``I am truly deeply sorry for the pain, hurt, anger and confusion I have caused,'' said the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell, bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach. ``I've been loved since I entered this diocese, far more than anyone should be loved.''
O'Connell, 63, admitted to the allegations leveled by Christopher Dixon, his former student at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo. O'Connell was the rector there at the time.
Dixon, now 40, said they touched inappropriately in bed after he sought out O'Connell for counseling. Dixon said the abuse began when he was in the ninth grade and continued through the 12th grade.
``For those who will be angry, I certainly ask, when the time is right, that they pray for my forgiveness,'' O'Connell said.
Asked whether he had been involved with any other youngsters, O'Connell said there could be ``one other person of a somewhat similar situation, in a somewhat similar time frame.'' He would not elaborate.
The nation's latest and biggest sex-abuse scandal involving priests began in the Archdiocese of Boston, where Cardinal Bernard Law admitted that a former priest molested children for years but was shuttled from parish to parish anyway. More than 130 people have come forward to say the defrocked priest, John Geoghan, abused them.
Since January, when the Boston case gained national attention, dozens of priests out of more than 47,000 nationwide have been suspended or forced to resign, and priests' names have been turned over to prosecutors.
O'Connell, who has been a priest for 38 years, was bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., before coming to Palm Beach in 1999. He succeeded J. Keith Symons, the first U.S. bishop to resign because of sexual involvement with boys.
After that scandal, Florida's bishops began background checks for all clergy, lay employees and volunteers who work with children, elderly and disabled people.
O'Connell said he failed to tell his superiors about the relationship when he was asked to replace Symons. ``It should have come up from myself,'' he said.
O'Connell's admission came only hours after Florida's bishops issued a statement calling sexual abuse ``both criminal and sinful'' and assuring their 2.2 million followers that the church has procedures to deal with such allegations.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests in St. Louis, called O'Connell's disclosure ``one more painful reminder that an enormous gap exists between the church's wonderful, flowery words and its leaders' terrible deeds.''
O'Connell offered his resignation to the pope's top representative in the United States. No one was available to comment at the papal nuncio in Washington.
O'Connell's admission was first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The Jefferson City, Mo., Diocese paid Dixon $125,000 in a 1996 settlement, and he promised not to pursue further claims against the diocese, O'Connell and two other priests. The diocese did not admit any wrongdoing by Dixon.
The other priests are the Rev. Manus Daly, who allegedly abused Dixon at the seminary, and the Rev. John Fischer, who allegedly began abusing Dixon at a Catholic school when he was 11. Daly was removed from a Marceline, Mo., church this week and Fischer was removed from the priesthood in 1993 after allegations involving other children.
Dixon said he thought he could trust O'Connell when he told him about the abuse from Fischer. ``But under the guise of trying to help me come to terms with my own body, he ultimately took me to bed with him,'' Dixon said.
Dixon himself was a priest for five years before he was diagnosed with depression in 1995. He said the depression came after he was assigned to work at the Hannibal seminary under Daly - a move that brought back memories of abuse. He later left the priesthood.
``I had a wonderful way of burying the impact it had on me, emotionally and psychologically,'' Dixon said Friday. When it resurfaced, ``I was either going to kill myself or get help.''
O'Connell is not the highest-ranking clergyman felled by a sex scandal.
In 1993, Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe, N.M., resigned over his involvement with several women, some of them teen-agers. Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta and Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann of Santa Rosa, Calif., resigned after sex scandals involving adults.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago was accused of abuse in a 1993 lawsuit, but the accuser later recanted.