Part 1 of 3

The altar boys’ secret

Four young lives, innocence lost. One priest, later sent for treatment. Decades of silence and secrets. And finally, revelations as a 30-year mystery unravels.

Updated: 2011-12-06T23:14:44Z

By JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

The four boys left first-hour class early and headed over to church.

For the next hour they would be serving morning Mass at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Independence — an honorable assignment that filled their parents with pride.

The boys wanted everything to be just right.

They dutifully pulled the paper-thin communion wafers from the refrigerator and arranged them in a brass bowl, poured the red wine into crystal pitchers and draped the cloth over a large gold chalice.

They worked in silence, their motions second nature by this time.

Then footsteps, dress shoes clacking down the stairs leading to the sacristy.

Monsignor walked in, dressed in his usual black pants and shirt, clerical collar and dark cardigan. Without a word, he closed the door and kicked a wooden wedge underneath.

Jon David Couzens, a sixth-grader and the youngest of the four, got a knot in his stomach.

What he says happened next has haunted him for decades.

Monsignor backed the four altar boys up against the wall, shoulder to shoulder. Then he forced them to perform sexual acts on each other and on him.

When it was over, just minutes before Mass was to begin, he issued a warning.

“If you ever tell,” he said, his gruff voice booming in the long, narrow room, “you’ll be kicked out of the Catholic Church, your parents will disown you, and you’ll die and go to hell.”

For 30 years, no one breathed a word.

•  •  • 

Some secrets, with no one to give them voice, stay buried for a lifetime.

In the years following that day in 1981, two of the altar boys died young, splintering lives and families in the aftermath. For decades, Jon David Couzens, the youngest altar boy, kept a tortured silence.

And then earlier this year, all of the vivid memories and the indignation were stirred up again when the local diocese came under fire in the wake of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan’s indictment on child pornography charges. Couzens realized that if he didn’t speak out, the story would never be told — and no one would truly understand what he says happened to him, Brian Teeman and Chuck Caffrey.

The fourth altar boy in Couzens’ account says he has no memory of the incident.

For Couzens, the decision was still difficult. In coming forward, he would open old wounds and forever change the perspectives of two grieving families. But on Sept. 1 this year, Couzens — now a 41-year-old Kansas City-area plumber — filed a lawsuit against Monsignor Thomas O’Brien.

Today, Couzens suddenly finds himself at the heart of a network of others who seek him out because they too say they suffered sex abuse as children. And he finds that he can help.

O’Brien, named in more than two dozen lawsuits in recent years, denies Couzens’ allegations.

Now 85, O’Brien says he does not remember Couzens or the other altar boys.

“This is all 30 years ago,” he told The Kansas City Star. “There’s just no truth to any of these things.

“Is there any end to this? It’s just killing me.”

•  •  • 

Jon David Couzens had always wanted to be an altar boy.

Born in 1970 and raised in a devout Catholic family, he was the youngest of three children and attended first through eighth grade at Nativity of Mary School. His wholesome good looks — and those piercing blue eyes — made him stand out, classmates recall.

Like most Catholic children, Jon David, as everyone called him, was taught that priests were men of God. Parents trusted the priests with their children and considered it an honor if Father stopped by for a visit or accepted an invitation to dinner. Back then, it was unthinkable to hear the words “priest” and “sex abuse” in the same sentence.

But for Couzens, that image shattered when he was 9.

He says a relative who was a priest started dropping by the house more often, and eventually was taking Jon David for drives. On one Saturday afternoon, they drove to St. Aloysius Catholic Church at 11th Street and Prospect Avenue in Kansas City.

“He fondled me and had me fondle him,” Couzens recalls. “I was petrified.”

Something about those visits didn’t feel right to his mother, and she put an end to them. But then Couzens met O’Brien.

The monsignor, though not yet assigned to Nativity, often came around the church, sometimes filling in for another priest. One day, he asked Couzens, then 10, to help move some heavy items at the rectory. Couzens said when he sat down to rest on the edge of the bed, the monsignor placed his hand on Couzens’ private parts.

“You’re doing a good thing,” Couzens recalls O’Brien saying. “God’s going to bless you.”

The incidents became more and more frequent — in the sacristy, in the confessional, at the rectory, even at Scouting events.

The church sponsored Boy Scout Troop 178, and although O’Brien wasn’t a leader, he attended troop functions, Couzens says.

One weekend camping trip still makes him shudder.

“O’Brien showed up at the campout,” Couzens says. “And sure enough, he came into the little cabin when the other boys had sneaked out, and he got me that night. I peed the cot, and I was so ashamed and embarrassed because all the boys were going to make fun of me.”

