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Jurors in settled priest sexual abuse case say deliberations would have been difficult

The trial, in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence, stemmed from a lawsuit Jon David Couzens filed in 2011, accusing Monsignor Thomas O’Brien of sexually abusing him and three other youths in the early 1980s. They were altar boys at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence at the time.
The trial, in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence, stemmed from a lawsuit Jon David Couzens filed in 2011, accusing Monsignor Thomas O’Brien of sexually abusing him and three other youths in the early 1980s. They were altar boys at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence at the time. The Kansas City Star

Jurors in an emotionally charged sexual abuse trial said Wednesday they would likely have been evenly split on whether to award millions to a former altar boy.

“After the end, we just kind of said off the top of your head, without discussing it, without our notes, just give your vote,” said Angel Burkhart, a juror from Blue Springs. “And it was about half and half.”

She said the jury’s deliberation in the lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph could have been a long one.

“Once we got to talking, it kind of seemed that way,” she said.

The high-profile trial ended abruptly Tuesday night when the diocese agreed to a $9.95 million settlement with 30 plaintiffs who alleged sexual abuse by priests.

The settlement came on the eve of jury deliberations after an 11-day trial in a case filed by Jon David Couzens. The eight-woman, six-man jury — including two alternates — was to begin deliberation Wednesday in the first lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of a minor by a priest to go before a jury in the Kansas City area.

The 30 lawsuits settled by the diocese were filed from September 2010 through February 2014. They involved 13 current and former priests — several of whom have died — and alleged sexual abuse from 1963 to 1987.

The trial, in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence, stemmed from a lawsuit Couzens filed in 2011, accusing Monsignor Thomas O’Brien of sexually abusing him and three other youths in the early 1980s. They were altar boys at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence at the time. The diocese was told repeatedly that O’Brien was a danger to children, Couzens said, but failed to prevent the abuse.

The diocese contended that no credible evidence existed to prove those allegations. O’Brien, who has been the subject of dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits, died last year at age 87.

Couzens sought $10 million in actual damages as well as punitive damages.

After jurors were dismissed by Jackson County Circuit Judge Jim Kanatzar on Wednesday morning, many gathered outside the courtroom. Tears flowed as Couzens talked to jurors and even shook hands with two of the diocese’s attorneys.

“I was a little undecided as far as what I would have done,” said Jonathan Pryor of Kansas City, one of several jurors who agreed to talk about their experience. “What was most difficult was being certain that Jon David was one of the victims.”

He said, however, “The evidence was pretty clear that the diocese knew something … and (the diocese) didn’t do anything.”

Pryor and two other jurors said the biggest factors that led them to believe the diocese failed to supervise O’Brien were letters from the priest’s personnel file.

In one letter, O’Brien had written Kansas City marketing consultant Pat O’Neill, who testified at the trial that O’Brien had groped him at a Halloween party in 1973 when O’Neill was 20 years old. O’Neill said he first reported that incident to the diocese in 1975, but that no action was taken.

In the letter, O’Brien apologized to O’Neill for “the uncalled for and inexcusable activity” and said that former Bishop Charles Helmsing had talked to him about his behavior.

The letter was written 20 months before O’Brien was appointed to serve at Nativity.

Jurors also saw a red flag in a 1983 questionnaire filled out by then-Bishop John J. Sullivan when the diocese sent O’Brien for treatment. Sullivan had marked on the questionnaire that O’Brien had sexual problems. Sullivan also indicated that parishioners had complained about his “drinking or behavior.” Sullivan had written that O’Brien’s inappropriate behavior included “solicitation of young boys.” Sullivan died in 2001.

“That letter did it for me,” said Justin Borders of Grandview. “They knew he had sexual and alcohol problems, but instead of removing him as a priest, they just moved him from church to church and parish and parish. …

“The jury was still going back and forth, but that letter kind of moved everybody. And after that, I stopped taking notes. … My mind was made.”

Borders said that at first, he wasn’t sure what to think about Couzens’ allegations.

“I just thought Jon David was trying to get some money,” he said. “The first thing I was going to ask for when we deliberated was I want to know his financial background. But when those letters came out, I didn’t want to know any more. It didn’t matter to me, because whether it happened to him or not, the diocese had evidence to remove that guy.”

Even so, Borders said, he tended to believe Couzens’ abuse claims.

“I don’t think he’d just come out like this and ruin his life like this,” he said.

Borders said he would have awarded Couzens the $10 million he had requested in actual damages.

Juror Tracie McClelland of Kansas City wanted to award Couzens a total of $21 million — $1 million each for disorders he suffered that a defense witness argued undercut the plaintiff’s credibility.

“When I saw those symptoms that children suffer at the hands of molesters or pedophiles, I said I’m going to recommend $1 million for each symptom,” McClelland said. “Because the Catholic Church needs to get it together — any organization — but the Catholic Church has been doing it for too long.”

Burkhart said her verdict would have been “more toward Jon David.”

The determining factor for her, she said, was “when the defense brought out letters that mentioned drinking and sexual abuse that needed to be addressed” and the diocese hadn’t followed through.

Burkhart said while she was a little concerned about Couzens’ timeline of his abuse — O’Brien wasn’t a priest at Nativity during part of the time Couzens said the abuse had occurred — that didn’t change her mind about the diocese being negligent.

Several of the 30 people who had filed lawsuits attended Couzens’ trial, some coming every day.

“I wanted to support Jon David,” said Pat Ismert, who filed a lawsuit against the Rev. Francis McGlynn in 2011. “We’re all in the same group. It was very, very important that we support one another.”

She said the settlement “is going to be like a huge stone removed from my body.”

“Now I can move on with my life.”

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