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Trial nears in priest sex abuse case filed by former altar boy

Jon David Couzens in 2011 at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence.
Jon David Couzens in 2011 at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence. The Kansas City Star

Jury selection is to begin Thursday in a sexual abuse lawsuit filed against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by a former altar boy.

If the case goes to trial without a settlement, it will be the first lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of a minor by a priest to go before a jury in the Kansas City area.

The lawsuit, filed in 2011 by Jon David Couzens, alleges that the diocese intentionally failed to supervise a priest who repeatedly abused Couzens three decades ago.

Couzens alleges that Monsignor Thomas J. O’Brien sexually abused Couzens and three other youths in the early 1980s when they were altar boys at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence.

The trial, to be held before Jackson County Circuit Judge Jim Kanatzar in Independence, is expected to last 10 days. Opening statements are scheduled for Monday. Included on the diocese’s list of potential witnesses are eight priests and two nuns. Couzens’ list of potential witnesses includes Bishop Robert Finn and seven other priests, two of them former vicars general for the diocese.

The Kansas City Star published a three-day series in December 2011 called “The Altar Boys’ Secret” that told the story of Couzens and the three other altar boys. One of the boys, Brian Teeman, 14, died of a gunshot wound at his home in November 1983. Brian’s parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the diocese in September 2011 after Couzens told them of the alleged abuse. The lawsuit claimed Brian took his life because of repeated sexual abuse by O’Brien. The diocese settled with Don and Rosemary Teeman last year for $2.25 million.

O’Brien was named as a co-defendant in Couzens’ lawsuit but was dismissed after his death in October 2013. He was 87.

The diocese has vigorously sought to keep the case from going to trial. Its lawyers have filed numerous motions and were successful at getting all but one of the counts dismissed. They also filed a motion for summary judgment, then unsuccessfully appealed Kanatzar’s denial to the state Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court.

The diocese has argued that Couzens’ allegations came long after the time limit established by Missouri statute and that his claims of repressed memory were invalid.

“Plaintiff’s claims are stale by decades, two alleged witnesses to the incidents of abuse claimed by Plaintiff are dead, the third alleged witness to the abuse says it never happened, the alleged perpetrator is dead, and so is the diocesan bishop who supervised the alleged perpetrator during the time period at issue,” the diocese said in its writ to the state Supreme Court.

Couzens said in an interview that he looked forward to telling his story in court, even though he knew it would be painful.

“I’m willing to be an open book, to have my life exposed — even some of my wrong choices — for the sake of saving just one child,” he said.

Those who track the issue say that although thousands of civil suits have been filed in the U.S. alleging sexual abuse by priests, only a few dozen have gone to trial.

A legal expert and author said he’d be surprised if the Couzens case goes to trial without being settled first.

“The church has increasingly been willing to pay out significant sums for these claims,” said Timothy Lytton, a professor at Albany Law School in New York and author of “Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse.”

“The other thing to keep in mind is if a case actually goes to jury verdict, there’s a significant amount of uncertainty as to what the damages might be. If those damages come in very large, you not only have a publicity problem, but you might have a big financial problem.”

Couzens’ lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, is among more than 30 that have been filed against the diocese in the past four years.

Local Catholics may have thought the priest sex abuse issue had been put to rest in 2008 when the diocese announced a $10 million settlement with dozens of victims who alleged abuse going back decades. As part of the settlement, the diocese put into place more rigorous policies and procedures to prevent such acts from recurring.

But in December 2010, a computer technician found hundreds of lewd photos of young girls on the Rev. Shawn Ratigan’s laptop computer. A Jackson County judge later found Finn guilty of failing to report suspicions of child abuse to police or state child welfare authorities after the photographs were discovered. Finn was sentenced to two years of probation for the misdemeanor.

Ratigan pleaded guilty to state and federal child pornography charges and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Ratigan’s case triggered a new wave of litigation accusing church leaders of again covering up sexual abuse by priests.

In addition to dozens of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, a breach-of-contract case was filed in which 44 plaintiffs accused the diocese and Finn of failing to live up to some of the 2008 settlement’s terms — among them a pledge to follow state reporting requirements and diocesan guidelines to report suspected sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement.

In March, an arbitrator ordered that the diocese pay $1.1 million for violating the terms of the 2008 settlement. A Jackson County judge confirmed the order in August.

Four cases involving Ratigan have been settled for a total of $3.75 million. And a lawsuit against the Rev. James Urbanic, his religious order and the diocese was settled last year for $130,000.

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

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