Jon David Couzens faced Jackson County jurors on Friday and for more than three hours described the repeated acts of sexual abuse he said he endured three decades ago at the hands of a Catholic priest.
In graphic detail and at times sobbing, the former altar boy told jurors that the abuse began when he was 9 or 10 years old and a student at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary school in Independence. Monsignor Thomas O’Brien, he said, molested him in the confessional as he sought forgiveness for his sins. In the sacristy while preparing for Mass. In the church basement after a Cub Scout Pinewood Derby event. And in the monsignor’s own bedroom in the church rectory.
“He raped me, he abused me, he molested me,” Couzens said. “All of those things.”
Jurors heard the fifth day of testimony in a civil trial involving Couzens, who filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph saying O’Brien sexually abused him in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Couzens claims the diocese was told repeatedly that O’Brien was a danger to children but failed to prevent the abuse.
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The diocese contends that no credible evidence exists to prove those allegations and argues that Couzens’ claims of repressed memory are invalid. O’Brien, who has been the subject of dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits, died last year at 87.
During his testimony, Couzens described growing up in a Catholic family where he was taught to revere priests.
“Priests were next to God himself,” he said. But when he was in the fourth or fifth grade, Couzens said, O’Brien began targeting him for abuse.
As Couzens testified, Pedro Irigonegaray, one of his attorneys, carried a small blue Royals jacket to the witness stand. Couzens said he wore the jacket when he was 10 years old — the time frame that he was being molested.
He said much of the abuse took place in the confessional. O’Brien would move him to the back of the line, he said, so he would be the last to confess. Once inside the confessional, he said, O’Brien abused him.
“This was during the time that he was forgiving you for your sins?” Irigonegaray asked.
“Yes,” Couzens said.
As Couzens described the sexual abuse, he looked at his mother, who sat in the packed courtroom with other family members, friends and former classmates of Couzens. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, sobbing.
Couzens also described incidents that he said occurred in the sacristy with three other altar boys. On multiple occasions, he said, O’Brien would line them up against the wall and make them perform sexual acts on him and on one another.
“Every time that he had his way, he would grab us by the face and he would tell us that if we told, we would die and go to hell, we would get kicked out of the Catholic Church and our parents would disown us,” he said.
Another incident occurred in the church basement during a Pinewood Derby race held by the Scouts, Couzens said. After the race, he said, he was putting chairs away in a storage room when O’Brien came in, shut the door and forced him to perform a sex act.
When he was 18, Couzens said, his mom sent him to see the Rev. Philip Egan, another priest at Nativity, because he was having anger issues. He said he met Egan in the same rectory where O’Brien had sexually abused him several years earlier. Couzens said he blurted out to Egan that O’Brien “has been touching us boys.”
“He sat back in his chair and he crossed his arms and he said, ‘Well, did you ejaculate?’”
A diocesan lawyer read from a deposition of Egan in which the priest said he didn’t know Couzens and had never met with him.
Couzens said that after the brief meeting with Egan, he repressed the memories of the abuse until 2011, when a longtime friend called and told him her young daughter was a potential sexual abuse victim of another priest. He said he lay on the couch for three days as the memories began coming back.
When Couzens concluded, Irigonegaray pointed to the Royals jacket again.
“At the time that you wore this Royals jacket,” he asked, “did anybody at the diocese warn you — warn you — about what they knew about Monsignor O’Brien ... he’s known for molesting little boys?”
“No, they did not,” Couzens said.
During cross examination, a lawyer for the diocese questioned Couzens’ claims of repressed memory. David Frye pointed out that in media reports after he filed his lawsuit — including a series in The Kansas City Star — Couzens said the memories of the abuse had haunted him for decades. Frye also said Couzens’ claim that he met with Egan when he was 18 showed that he hadn’t repressed the memories.
“After telling the media the abuse haunted you for decades and you kept it a secret,” Frye said, “you’re now telling this jury you’ve had some kind of amnesia for all these years?”
The diocese will present its case next week.
To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to email@example.com.