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The altar boys' secret: No longer alone

After decades of despair, former altar boy comes forward to share stories of alleged abuse with dead youth’s family. At last, there are answers — and a new cause to work for.

Updated: 2011-12-06T19:17:55Z

By JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

Don and Rosemary Teeman were waiting in the parking lot when Jon David Couzens drove up.

Couzens sat in his van, trying to summon the strength to open the door. The Teemans’ son had committed suicide 28 years earlier. The night before last, Couzens had told them that their son was sexually abused by a priest before taking his life.

It was the worst thing he’d ever had to do. But the Teemans wanted to talk more, this time face to face. And they deserved to know everything.

Couzens had been up all night, sick to his stomach, going over and over in his head how this moment would play out. He sat there for 10 minutes, trying to keep from throwing up. It seemed like forever.

He finally climbed out and walked toward their car.

Rosemary Teeman looked at him, then opened the door and got out. They didn’t say a word, just hugged and cried.

Then they all walked to the building together, hand in hand.

As they sat around a large round table in Kansas City, Couzens told them about the abuse that he says he, Brian Teeman and two other altar boys suffered at the hands of Monsignor Thomas O’Brien and about the threat — that if they ever told, they would be kicked out of the church, their parents would disown them and they would go to hell.

As they talked, Brian’s suicide note seemed to make sense to the Teemans for the first time.

When Rosemary found Brian’s body, she found the note that said, “I didn’t want to get yelled at.”

For those 28 years, Don Teeman told Couzens, they had no clue why Brian committed suicide. Eventually, Don just took the blame and decided it had to be something he did.

But in the back of his mind, Don always wondered if something had happened to Brian at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Independence, perhaps involving sports or bullying.

Couzens recalls the emotional reaction of Don’s wife that July day:

“Rosemary stood up and hugged him and just hovered over him and said, ‘Honey, I’m so sorry I blamed you all these years.’ ”

Don replied, “I knew I wasn’t a bad dad.”

Jackie, Brian’s sister, was at the meeting, too. Now married with two children of her own, she heard her parents acknowledge for the first time that Brian committed suicide — that it wasn’t an accident.

“I had a feeling that Brian took his own life, but we never talked about it,” she said.

“As I grew up, I heard pieces about Monsignor O’Brien from all the friends that I was in school with, and I always had a thought about it, like, I wonder if that ever happened to my brother?” she said. “But nobody ever said anything to me about it.”

It took the Teemans a few days for everything to sink in.

“It was painful when we lost him, and now it’s painful knowing why he’s not here with us,” Rosemary says. “We’re going through it all over again.”

•  •  • 

Couzens’ revelations hit another family, too.

Tom Caffrey Sr. was stunned to learn that his stepson, Chuck, was one of the four altar boys Couzens told about.

After leaving Nativity of Mary School, Chuck had lived a troubled life. When his parents split up, he went to live with a grandmother. He struggled with drugs and alcohol.

In the early 1990s, Caffrey learned that Chuck had molested a young relative when he was in junior high at Nativity — the same period that Chuck himself allegedly was being abused. When Chuck committed the abuse, Caffrey said, he would make his victim pray with him afterward.

Caffrey now wonders if his stepson was imitating his own abuse. But he’ll never get the chance to ask.

Chuck died in a crash in Texas in August 2000 when his car rear-ended a slow-moving 18-wheeler. He was 31.

•  •  • 

The man Couzens says was the fourth altar boy told The Star last week that he had no recollection of ever being sexually abused by O’Brien.

“I don’t remember anything like that,” said the man, who was a longtime friend of Brian Teeman. “That just doesn’t sound right. I’ve got to be honest — I’m very curious because I have no memories of that.”

He said, however, that he worked for O’Brien in the rectory and witnessed troubling behavior by the monsignor, including graphic sexual language and pulling boys out of class to take to the rectory.

•  •  • 

Two months after his meeting with the Teemans, Couzens paced nervously outside the diocesan chancery, preparing to speak publicly for the first time about the secret he said he’d kept for decades.

He tearfully greeted the three dozen family members, friends and former Nativity classmates who came to show their support on that sunny Sept. 1 day.

Couzens, hands and voice shaking, announced that he was filing a civil lawsuit against O’Brien and a Conception Abbey monk who Couzens said abused him as a child. The lawsuit also named the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese and Conception Abbey as defendants. A lawyer for the monk and the abbey did not return phone calls seeking a response to the lawsuit.

Five days after Couzens filed his suit, the Teemans stood with him outside the chancery, this time to announce their own lawsuit — a wrongful death case against O’Brien and the diocese.

Dozens of supporters surrounded the Teemans, who clutched photos of their son.

