THE ALTAR BOYS' SECRET | Part 2 of 3

‘I didn’t want to get yelled at. Love, Brian.’

Memories are all that remain for Don and Rosemary Teeman of their son, Brian, an altar boy who committed suicide 28 years ago.

Updated: 2011-12-06T23:13:07Z

By JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

An open box of shells lay on the bed.

A shotgun was on the floor, Brian Teeman’s lifeless body next to it.

His mother, just home from grocery shopping, saw her 14-year-old son through a doorway. Hysterical, she pushed Brian’s younger sister into a corner and ordered her not to move.

Then she rushed into the master bedroom, standing over Brian, still dressed in the dark blue pants, blue button-down shirt and white Nike tennis shoes he’d worn to his Catholic high school.

She spotted a green sticky note on the edge of the white bedspread. She picked it up, hands trembling, and recognized Brian’s handwriting.

All it said was, “I didn’t want to get yelled at. Love, Brian.”

It made no sense.

Rosemary Teeman knew nothing of Brian’s ordeal — that two years earlier, in 1981, Brian and three other altar boys had allegedly been cornered in a church room and molested on several occasions by a priest who warned them not to tell.

Dazed, she shoved the note into the pocket of her trench coat. Then she called her husband, who was working a 12-hour shift at the Hallmark Cards warehouse in Liberty, and the Independence police. She and daughter Jackie, 13, stumbled to their neighbor’s to wait.

As soon as Don got Rosemary’s message, the Vietnam vet sped straight to the emergency room at an Independence hospital, assuming that’s where Brian would be. But they knew nothing about any gunshot victim.

When Don arrived at his house, the police were there, along with their neighbor’s son, who kept him from the door.

“Don, you can’t go in the house.”

“What do you mean I can’t go in the house?”

“The police don’t want you in there.”

After the police left, some friends came and cleaned things up as best they could. The Teemans, numb and heartbroken, returned to the house that night.

Rosemary kept Brian’s note to herself.

“I clutched it in my trench coat all evening,” she said. “I kept it and kept it and was so puzzled, thinking what does this mean? I didn’t know what to do with it. And I eventually threw it in the fireplace.”

The police report said Brian died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Although the Teemans knew Brian had taken his life, they couldn’t accept it. They told everyone the shooting was accidental. And when the medical examiner wrote “suicide” on Brian’s death certificate, an irate Don pressured her to change it to “undetermined.”

“I called and raised hell about it,” Don said. “I said, ‘You have no proof.’ ”

The couple suffered in silence, not even telling Jackie the truth.

“My parents and Rosemary’s parents, they’re all strict Catholics,” Don said. “It would have put a hardship on everybody. I was protecting my son. I didn’t want it out that he’d killed himself.”

Don blamed himself, not only for putting the gun in the bedroom but wondering if maybe he’d pushed Brian too hard to go out for high school sports. Rosemary blamed Don, too, especially for buying that gun.

“The entire blame was on his shoulders,” Rosemary said. “It was very rough.”

Police interviewed Brian’s friends and assistant principal, asking if he’d been acting strange or depressed.

One of the four altar boys, Chuck Caffrey, said he’d talked to Brian after school at Archbishop O’Hara that day. He told police that Brian had mentioned that he didn’t think he had many friends but added that Brian didn’t appear to be too upset about it.

Another of the altar boys told police that Brian had spent the night at his house a few days earlier and seemed fine.

The last altar boy, Jon David Couzens, then an eighth-grader, was horrified to learn of Brian’s death.

“When I got the phone call about Brian saying it was an accident, in my heart I knew it wasn’t,” he said. “I knew the turmoil he was going through, and knowing it just did me in.”

Still, he remained silent, remembering the priest’s threat if they ever told anyone.

“It just kept playing in my head that you’re gonna go to hell and your parents are going to disown you.”

•  •  • 

They sat shoulder to shoulder, row after row, in the wooden pews at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Independence.

Young boys and girls in their dark blue Catholic school uniforms left class to come here, to say goodbye to their friend, their freshman classmate.

Just weeks before, Brian stood at the altar in his all-white robe, cinched at the waist with a braided rope.

Now he was next to the altar in a closed casket wearing the same brown suit bought for his eighth-grade graduation just last spring, his injuries from a shotgun wound too severe to show.

The night before, so many came to the funeral home to pay their respects that the line stretched down the block.

