The Rev. Michael O'Connell has gotten plenty of public acknowledgment for launching the Basilica Block Party, a concert designed to raise awareness and money for the Basilica of St. Mary that in the process has turned into an annual musical highlight.
Now he's finally getting accolades for something he did in private. On Sunday afternoon at the basilica, he will receive a Priest of Integrity award for leading the charge in dealing with clergy sexual abuse issues, not only in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis but also nationwide.
"It was through his efforts that this archdiocese was one of the first to have a policy on education of all church leaders as well as clear steps for reporting any abuse," said the Twin Cities chapter of the Voice of the Faithful, a Roman Catholic lay group, in nominating O'Connell for the award. "Had other dioceses moved as quickly and openly, perhaps the abuse would have been mitigated much sooner than it was."
O'Connell calls the abuse problem "one the most serious issues the Catholic Church has faced, perhaps the most serious one it its history." But any discussion of the program he launched is quickly steered away from himself and toward others who were and still are involved in the program. He calls himself a "figurehead," although he's still not convinced that that merits getting an award.
"I caught him at a weak moment," said the Rev. Tom Power. "I told him, 'Michael, a lot of people don't know about your hidden ministry.' He worked behind the scenes to create a new system for how we deal with the victims, how we set up a reporting system and how we train the clergy and set boundaries for what's acceptable."
They struck a deal: O'Connell will be at the basilica at 1:30 p.m. for the ceremony, but he won't give a speech. The speaking duties will be handled by Judge Michael Merz, chairman of the National Review Board, an arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Given his druthers, O'Connell, 67, would just as soon spend Sunday afternoon sitting outside, preferably by a lake, enjoying the fresh air while reading. Then again, given his druthers, he would rather not have spearheaded the sex abuse mission in the first place.
"It wasn't the job I signed up for," he acknowledged in an interview at the Church of Ascension in north Minneapolis, where he is serving as pastor since retiring as the rector of the basilica last year. "In June of 1984, I was appointed by Archbishop [John] Roach to be the Moderator of the Curia, which sounds like a title made up by Gilbert & Sullivan. It basically means that I was the chief operating officer for the archdiocese. On July 1, the first clergy sex abuse lawsuit was filed. Archbishop Roach handed it to me and said, 'Look into this.'"
Steep learning curve
Many of his reflections about what followed embrace the "if we only knew then what we know now" theme.
"We were doing everything by the seat of our pants," he said. "As we progressed into the 1980s, the most important thing we came to know was how much we didn't know."
He eventually realized that he was looking at the tips of two icebergs. One was the extent of the abuse: "We had no idea of the depth or breadth of the problem," he said. The other was "the depth of the pathology. The scientific thinking at the time was that this was like any other addiction, that a person could be rehabilitated and then go back to whatever they were doing so long as someone checked on them every now and then.
"Of course, that turned out to be completely wrong; this isn't like other addictions. There's no way we would have returned these priests to service if we had known that they still posed a danger."
He was also blindsided by an offhand remark by a St. Paul detective. It opened his eyes to the fact that this wasn't just an internal issue for the church.
"He said something about how the seminary didn't train us to investigate crimes, and that's when it hit me," he said. "We had been thinking about it in moral terms. We would sanction the priest and say, 'You must go on a retreat and reflect on your behavior, seek counseling and do penance.' We hadn't thought about the fact that it was a felony."
From that point on, every time O'Connell got a report about abuse, he immediately notified police.
Support from the top
The aggressive approach was fully supported by Roach, he said.
"I was very lucky in that I had an excellent relationship with the archbishop," O'Connell said. "He wanted to know the truth. I heard from some of the people who had my job in other dioceses whose bishops would say, 'Oh, no, here comes more bad news' every time they showed up. Those bishops didn't want to know everything. But Archbishop Roach did. We'd close the door to his office at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and I would tell him what I had heard and whom I was investigating.
In 1991, O'Connell was assigned to the Basilica of St. Mary. The seven years of investigating abuse charges had taken a toll on him.
"I was having chronic back pain," he said. "The orthopedists were recommending surgery. Then I took the job at the basilica, and I haven't had a single problem with my back since."
Not that life at the basilica was all roses, but he was able to put it into perspective.
"I arrived at the basilica in August of 1991 and was told that I had to immediately raise $6 million, a number that soon went up to $10 million," he said. "And I thought, compared to what I've been doing, this is going to be a piece of cake."
After all, he'd heard from a former seminary classmate who had just let a rock band repay a debt to his Chicago church by holding a concert. Maybe if they tried something like that at the basilica. ...
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392