In the months since passage of New York’s Child Victims Act, advertisements from plaintiffs’ attorneys have appeared frequently in local print and broadcast media.
Among those typically listed and/or depicted in such ads is Robert F. O’Neill, who was removed from priestly ministry in 2002 and died in 2005. Since 2012, the Diocese of Rochester has listed him among 23 clergy and former clergy against whom proven or acknowledged allegations of child sexual abuse have been resolved since 2002.
But advertisements are only one tool being used by attorneys who specialize in clergy sex-abuse cases.
Don Smith, diocesan coordinator of sacramental catechesis and family life, recently received a letter at his suburban Chili home from a pair of law firms with offices in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho; St. Louis Park, Minn.; and New York City. A haunting 1970s-era portrait of O’Neill appeared on the back of the envelope and on the letter inside, which explained that the firms obtained Smith’s name “from records relating to Gates Chili High School, located in Rochester, New York.”
O’Neill served as administrator and later pastor of St. Christopher Church in North Chili from 1998-2001. But Smith said he never encountered O’Neill there — or anywhere else.
“I grew up an hour and a half away from Gates Chili in Montezuma (Cayuga County),” said Smith, who noted he has only lived in Chili for five years.
“Before I opened it, I wondered why I was getting a letter from a law firm addressed to ‘Don’ rather than ‘Donald,’” said Smith, who noted he is careful to use his full name in legal contexts because his last name is so common. “Also, I was shocked by the picture on the back. Then I read the letter, and it was pure confusion because I didn’t know who this man was and I have no connection to Gates Chili in any form.”
Coincidentally, he said, the previous owners of his house also were named Smith and were approximately the age of his parents. “So it’s possible their children were in the Gates Chili (school) system, but none of their children was named Don.”
Smith said he had never heard of O’Neill prior to receiving the letter. “All news of him (being removed from ministry in 2002) would have been happening when I was in college at St. Bonaventure, in another diocese.”
He noted that the form letter concluded with an apology to the recipient if he or she has no affiliation with Gates Chili High School or O’Neill. “So that makes me wonder about how careful they were about their mailing list,” Smith said.
“It struck me as questionable that blanket letters were going out in such a way,” he added. “As a person in ministry, one of my immediate reactions was to put myself in the victims’ shoes. I cannot imagine the pain a victim must feel getting a letter with their abuser’s picture printed on the back.”