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Former altar boy sues national Catholic group, alleges defamation

Updated: 2013-12-10T00:09:41Z

By JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

A former altar boy whose case prompted a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese that resulted in a $2.25 million settlement is suing a national Catholic organization, alleging defamation and invasion of privacy.

Jon David Couzens filed the lawsuit against the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; its president and CEO, Bill Donohue; the KC Catholic League; and two Kansas City men who were officers of the now-dissolved local organization.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Jackson County Circuit Court, alleges that Donohue published false statements about Couzens in news releases, on the Catholic League’s website and in documents distributed to churches. In those statements, Donohue said that Couzens had been involved in a botched drug deal and implicated in a murder.

“It’s a very sad thing that William Donohue and the Catholic League are attacking those who the priesthood has already abused,” Couzens said in a statement. “I now understand why other victims don’t come forward. The things said about me are so cruel and offensive they cut to the core of my being.

“… Abuse — all forms of abuse — has to stop.”

Couzens’ lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, also accuses the defendants of inflicting emotional distress.

The Catholic League, based in New York City, describes itself as the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization. Don Lauer, the Catholic League’s senior policy analyst, told The Star in an email Monday that there would be no immediate response to the lawsuit.

Donohue began issuing statements attacking Couzens’ credibility after The Kansas City Star published a three-day series in early December 2011. “The Altar Boys’ Secret” told the story of Couzens and three other altar boys whom Couzens said were sexually abused in the early 1980s by Monsignor Thomas O’Brien at Nativity of Mary in Independence. One of the boys, Brian Teeman, 14, died of a gunshot wound at his home in November 1983.

Brian Teeman’s parents sued the diocese in September 2011 after Couzens told them of the alleged abuse. The lawsuit alleged that Brian took his life because of repeated sexual abuse by O’Brien.

In a news release issued the day The Star’s series ended, Donohue said Couzens’ story about the abuse was a lie and that Couzens was not credible, “especially given the fact that he has been implicated in a murder.” Donohue then cited a 1992 murder case in Independence, saying Couzens had gotten in a fight with the victim “over a botched drug deal” and that although another man was convicted of the crime, it was alleged on appeal that Couzens and two others had motive and opportunity to commit the murder.

Couzens’ lawsuit says Dohonue’s allegations are “absolutely false.” Couzens had no involvement in the murder, it says, and actually helped bring the perpetrator to justice — even receiving a commendation by the Jackson County prosecutor for being a good citizen.

Donohue’s statements “not only painted Couzens as a drug-abusing murderer, but also indicated that he was a Catholic-hating bigot,” the lawsuit says. “These words were intended to incite and inflame individuals to confront Couzens.”

Donohue’s allegations have remained posted on the Catholic League website and the KC Catholic League website, the lawsuit says.

The two other individuals named as defendants are Joe McLiney and James O’Laughlin, whom the lawsuit says were officers of the KC Catholic League.

O’Laughlin, president of the Catholic Radio Network and KEXS radio, told The Star on Monday that he wasn’t aware of the lawsuit. He said he wasn’t sure whether the KC Catholic League was still in operation.

McLiney said the KC Catholic League no longer existed. “It was a short-term deal,” he said.

He said the group had no affiliation with Donohue’s Catholic League.

Of the lawsuit, he said: “I’m sorry that it’s taking place. All we did was forward information.”

Couzens’ story made headlines in 2011 when he filed a lawsuit against the diocese alleging sexual abuse by O’Brien. That lawsuit is scheduled for trial in April.

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

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