Former student recounts alleged abuse by Holyoke Catholic High School teacher

  • Holyoke’s Fran O’Connell, seen here in a Holyoke Catholic High School basketball photo from the 1975-76 school year. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A 1976 clipping from the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram shows high school sports star Fran O’Connell. CONTRIBUTED

Staff Writer
Published: 6/9/2021 7:33:06 AM

HOLYOKE — As a freshman at Holyoke Catholic High School in 1974, three-sport athlete Fran O’Connell was already a big name on campus. In a city zealous about its sports, O’Connell had already been promoted to the varsity football and basketball teams. Holyokers recognized him wherever he went.

But O’Connell, now 62, said that it was his new theology teacher, Robert Ellis Hosmer Jr., who showered him with the most attention: buying him gifts, tutoring him, taking him to fancy dinners and teaching him how to be sophisticated. That attention, however, came with a price as Hosmer grew more physical and began isolating the then-14-year-old O’Connell from his family and friends, O’Connell said.

“Because I was tall, big and strong, I legit thought I was in control. I handled bigger guys than him, tougher guys than him. I was not afraid of Bob Hosmer in my mind, but, boy, I should have been,” O’Connell said. “He was giving, giving, giving … But then he would take something.”

O’Connell said at first it was little touches, then hugs. Little kisses on the cheek and neck. Private “I love you’s.” Comments about how O’Connell’s family and friends thought he was a dumb jock and that only Hosmer really knew O’Connell. In between his sophomore and junior years, O’Connell said Hosmer, then in his late 20s, invited him to his home for a fancy dinner complete with wine. O’Connell said that when he got up to leave, Hosmer crossed a line that changed his life forever.

“He started kissing me on the lips and putting his hand under my shirt,” O’Connell, who graduated high school in 1977, recalled in a recent phone interview. “I’m up against the wall and my hands are down on my sides … He went from touching my chest to putting his hand down the front of my pants.”

That moment haunted O’Connell for years, he said. Not long after the incident, O’Connell said he found himself confused and alone, pointing his father’s gun at his head. And though O’Connell said that Hosmer never sexually abused him like that again, he alleged that Hosmer kept him in a toxic and abusive relationship for years after.

O’Connell’s allegations, initially reported by The Republican newspaper, are the first public accusations against Hosmer, who the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield last week included on an updated list of clergy and lay employees “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors. O’Connell said he did tell the diocese and Smith College — where Hosmer worked for decades as a lecturer until recently — about the alleged abuse. Neither institution acted on that knowledge, he said.

Hosmer did not return an email and several voicemails left on Monday afternoon. Nobody answered the door on Monday when a reporter visited the Agawam condominium listed in court documents as Hosmer’s home. A note left on the doorstep of the condo also went unanswered.

O’Connell is not the only person to accuse Hosmer of sexually abusing them as a minor. On its updated list of those accused of abusing minors, the Diocese of Springfield said Hosmer has faced multiple accusations.

Earlier this year, an anonymous John Doe filed a lawsuit against Hosmer, the diocese and former priest Eugene Honan, who served as Holyoke Catholic High School director from 1977 to 1978. The lawsuit alleges that during those two years, Hosmer sexually abused the plaintiff with “unwanted kissing and the touching of the genital area” and that Honan knew about previous sexual abuse by Hosmer and took no action to prevent it.

Hosmer’s lawyer in the case did not respond to a voicemail left at her office Monday. Efforts to reach Honan, who is also included on the diocese’s list for allegedly sexually abusing an adult, were also unsuccessful. His lawyer in the case also did not respond to a voicemail left Tuesday.

O’Connell said that from early on that freshman year, Hosmer made him feel special, sending him on errands to other teachers and buying him tennis equipment to teach him a new sport, for example. He became a “disciple” of Hosmer’s, he said. But he alleged that Hosmer told him to keep their relationship quiet, encouraging O’Connell to hide his gifts and slandering his family, friends and romantic interests as not good enough.

“What’s hard for me looking back, I know he stole the innocence of my developmental years,” O’Connell said. “I always had doubts about everyone I would meet.”

