as part of a suit that led to a $30 million settlement against the Diocese of Dallas in 1998.
Noaker alleged that bishops maintain secret files -- he said they are referred to as "Sub Secreto," meaning beyond secret -- concerning priests accused of sexual misconduct.
The church has paid settlements to victims in exchange for silence, and transferred accused priests to other parishes, Noaker said. Often, he said, the priests are sent to other states to make extradition difficult.
"What we have is evidence that the Catholic Church has aided in obstructing and hiding this information from law enforcement agencies," Noaker said.
O'Connell has been in seclusion since his resignation. Officials with the Conference of Catholic Bishops and all three dioceses declined to comment.
Noaker said that in addition to Dixon and the two men who have filed suit, five others have come forward to say that they, too, were abused by priests at St. Thomas. The earliest abuse occurred in 1967, Noaker said.
The man who sued Friday said in a written statement that he decided to come forward after learning of the other allegations against O'Connell.
"For 19 years I allowed this man to silence me, to force me into a life of depression, anger, sorrow, mistrust, but mostly of numbing, empty silence," he said.
The latest suit claims O'Connell pressured the boy into discussing sexual fantasies during counseling sessions, and eventually fondled the teen and had other physical contact on several occasions.
Hannibal police confirmed the accuser contacted detectives Thursday to ask for a criminal investigation.
"Because it's that far back, I doubt if there's much we can," Lt. Lyndell Davis said.
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