The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese was told repeatedly since the 1970s that Monsignor Thomas O’Brien was a danger to children but failed to prevent him from sexually abusing a former altar boy, his lawyer told jurors Monday.
Though no amount of money could make up for what happened to Jon David Couzens, attorney Rebecca Randles said, $10 million in compensatory damages plus punitive damages would be fitting.
But lawyers for the diocese told jurors that no credible evidence existed to prove Couzens’ allegation that the diocese — basically then-Bishop John J. Sullivan — knew of O’Brien’s alleged actions and that Couzens’ claims of repressed memory were invalid.
The lawyers gave their opening statements as the first case alleging sexual abuse of a minor by a priest to go before a jury in the Kansas City area got underway in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence.
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The trial stems from a civil lawsuit filed in 2011 by Couzens, who alleges that O’Brien sexually abused him and three other youths in the early 1980s when they were serving as altar boys at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence. Couzens, now 44, says that the diocese intentionally failed to supervise O’Brien, leading to repeated sexual abuse.
The trial is expected to last 10 days. O’Brien, who has been the subject of dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits, was named as a co-defendant in the case but was dismissed after his death in October 2013. He was 87.
Randles told jurors that Couzens was from a devout Catholic family, “the kind of boy that teachers love in their class...He was a pleaser. He wanted to do what he was told to do.”
She said O’Brien took advantage of that trait and ultimately sexually abused Couzens on more than 20 occasions, including in the rectory and in the confessional.
“During that time he would tell Jon David that he was doing a good thing — this was God’s will,” Randles said.
Randles told jurors that they would hear several witnesses, including the former Nativity principal, tell of how they reported concerns to the diocese about O’Brien sexually abusing boys, but the diocese did nothing.
“The diocese intentionally failed to supervise Monsignor O’Brien,” Randles told jurors. “We believe the evidence will show that Jon David Couzens was shattered as a result of that abuse and is still putting himself back together.”
Diocesan attorney David Frye told jurors, however, that they were not there to bring a priest to justice. This case, he said, is not about the Vatican, the Catholic church, or whether Couzens was sexually abused.
The trial is like an employment case against the diocese, he said. The key points, he said, were whether Sullivan knew O’Brien would abuse and whether Sullivan chose to let sexual abuse occur by intentionally failing to supervise O’Brien.
Frye said the diocese had only one report of O’Brien sexually abusing a minor. That was in 1983, he said, and Sullivan, who died in 2001, dealt with it immediately.
“When receiving the one and only report about sexual abuse with minors, he acted immediately, he acted appropriately,” he said.
The testimony from many of Couzens’ witnesses, Frye told jurors, “will not be consistent, it will not be corroborated and it will not be credible.”
Jurors heard from three witnesses Monday, including Danny Park, who worked for O’Brien in the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in sixth through eighth grade. He told of repeatedly hearing O’Brien make inappropriate and sexually offensive comments to boys and said O’Brien and another priest bragged about taking boys to Lake Viking with them.
He said the summer of his eighth grade year, he and a friend called Bishop Sullivan to report that O’Brien was molesting boys. He said he talked briefly to Sullivan but hung up before giving his name. Later, when he was a junior in high school, Park said he reported O’Brien to the dean of St. John’s Minor Seminary.
“I thought something would actually happen,” he said. But it never did.
To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.