Couzens was late for breakfast the next morning, crying and begging the Scoutmaster to call his mom. She made the 2½-hour trip and spent the day with him. When it was time for her to leave, he grabbed her legs and wouldn’t let go.

“I was just sobbing, ‘Please take me home! Please take me with you!’ But she didn’t want the other boys to call me a puss, so she made me stay. She thought she was doing the right thing.”

Some days, Couzens said, he couldn’t face going to school, afraid of running into O’Brien.

“I would go get a thermometer and stick it under my lamp and then tell my mom I had a fever so I wouldn’t have to go,” he said. “It was that bad.”

•  •  • 

Couzens didn’t know it, but stories had been circulating about O’Brien for years.

At St. Elizabeth Parish in Kansas City, O’Brien’s previous assignment, O’Brien and his friend, the Rev. Thomas Reardon, had become known as the “party priests.” Several boys later alleged in lawsuits and interviews that the priests sponsored get-togethers where alcohol was served to their teenage guests, let boys drive their cars, left dirty magazines around the rectory for them to read and talked about sex in graphic terms.

The priests used their positions of power to prey on teenage boys, getting them drunk, masturbating in front them and in some cases sexually abusing them, the victims alleged.

Years later, some of those victims joined a lawsuit that included 10 other priests. The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese settled with the 47 plaintiffs in 2008 for $10 million.

Some parents and at least two victims said they complained about O’Brien to Catholic officials during the 1970s, but received no help. The diocese said last week those conversations took place between specific people, and that those people could comment better than the diocese.

The diocese had revealed in 2002 that it had received five separate complaints accusing O’Brien of sexually abusing minors. The allegations first surfaced in 1983, the diocese said, and all involved claims of “inappropriate touching” of teenage boys. O’Brien was sent for residential psychiatric treatment from October 1983 until June 1984 and also was treated for alcoholism, the diocese said. Upon his return, O’Brien was assigned as a chaplain at St. Joseph Health Center, where he served until retiring in 2002. In announcing his retirement, the diocese said that O’Brien was no longer allowed to present himself as a priest.

In May this year, allegations about another priest touched off an explosion of new lawsuits and even criminal charges.

Ratigan was charged with possession of child pornography after disturbing pictures were discovered on his laptop computer. The diocese responded by implementing a five-point plan that included hiring an independent ombudsman and commissioning an internal investigation to address the concerns. Even so, a grand jury later indicted Bishop Robert Finn and the diocese for failing to report suspected child abuse in the Ratigan case, making Finn the highest-ranking Catholic official in the nation to face criminal prosecution for his handling of a child sex-abuse case.

Couzens filed his lawsuit in September, one of more than 20 that have been filed against several priests since Ratigan’s arrest. He named both O’Brien and the diocese as defendants.

The diocese responded to the lawsuit by detailing O’Brien’s history and urging anyone with information about the sexual abuse of a child to report it to law enforcement and the diocese’s ombudsman.

Last week, the diocese appointed a director of child and youth protection, a new position created to ensure the diocese is following its policies on protecting children.

•  •  • 

Couzens said the four altar boys were trapped by O’Brien three times in the church sacristy in the early 1980s. He recalls the first incident in detail, even three decades later.

“It was like in slow motion,” Couzens said. “When the door closed, it echoed forever and ever. Then it was eerie quiet.”

The boys didn’t look up.

“We just kept doing what we were doing,” Couzens said. “I just froze and was screaming on the inside.”

The altar boys’ robes were hanging on a long pole along the wall, and with a sweep of his hand, Couzens said, the monsignor pushed them aside.

“Then he shoved us all by our shoulders with our backs against the wall, and he made us drop our pants and he dropped his and made us do things to each other and then do things to him,” Couzens said. “No emotions. Like that was the way it was supposed to be done.

“We just looked straight ahead and tried to zone it out, just waiting for it to be over.”

Afterward, Couzens said, the monsignor issued his warning about what would happen if they told.

“Why would a boy not believe that, coming from a priest?” Couzens said.

He said O’Brien then ordered the shell-shocked boys to get dressed, put on their robes and help serve Mass to their teachers and classmates.

“We were like zombies,” Couzens said. “After Mass, we went back to class. I remember getting sick and going to the office. I had to call my mom at work to come and get me.”

The boys, he said, heeded O’Brien’s warning.

“We never talked about it. Never spoke a word.”

