Mary Sanchez

Diocese abuse trial could turn on a damaged witness

Jon David Couzens says he was abused about four years, between fourth and eighth grade. He accuses the now-deceased Monsignor Thomas J. O’Brien, who is also the subject of dozens of other lawsuits and on whose behalf the diocese has already paid out millions in settlements.
Jon David Couzens says he was abused about four years, between fourth and eighth grade. He accuses the now-deceased Monsignor Thomas J. O’Brien, who is also the subject of dozens of other lawsuits and on whose behalf the diocese has already paid out millions in settlements. The Kansas City Star

A wicked reality of sexual abuse is that it makes the victim into a poor witness.

Survivors can end up badly damaged. Especially if the abuse occurred when they were young, still forming their sense of sexuality and ability to trust.

Why else would they be in court seeking damages?

Look for that fact to be exploited in Monday’s trial pitting the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph against a former altar boy.

Jon David Couzens says he was abused about four years, between fourth and eighth grade. He accuses the now-deceased Monsignor Thomas J. O’Brien, who is also the subject of dozens of other lawsuits and on whose behalf the diocese has already paid out millions in settlements.

Settle out of court. That’s the norm. Mitigate the possibility that the nasty details, evidence that the diocese knew of the allegations but did nothing to keep a priest from harming young boys, will be aired in public.

If the case proceeds, some aspects may seem like a rape trial. Couzens’ life, and those of others testifying, will likely be open to character assassination.

Yet the idea that a survivor of sexual abuse may have tried drugs to cope, turned to alcohol, had trouble with relationships and even questioned his or her own sexuality shouldn’t be shocking at all. It can even be expected.

Couzens claims that as a child, he threw away bloody underwear for years to hide evidence of the abuse from his mother. He says O’Brien used threats and physical force.

Childhood sexual abuse victims sometimes become asexual. Or hypersexualized. In pedophilia cases with older men, some victims seek out multiple sex partners as adults to prove they are not gay.

Attorneys for the diocese may challenge the validity of repressed memories and the passage of time. They call the allegations “stale” in court filings.

The details are still vivid enough to Couzens. He has repeatedly thrown up when pressed during depositions.

The diocese, understandably, would like all of this to go away, financially and from public view. They note that many of the players are dead — the bishop at the time of the alleged abuse, O’Brien and other men who may have witnessed or experienced abuse.

It’s inconvenient for the diocese. But at 44, Couzens is in the middle of his life, still struggling. It’s disturbing that this could now be used against him.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com. Twitter: @msanchezcolumn.

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