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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Senate panel backs Kavanaugh; Flake requests FBI probe

Christine Blasey Ford speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday in Washington. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Virginia Lawton Boller was questioning her faith.

It was 1973. Boller, then 30, was a year removed from earning her master’s in social work from St. Louis University. She was working for the city health department and decided to attend a retreat put on by the Rev. Daniel O’Connell, who was on SLU’s psychology faculty. Boller had attended a Mass that O’Connell celebrated in a girls’ dormitory from time to time, and had met the Jesuit priest there. At the retreat, during a confession, O’Connell suggested Boller see him for some one-on-one counseling.

The sessions lasted for about a year, until O’Connell was named the president of SLU in 1974. At the end of every session, Boller says, O’Connell would get out from behind his desk, and sit in a rocking chair next to where she had been sitting. He then motioned for her to sit on his lap, and for five minutes or so, he embraced her as they rocked.

“I felt uncomfortable,” she says now. “I immediately knew it was wrong.”

But she didn’t say anything. O’Connell was her priest. He was charming. He was SLU’s rising star.

He would go on to be president of the university, until he was removed in 1978. He went to Georgetown and Fordham and Loyola University of Chicago, where I met him in 1985.

It was two years after an alleged rape of a female student at Loyola’s campus in Rome, but I didn’t know that at the time. The woman would file a lawsuit years later. The Jesuits would settle the case for $181,000, calling the woman’s allegation that O’Connell drugged her and raped her “credible.”

That word, “credible,” is at the center of the national discourse these days, as senators, the FBI and voters weigh the allegation made by a California professor named Christine Blasey Ford that Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominated for the Supreme Court by President Donald Trump, sexually assaulted her at a high school party when she was 15.

Even Kavanaugh’s most vocal critics found Ford’s testimony last week credible.

Boller watched nearly every minute of it. She’s 75 now and living in Chicago with her husband, a former Loyola professor. They are both retired.

She had first told me her story, part of it anyway, more than two years ago after I wrote a column about O’Connell. He and the Jesuits had just settled two lawsuits for more than $200,000 accusing the now-retired priest of abuse. One of them had been a SLU student in the late 1960s, who, like Boller, attended counseling sessions with O’Connell.

At the time we first talked, Boller wasn’t ready to put her name next to her story.

Ford gave her the courage.

“I decided it was time to stop diminishing what happened to me,” Boller told me Monday. “I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t sexually assaulted. But what he did to me was wrong.”

Watching Ford come forward, and the other women who have accused Kavanaugh of wrongdoing, has been an emotional time for Boller and other women like her. Frankly, the entire #MeToo movement of the past couple years has led to constant “triggering” for women who have been abused. Some have told their stories. Others suffer in silence.

Over the years, Boller would Google O’Connell and see what he was up to. She was horrified to find that he was accused of assaulting other women.

In recent days, the desire to tell her story increased as she saw friends of hers on Facebook tell of their own abuse, in reaction to memories recounted by Ford, and by Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick.

For Boller, a full 45 years removed from her interactions with O’Connell, talking about it has been therapeutic.

“It was always in the back of my mind,” she says. “It didn’t cause much trauma, but it was always there. It bothered me.”

The last time I talked to O’Connell was in 2002. I was writing about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and asked my former mentor for guidance on the topic, without knowing that he was caught up in the scandal. He talked to me about the value of touch, a tap on the shoulder, a hug, perhaps.

“These things are important,” he said. “But they must be balanced.”

O’Connell couldn’t be reached for this column. Through his attorneys, he has previously denied the allegations made against him.

Boller still has a book the priest gave her during their therapy. It’s called “Please Touch” and is a guide to a type of therapy popular in the ’60s and ’70s called the human potential movement.

She read the book recently, and based on her own professional training shuddered at the thought of its advocacy by a priest who for years preyed on young women.

It took the strength of other women talking about their decades-old abuse to help Boller find her voice. Whether Kavanaugh is elevated to the high court or not — she hopes not — this powerful moment in history has encouraged other women to do the same.

“It’s something that is beneath the surface for a lot of people, but it eats at them,” Boller says. “It feels good to talk about it. It feels right.”

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