•  •  • 

Indeed, the stepfather of one altar boy, Chuck Caffrey, was actually more concerned about a different son.

In 1982, Tom Caffrey Sr. decided it was time to have a visit with Tom Jr.

For years, he’d heard talk about O’Brien being a little too friendly with the boys. Now, Tom Jr. was an eighth-grader at Nativity, and he’d been hanging around the church a lot lately, running errands for Monsignor O’Brien.

Caffrey summoned Tom Jr. for a chat.

“Look, if there’s anything you need to talk about, come to me and we’ll deal with it,” he said.

But he had no suspicions that it was Chuck who already had been abused.

Then, in the fall of 1983, Tom Jr. approached his father.

“Monsignor’s weird.”

“What do you mean?”

Tom Jr. told his dad he was being sexually abused.

Shaken, Caffrey said he told another priest at Nativity after Sunday Mass. The next day, the priest stopped by the High Boy restaurant that Caffrey ran to tell him he had an appointment that Friday with Bishop John J. Sullivan.

“I met with Bishop Sullivan, the attorney for the diocese, and the chancellor,” Caffrey said. “About 10 days after my meeting, Monsignor O’Brien announced from the altar that he was taking a sabbatical. He said, ‘I’m so happy. I’ve wanted to do this for so long.’ ”

At the time, Caffrey had been driving a carpool that included Tom Jr. and two altar boys, Chuck Caffrey and Brian Teeman.

“He was real nice, clean-cut,” Caffrey said of Brian.

Yet something seemed amiss. Over the next two months, Caffrey said, he noticed a change in the boy.

He could watch Brian in the rearview mirror.

“Brian would sit there and look up at me very longingly,” Caffrey said. “I kept thinking, ‘This young man wants to talk to me about something.’ But I really didn’t know what to do, how to handle it. I wasn’t but much of a kid myself.”

•  •  • 

Brian Teeman’s parents, Don and Rosemary, hadn’t heard the talk about O’Brien. And Brian never spoke about Monsignor.

“We never suspected anything,” Don Teeman said. “You didn’t ask about a priest’s history. Especially 28 years ago.”

The Teemans were devoted parents who worked hard — Don at the Hallmark Cards distribution center, Rosemary at Western Electric — so they could afford to send Brian and his younger sister, Jackie, to Catholic schools. They were pleased that Brian was spending time at the church and had continued to be an altar boy after entering Archbishop O’Hara High School — something many other boys his age had stopped doing.

“He was a freshman in high school and he was up there serving Mass,” Don Teeman said. “Most kids would say, ‘I’m above this now. ’ ”

Brian was a “perfect gentleman,” his friends and family say. He was tall — 5 foot 9 at age 14 — and he loved sports, especially basketball, baseball and skiing. Brian also liked to hunt, which he and his dad often did together.

“He was good at whatever he did,” Don Teeman said. “He wasn’t the best in the class, he wasn’t the smartest, but he had good grades, and I never, ever heard him say a bad word.

“I used to kid him. I’d say, ‘I think you’d make a good priest.’ ”

At the start of Brian’s freshman year, his parents noticed something.

“He isolated himself from us,” Rosemary said. “He was quiet, stayed in his room.”

They figured it had something to do with the transition from Nativity to O’Hara, a much bigger school.

•  •  • 

Nov. 1, 1983, was one of those cold, dreary, rainy fall days. Perfect hunting weather. It was opening day of quail season, and Don and Brian planned to go that weekend. A few days earlier, Don had bought Brian a 20-gauge Springfield shotgun from a neighbor.

“I said, ‘That would make my son a good little safe gun.’ That’s what you want them to start out with,” Don Teeman said.

Brian was waiting outside when sister Jackie got home from school, locked out of the house. She had the key with her that day because he had planned on going to basketball tryouts after school.

The two went inside, and Brian headed to his room to get started on homework.

Around 4:30 p.m., their mother told the kids they needed to run to the grocery store.

“Mom, I don’t want to go,” Brian said.

“Come on, we won’t be that long. We’re just going to pick up a few things.”

“I don’t want to go, Mom. You go.”

“OK, Jackie, let’s go.”

Rosemary and Jackie came home an hour later. As they turned in the driveway, Rosemary noticed that the light was on in the master bedroom.

“Why would Brian be in our bedroom?” she thought. “The kids never go in our bedroom.”

She and Jackie unloaded the car, unlocked the front door of their one-story wood frame house and stepped inside.

Rosemary looked toward the bedroom and screamed. The groceries crashed in a heap on the floor.

Monday: The story continues.

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

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