The family was filing the lawsuit, Jackie Teeman said, “to help protect all young children in all schools and churches from any kind of molestation like Brian endured, and to help support all the victims who have come forward and the ones who haven’t.”

Don Teeman told reporters that O’Brien should be defrocked and in prison. That hasn’t happened, he said, because of years of inaction by those who knew what was going on.

The Couzens and Teeman lawsuits allege the diocese was aware of concerns about O’Brien as early as the 1970s.

“If someone would have done something,” Don Teeman said, “maybe my son would be here today.”

•  •  • 

The lawsuits came as the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese was in the midst of a crisis involving its handling of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who was charged in May with possessing child pornography. Those charges sparked several lawsuits against Ratigan and also a new wave of suits against other priests.

In response to the Couzens and Teeman lawsuits, the diocese said it had received a complaint in September 1983 accusing O’Brien of sexual misconduct with a different teenage boy and that O’Brien denied any wrongdoing when confronted. O’Brien was removed from his assignment as pastor of Nativity of Mary parish the following month, the diocese said, and sent for psychological evaluation and treatment in New Mexico and Washington, D.C.

After treatment, O’Brien was allowed to serve as a part-time hospital chaplain until 2002, when then-Bishop Raymond J. Boland restricted him from presenting himself as a priest.

The diocese urged anyone with knowledge of sexual abuse to make a confidential report to its ombudsman and to contact law enforcement authorities.

The two lawsuits also pushed to more than two dozen the number filed against O’Brien in recent years.

O’Brien, 85, has rarely talked to reporters about the recurring accusations — through his lawyer, he has vigorously denied them.

Last week O’Brien told The Star all the allegations were false.

•  •  • 

Despite what’s happened, the Teemans still consider themselves Catholic.

“Once you’re a Catholic, as far as I’m concerned, you’re always a Catholic,” Don Teeman said. “I don’t blame the Catholic religion. I blame the people running it.”

But they stopped attending church regularly years ago — it was just too difficult following Brian’s death, even though they knew nothing about the alleged sex abuse. Now they go mostly for special occasions.

After their news conference, however, Rosemary longed to go to Mass and spend some time in prayer.

“I needed support,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll go to Harrisonville. It’ll be quiet time for me.’ But I could not make myself go in the parking lot of that church.”

The Teemans have two grandsons whom they love to dote on. One is 5, the other 11 — about the age they believe Brian was when the alleged sexual abuse began. Their grandson recently became an altar boy, but they wish the church would do away with the position altogether.

•  •  • 

Couzens had feared he would be ostracized by coming forward. Instead, it’s been the opposite.

Angela Campbell, who attended Nativity with Couzens, went to his news conference to show support.

Brian’s death “was by far the most tragic moment any of us had ever experienced,” she said.

“It was devastating then, and it is even more so to relive it now that we have learned of the deplorable chain of events that led to Brian’s decision to take his own life,” she said. “How could these leaders of the church betray our trust and hurt my friends and our children?”

Even people who have suffered sex abuse by those other than priests have sought Couzens out.

“Jon David has carried a dark, heavy secret for most of his life,” said Teresa Allen, a member of the Baptist church that Couzens attends.

Allen said she had been sexually abused as a child.

“He is a hero, not only for those that have been abused in the name of God but for those like me,” she said of Couzens. “He has given us a voice.”

Couzens said he wants victims to see that it’s OK to talk about their abuse.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “We didn’t ask for it. It’s really not the physical part that hurts so much. It’s the emotional and mental abuse that can kill a person. And I believe that’s what drove Brian to that point.

“I thought I was alone in this for 30 years. Now I encourage people to come forward, let’s talk about it. And let’s get something done.”

•  •  • 

A week before Thanksgiving, Couzens, his mother and the Teemans visited Brian’s grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Raytown.

As she watched her son at the grave, Couzens’ mother said she can’t believe she didn’t see the signs three decades ago.

“How did I miss it?” Angela Couzens said. “I start going over some of those things in my mind, and now they make sense.”

Like Jon David wanting to quit Scouts. Or getting sick at school. Or his angry outbursts.

“It makes me sick every time I think about it,” she said.

As for the guilt, she said, “I can’t even go there.”

“I just feel that as a mother I failed them,” she said. “Parents are supposed to protect their children.”

Blustery winds scattered leaves in every direction. Couzens stood back and watched in silence as Jackie and Rosemary decorated the site with an orange and gold floral arrangement and Don stuck two American flags in the ground.

When they finished, Couzens walked slowly to the grave, knelt and brushed a leaf off Brian’s stone.

And then came the tears. Couzens sobbed so hard his body shook. Jackie put her arm around him, and before long, everyone was hugging and crying.

“Brian doesn’t have a voice,” Couzens said, taking one last look at the grave. “I’ll be his voice.”

To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to jthomas@kcstar.com

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