Hosmer planted seeds of doubt about almost everyone in his life, O’Connell said. That included his father, a higher-up in the Holyoke Police Department who eventually served as police chief, and his first wife, whom he met in high school and married at 23. O’Connell said that turned him from a gregarious boy into a “lone wolf,” doing long-term damage to the relationships in his life.

O’Connell said that over the years in his 20s and 30s, he attempted to pry himself away from Hosmer. He ignored Hosmer’s calls and stopped writing to him. But he said Hosmer would always find a way to shame him into meeting up again, escalating his guilt trips until at one point threatening suicide unless O’Connell took his calls.

“How did I let this happen? I know I was 14, and I can forgive myself for that. But in my 20s and my early 30s, I was still in some weird, warped way connected to him,” O’Connell said. He added that only therapists and those who have been abused in the past can understand why he remained in touch with his alleged abuser for so long.

It wasn’t until O’Connell’s father grew ill and began to die in the 1990s that he said he reconnected with him and realized how toxic Hosmer had been to his relationships. He said one of his biggest regrets was failing to tell his father about Hosmer’s abuse the night he allegedly assaulted him. His father would have saved him, O’Connell said.

“All the people that he systematically and intentionally alienated me from are the same people who helped me recover,” he said.

O’Connell, who is now a successful businessman who ran for Holyoke mayor in 2015, said he cut off communication with Hosmer in the late ’90s, but that the angry person he had become ruined his first marriage and left him feeling hollow.

“I was just destroyed emotionally, psychologically,” he said. “I was just not well.”

O’Connell began attending therapy and eventually turned his life around. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he began sending a letter to institutions Hosmer was connected to, informing them of the alleged abuse.

In a 2001 letter to the president of Smith College, where Hosmer was a lecturer from 1989 until 2016, O’Connell said Hosmer had “seduced me into an intimate emotional and physical relationship that continued into my adult life.”

“While teaching at Holyoke Catholic High, Mr. Hosmer took advantage of a position of power and trust and inappropriately violated the innocence of a young boy,” states the letter, written to then-acting president John Connolly and shared with the Gazette. “Since leaving his position at Holyoke Catholic, Mr. Hosmer has unfortunately continued in the teaching profession. His current position at Smith College gives him ample opportunity to engage other vulnerable students for his own personal gain.”

O’Connell, who included his name and telephone number in the letter, said Smith College never interviewed him. In a letter to campus last week, college President Kathleen McCartney Provost and Dean of the Faculty Michael Thurston said the college discovered the letter in Hosmer’s employment records after the diocese informed them of the pending release of its updated list that included the allegation against Hosmer. The college’s legal team at the time advised the college against taking any action, they said.

“Twenty years later, this advice seems anachronistic and irresponsible,” they wrote. “Any allegation of sexual misconduct should have been, as it is now, fully and impartially investigated.”

In an email to the Gazette, Connolly — the acting president when the college received the letter — said he was not comfortable discussing with the press a personnel matter that came to his attention two decades ago. He said he has no access to the files and that his recollections are “at best spotty.”

“What I can say with confidence is the following: that in this case, as in every similar case, we treated the matter seriously and with concern for all those involved, following the law, the advice from legal counsel, and the college policies in effect at the time,” Connolly wrote. “The idea that we should have done something different makes no sense to me.”

O’Connell said he also sat down with a member of Holyoke Catholic High School’s board of trustees around the same time period, tearfully telling him the details of his alleged abuse. He said the trustee — a respected elder in his neighborhood and the church — did not act on that information, and did not speak to O’Connell about the allegations again.

O’Connell, who is now remarried and spending his time between the family farm in New Hampshire and Puerto Rico, said he feels that powerful institutions and people “calculated a win-loss ratio” in deciding whether to help him, ultimately choosing silence over action.

“Not only does it say a lot about the institutions and them individually, it also is a reflection of us as a society,” O’Connell said. “I asked for help, but it was not forthcoming. Why? Because calculations were made.”

O’Connell said he hopes that by sharing his story publicly, he is helping others.

“My goal is shedding light in the dark, getting this out in the open so that people who have been abused, people who have been victims of the collateral damage of people who have been abused, know that they’re not alone,” he said. “And that you can survive something like this.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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