A defamation lawsuit filed against a national Catholic organization by a former altar boy whose sexual abuse case was part of a $10 million settlement with the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese is now awaiting a federal appellate court ruling.
The lawsuit, originally filed by Jon David Couzens in Jackson County Circuit Court in 2013, named as defendants 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.
Couzens alleged that Donohue published false statements about him in news releases, on the Catholic League’s website and in documents distributed to churches. The lawsuit also accused the defendants of inflicting emotional distress.
The Catholic League, which is based in New York City and describes itself as the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization, argued that the case belonged in federal court and was successful in its motion to move the lawsuit to U.S. District Court. That court dismissed the lawsuit last year, ruling that the material was first published in New York, where the one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims had expired. Missouri has a two-year statute of limitations.
The court also found that the two KC Catholic League officers — Joe McLiney and James O’Laughlin — did not qualify as defendants. Couzens appealed the decision, asking that the case be returned to Jackson County Circuit Court for trial. The attorneys presented oral arguments on Nov. 15.
“In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, children are often afraid of trolls that are lurking under bridges, going to come out and get them,” Couzens’ attorney, Rebecca Randles, told the three-judge panel. “In today’s society, those trolls lurk on the internet. They skulk for new victims to bully, to harass and to defame from the privacy of their own keyboards. The harm that these trolls can do is immeasurable.”
Randles said the defendants “all engaged in computer hatred of Jon David Couzens, using and spewing messages of hate...”
“William Donohue sent personal poison to the internet, to the Kansas City media, the Kansas City schools, churches, barbershops and everywhere else, decrying Jon David as a liar, an opportunist, and most disgustingly, as a drug-dealing murderer,” Randles said. “That is a complete fabrication.”
Randles said the lower court was wrong in determining that the alleged defamatory statements were first published in New York. When material is published on the internet, she said, it’s impossible to determine where the defamation started. Randles also argued that the lower court had erred in dismissing McLiney and O’Laughlin from the lawsuit. Their local organization, she said, “engaged in re-publication of defamation” from Donohue. And even though the KC Catholic League was later dissolved, Randles said, the two trustees also had been sued as individuals.
Erin Mersino, attorney for Donohue and the Catholic League, referred to the case as a “frivilous lawsuit” and told the judges that her clients “certainly are not the bad guys in any sort of fairy tale and certainly are not internet trolls.”
She said the alleged defamatory statements had been published in New York and that Couzens had been “completely silent” on the issue of where publication occurred.
“There was never anything on record that disputed the fact that these statements were first published in New York City,” she said.
Curtis Roggow, McLiney’s attorney, said the only reference to McLiney and O’Laughlin in the lawsuit was when they were identified as officers of the KC Catholic League.
“There are no other allegations of anything with regard to either of those gentlemen as far as any conduct, any statements, any actions, in the petition,” he said.
Couzens made headlines in 2011 when he filed a lawsuit against the diocese alleging sexual abuse by Monsignor Thomas O’Brien, a priest in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese who had been the subject of more than two dozen sexual abuse lawsuits. Couzens alleged that O’Brien sexually abused him and three other altar boys in the early 1980s at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence. One of the boys, Brian Teeman, 14, died of a gunshot wound at his home in 1983.
Brian Teeman’s parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the diocese in 2011 after Couzens told them of the alleged abuse. The diocese eventually settled with the family for $2.25 million. O’Brien died in 2013 at 87. In 2014, the diocese agreed to a $10 million settlement with Couzens and 29 others who alleged sexual abuse by 13 current and former priests.
Donohue began attacking Couzens’ credibility after The Kansas City Star published a three-day series in early December 2011 that told the story of Couzens and the others who he said were abused. In a news release issued the day The Star’s series ended, Donohue said Couzens’ allegations were a lie and that he was not credible, “especially given the fact that he has been implicated in a murder.” Donohue then cited a 1992 Independence murder case, saying Couzens had fought with the victim “over a botched drug deal” and that although another man was convicted of the murder, it was alleged on appeal that Couzens and two others had motive and opportunity to commit the crime.
Couzens called the allegations “absolutely false” and in his lawsuit said he actually helped bring the perpetrator to justice, even receiving a commendation by the Jackson County prosecutor for being a good citizen.