A civil trial begins Monday in a wrongful-death lawsuit alleging that a boy took his life 30 years ago because of repeated sexual abuse by a Kansas City priest.
The trial, in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence, could be notable for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, some say.
“This is an especially significant case,” said Timothy Lytton, a legal scholar at the Albany School of Law and author of “Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse.”
“One reason is that it’s rare for any of these cases to go to a jury; most of them are settled. The other reason is that it’s possibly the first high-profile case on the watch of the new pope.”
A spokesman for the diocese declined to comment on the trial.
Brian Teeman, 14, died of a gunshot wound in November 1983 at the family’s home in Independence. His parents, Donald and Rosemary Teeman, filed the lawsuit in September 2011 after a man who had served as an altar boy with their son told them of the alleged abuse.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, says the diocese shares responsibility for Brian’s death because church officials knew that Monsignor Thomas J. O’Brien was sexually abusing boys but covered it up.
O’Brien is also named in the suit. His attorney, Gerald McGonagle, did not respond to a request for comment.
O’Brien, now 86, has been the subject of more than two dozen sexual abuse lawsuits since 2004. He has repeatedly denied all abuse allegations.
In motions filed in the case, diocesan attorneys have argued that there was no proof the diocese knew that Brian had been abused, nor was there proof that Brian had committed suicide or that he had committed suicide because of abuse. The diocese also argued that too much time had passed.
The statute of limitations for wrongful death is three years in Missouri. But Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners held as valid the Teemans’ argument that the statute of limitations should be suspended because of what they said was the defendants’ coverup, fraud and concealment of O’Brien’s alleged abuse of their son and other children. The diocese unsuccessfully appealed Manners’ ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court.
A jury is expected to be seated Monday, and opening statements could begin Tuesday. The trial is expected to last a month.
The lawsuit says O’Brien forced Brian and three other boys to perform sexual acts in the sacristy at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence. The abuse began when Brian was 11 and continued until he graduated from eighth grade, the lawsuit alleges. It says O’Brien warned the boys that if they ever told, they would be kicked out of the church, be disowned by their parents and go to hell.
When the Teemans filed the lawsuit, they said they didn’t know about the sexual abuse or the reason for Brian’s suicide until Jon David Couzens, the former altar boy, contacted them in 2011.
Couzens also filed a lawsuit in 2011 alleging sexual abuse by O’Brien. A trial in his case is scheduled for January.
The diocese previously has said that it received a complaint in September 1983 accusing O’Brien of sexual misconduct with a teenage boy and that O’Brien denied any wrongdoing. O’Brien was removed from his assignment as pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in October 1983 and was sent for psychological evaluation and treatment, the diocese said.
After completing treatment, O’Brien returned to the diocese in June 1984 and was allowed to serve only as a part-time hospital chaplain, the diocese said. He continued in that position until 2002. Later that year, the bishop at that time, Raymond J. Boland, told O’Brien that he could no longer present himself as a priest.
Rebecca Randles, the Kansas City attorney representing the Teemans, said they would not be commenting on the case until after the trial. When they filed the lawsuit, Donald Teeman said it was devastating to learn what had allegedly happened to his son.
“When you put your trust in someone like a priest, when you drop your kids off in the morning to go into that school, as a parent you think you’re doing the best thing in the world for your kids,” he said. “Then to find out that all you did was drop them off and the devil took over.”
The diocese has put up a vigorous fight in the case. Its lawyers have filed numerous motions, including a request for a change of venue and an attempt to separate the diocese’s trial from O’Brien’s. They also filed a motion for summary judgment, then unsuccessfully appealed Manners’ denial to the state Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court.
The diocese has been named in dozens of lawsuits in the past decade alleging sexual abuse by its priests. In 2008, the diocese approved a $10 million settlement with 47 plaintiffs who had filed sexual abuse lawsuits against 12 current or former priests.
A new wave of lawsuits erupted in mid-2011 after the Rev. Shawn Ratigan was charged with producing or attempting to produce child pornography. In May, the diocese agreed to a $600,000 settlement in a civil lawsuit filed against Ratigan in federal court by the parents of a young Missouri girl.
Those who track the issue say that although thousands of civil suits have been filed in the United States alleging sexual abuse by priests, few have gone to trial.
“Trials are as rare as hen’s teeth,” said Terry McKiernan, founder of Boston-based BishopAccountability.org, which collects documents detailing clergy sex abuse cases. He said only about 50 lawsuits have gone to trial nationwide.
“The reason they (dioceses) avoid trials is because so much stuff comes out during them,” McKiernan said. “Another dynamic is that if they do take this to trial and they get punished, that may have major implications for all the other cases that are in play.”
The only other civil lawsuit involving a priest accused of sexual abuse that has gone to trial in Missouri was a 1999 case in St. Louis, legal experts say. In that case, filed against a priest and the St. Louis archdiocese, a jury awarded the victim $1.2 million, but it was later overturned on appeal. Randles was one of the attorneys who represented the victim.