Now about 400 packed the church — at least that’s how many signed the guest book.

One person was missing. Monsignor Thomas O’Brien.

The priest officiating at the service told mourners that O’Brien couldn’t be there because he was too devastated.

Couzens recoiled at the comment. Two years before, Couzens alleged in a 2011 lawsuit, O’Brien had lined Jon David, Brian and two other altar boys against a wall in a closed room and forced them to perform sexual acts on him and themselves.

Couzens now sat at the funeral, not able to look at the other two altar boys who shared the secret.

“I felt like I was in a snow globe, in the spotlight,” he recalls. “I was terrified someone would figure it out.”

•  •  • 

Within days of the funeral, Tom Caffrey Sr. called Independence police. Brian’s death needed to be investigated, he told them.

Caffrey, who had driven Brian in a carpool, had detected a change in the boy. He suspected abuse — he said he had just heard from one of his sons that O’Brien was molesting boys. He’d already met with the bishop, and O’Brien had been sent away for treatment.

Caffrey said a detective came to his restaurant to interview him.

He recalls the detective telling him, “Everything indicated suicide, but we did not have a motive. Now we may have a motive.”

Caffrey never heard from the police again. Brian Teeman’s case file does not contain any reference to an interview with Caffrey or any mention of O’Brien.

The detective’s supervisor, now retired, says he doesn’t remember the case or the accusation.

For his part, O’Brien denies all allegations of sexual abuse.

•   • 

The Teemans, grief-stricken, moved to another house as soon as they could.

“I just couldn’t stay there any more,” Rosemary Teeman said.

Back at the school, Couzens felt like he was suffocating, that the world was closing in on him. He just wanted to forget the shame.

“I avoided people and started getting sick more at school,” he said.

When he got to high school, Couzens destroyed as many painful reminders as he could.

“Anything that said Nativity on it, I got rid of. I threw away my Boy Scout uniform and set my yearbooks on fire.”

By his senior year in high school, Couzens was spiraling further downward, struggling with anger issues and suicidal thoughts.

“Right before my 18th birthday, I sat on the edge of the bed with my dad’s deer rifle in my mouth,” he said. “I had the butt of the gun on the floor, I was leaning over and I had my thumb on the trigger.”

After graduation, he’d become so agitated and moody that his mother suggested he go see a priest at Nativity.

“I sat down and tried to tell him what happened with O’Brien, and he looked at me, real condescending, and said, ‘Well, did you ejaculate?’” Couzens recalled. “I got up and started bawling and ran out. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

Couzens worked for a modeling agency for several years, posing for department store ads and bridal magazines. He became a plumber like his father, joined a Baptist church, went on mission trips.

But over the years, he remained angry, unable to trust.

“I’m Italian,” he said. “I’m supposed to be hugging and kissing and touchy-feely. But I’m just numb.”

•  •  • 

Then came the phone call in June 2011.

His best friend since fifth grade was on the line, crying so hard she could barely talk. She revealed that her daughter, who attended St. Patrick School in the Northland, possibly had been photographed by the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, the Kansas City priest now facing state and federal child pornography charges.

“She was devastated, bawling her eyes out,” Couzens said, tears starting to flow as he recalled the conversation. “She said, ‘When is it going to stop?’

“It just touched too close to home. And I began reliving everything that happened to me and the three other boys.”

That night, Jon David Couzens made a gut-wrenching decision.

It was time to talk.

•  •  • 

Brian Teeman’s sister, Jackie, was driving home from work in Kansas City when she returned the call.

Couzens, her old friend and classmate, had just left her a message. The two hadn’t talked in ages, but had recently reconnected on Facebook.

When he answered, Couzens sounded strange.

“I need to talk to you about something, and it’s going to be painful,” he told her.

Couzens poured out the story about the altar boys.

“I don’t even remember driving home,” Jackie said. “I got home and I called my mom and told her to get Dad on the phone.”

Don Teeman was pulling in the driveway of their rural Cass County home when Rosemary hollered at him.

“Get on the phone! Jackie wants to talk to us. It’s about Brian.”

He grabbed the phone in the shop while Rosemary listened in the house. Moments after they hung up, Don dialed Couzens’ number.

Couzens was sitting on a lawn chair in the garage, his cellphone at hand. He knew the call was coming.

And it scared him to death.

Tuesday: The story continues.

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

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