Faith

At civil trial, a former altar boy disputes Jon David Couzens’ account of priest’s sexual abuse

Jon David Couzens’ lawsuit alleges that the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was told repeatedly that Monsignor Thomas O’Brien was a danger to children but failed to prevent the abuse.
Jon David Couzens’ lawsuit alleges that the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was told repeatedly that Monsignor Thomas O’Brien was a danger to children but failed to prevent the abuse. The Kansas City Star

A former altar boy took the stand Friday and disputed Jon David Couzens’ allegations of sexual abuse by Monsignor Thomas O’Brien three decades ago.

Jeff Barlow told Jackson County jurors that Couzens’ claims that O’Brien sexually abused four altar boys, including Barlow, as a group in the early 1980s at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence were false.

“With God as my witness and without a doubt,” Barlow told jurors on the 10th day of a high-profile trial involving a civil suit filed by Couzens, “I was never abused.”

However, some of Barlow’s testimony Friday in response to other questions contradicted what he told The Kansas City Star in two recorded phone calls three years ago.

Most notably, when asked Friday whether he knew of any instances in which O’Brien exhibited inappropriate behavior with boys, he told jurors, “Absolutely not.”

But he told The Star in a recorded interview in 2011 that he “absolutely” witnessed inappropriate behavior by O’Brien. In a second phone call, he said O’Brien was a “pedophile” and a “sicko,” and that it was very possible O’Brien could have done something to Couzens and another altar boy.

Barlow also took The Star to task in court, saying stories it published in 2011 about the altar boys angered him, although he said in a phone call after publication that it was a “fine story.”

The account of Couzens and the other altar boys was told in a three-day series called “The Altar Boys’ Secret.”

One of the boys, 14-year-old Brian Teeman, died of a gunshot wound at his home in November 1983. His parents, Don and Rosemary Teeman, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in September 2011 after Couzens told them of the alleged abuse. Their lawsuit contended that Brian took his life because of repeated sexual abuse by O’Brien.

The diocese settled with the Teemans in July 2013 for $2.25 million. Another altar boy died in a car crash in 2000.

Couzens’ lawsuit alleges that the diocese was told repeatedly that O’Brien was a danger to children but failed to prevent the abuse. O’Brien died in October 2013 at age 87.

Couzens testified last week that on three occasions, O’Brien made the four altar boys perform sex acts on each other and on him in the sacristy prior to Mass.

Barlow adamantly denied Friday in court that such a scenario could have happened.

“This idea that in this short period of time you’re going to molest four boys, swear them to secrecy and then walk into Mass is ridiculous,” he said.

Barlow told jurors that O’Brien had hired him to work at the rectory from 1981 through the 1983 school year. During that time, he said, he would come across Playboy and Penthouse magazines in O’Brien’s bedroom. But, he said, “I’ve never seen him touch or harm anyone.”

Barlow disputed Couzens’ testimony that on about 20 occasions, O’Brien would pull Couzens out of line during confession and make him go last, then sexually abuse him in the confessional. Barlow said that the students only went to confession twice a year and that the teachers never left them alone.

Some other portions of Barlow’s testimony contradicted what he told The Star in the December 2011 phone calls.

For example, Barlow told jurors that the only time boys would be removed from class at Nativity “was to run a quick errand or unload some boxes.” But he told The Star: “I thought it was really strange that a couple times O’Brien would pull kids from class. I remember him pulling Brian.”

And when asked Friday if he knew of any instances in which O’Brien did anything inappropriate with boys, Barlow said, “Absolutely not.”

But in one of the phone calls, a 2011 recorded interview, he was asked whether he had seen anything he would call inappropriate behavior involving O’Brien.

“Absolutely, I did, and inappropriate comments and statements and things like that,” he replied.

Barlow also questioned in court whether Brian Teeman was ever abused, saying the two were so close that Brian would have told him about it.

But in the second phone call with The Star, after the series ran, Barlow said:

“I am totally on the side that I think O’Brien is a pedophile. I think the guy is a sicko and I think it’s very possible that he could have done something to Brian, he could have done something to Jon David. Absolutely, do I think that’s possible? Yes.”

Later in the call, Barlow said, “I’m going to tell you O’Brien was a bad dude. Did he do anything to me? No. But do I absolutely, positively believe he probably did [to others]? Yes, I do. I’m dedicated to the truth. The problem is, we may never know what it is.”

In the 2011 interview, he told The Star he had no memories of any abuse of himself by O’Brien.

“I don’t remember anything like that,” he said. “I’ve got to be honest. I’m very curious because I have no memories of that.”

On Friday, Barlow told jurors the trial was difficult for him.

“The main thing I want to get across is this is such a bizarre situation to be put in,” Barlow said. He addressed Couzens and said, “You’ve got everyone on this bus” and want to take them all on a road trip that had dragged along the Teemans.

Then he addressed Don Teeman — who has attended the trial every day in support of Couzens — and Brian’s sister, Jackie.

“I want the Teemans to know how much I love them,” he said. “I love you guys.”

Barlow also said The Star’s 2011 series angered him.

“I was infuriated because it was clear that The Kansas City Star was not interested in the truth,” he said. “It was like I was discounted.”

However, in the phone call after the series ran, Barlow noted that although he still disputed the group molestation in the sacristy, “I think you did a fine story.”

In the series, The Star called Barlow only “the fourth altar boy” and said he had no recollection of ever being sexually abused by O’Brien, although he had witnessed troubling behavior by the monsignor.

The Star did not name Barlow in that story at his request. On Friday, he testified in open court.

During cross-examination Friday, Barlow was asked whether Couzens may have confused him with someone else when he named Barlow as the fourth altar boy.

“There’s a possibility,” Barlow said. “We’ve explored that.”

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

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments