February 18, 2021
New Orleans This was random. A friend and comrade got it in her mind to memorialize Father Vinnie O’Connell, one of the rare and now vanished labor priests, who could always be counted on to come bless a picket line, union meeting, or for that matter an ACORN action, I should note. She remembered his birthday was around the early part of the year. She was also a fan because Vinnie was an early member of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and even went to their convention. She knew that I knew O’Connell as well, and out of the blue sent me an email, shocked to see Father O’Connell on a list compiled by www.sexabusefirm.com as a known abuser.
We knew him well. We knew he wasn’t perfect. I knew he had red-baited H.L. Mitchell, one of the founders of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) when he later was organizing sugarcane workers and fishermen in Louisiana as a socialist during the Cold War hysteria. It had been a long time ago, and his time with us had always been positive, so I had let it pass. Dave Clohessey, one of the founders of SNAP, the Survivors’ Network Abused by Priests, had been an ACORN organizer and friend. This was unsettling to me. Way too close to home. I read the piece repeatedly. The list of his assignments from his ordination in 1939 to his death in 1999 seemed to match exactly the priest we knew and loved, but how could this be true?
The more I read, the more I was troubled. It didn’t add up. First, Vincent J. O’Connell, our Vinnie, was listed on the site as Vincent A. (J.) O’Connell. Were they unsure of his name? What was up with his initial in parentheses and why was the “A” there? The site said that O’Connell had returned to Ireland and his current status was unknown. Vinnie was long dead these more than twenty years. The site said that the abuse happened in 1970 while O’Connell was assigned to a church in Fresno, California, even as it documented that O’Connell was assigned to a seminary in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1970. The contradictions were stark, but there seemed to be no effort to resolve them.
I ended up on another site. This one was not a law firm trolling for business, but was called www.bishop-accountability.org featuring an alphabetical database of all priests accused. Finding O’Connell, it was Vincent A. O’ Connell, also seemingly a Marist priest, and it had our Vinnie’s picture, but there was more. They described O’Connell and his abuse:
From Ireland. Worked in Nigeria. Visiting priest in Fresno between assignments in 1970. Assigned to St. Anthony of Padua in Fresno. Accused in a 2013 civil suit of manually raping a 16-year-old girl…. Reportedly living in 2013 in a home for the Holy Ghost Fathers in Dublin, Ireland. In 2012, the same woman filed a separate suit against the Archdiocese of San Francisco for not doing anything when told of the abuse in 2003.
Wait a second! Despite the picture, our Vinnie was born and raised in Philadelphia, not Ireland, and besides was long dead in 1999. They were conflating the not uncommon Irish name of Vincent O’Connell with our labor priest and tarnishing his reputation without any due diligence.
Boston College does a better job in celebrating Vinnie as a labor priest with their remembrance. No one’s perfect, and Vinnie would have been the first to point that out, as I heard him do so many times, but his cause was just, and that should be his memorial, not this shoddy smear. Abusive priests need to be brought to justice and their victims made whole. Vinnie would have been on that picket line, I’ll bet, but we need to memorialize the real Vinnie O’Connells that have walked with us arm and arm in our long struggles and defend their reputations, hoping that we will find others join us in common cause in the future.