Diocese knew about abuse by KC priest but did nothing, witnesses tell jury Read more here
By Judy Thomas
October 1, 2014
A well-known public relations consultant, a Catholic nun and a former school board vice president told a Jackson County jury Wednesday that they had reported sexual abuse concerns involving Monsignor Thomas O’Brien to the diocese over a span of decades, but nothing was ever done.
The testimony came on the third day of a civil trial involving Jon David Couzens, who says O’Brien sexually abused him 30 years ago and that the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was told repeatedly that O’Brien was a danger to children but failed to prevent the abuse.
“I expected some sort of response and some sort of censure,” said Kansas City marketing professional Pat O’Neill after telling jurors that O’Brien had groped him at a Halloween party in 1973. O’Neill, who was 20 at the time, said he wrote then-Bishop Charles Helmsing in 1975 but never received a response. He contacted the diocese again in 1979, through a phone call and a letter to auxiliary Bishop George Fitzsimons.
“The context of my letter and my phone call was, ‘What about the young people who can’t defend themselves?’” O’Neill said.
The trial, in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence, stems from a lawsuit filed by Couzens in 2011. The diocese contends that no credible evidence exists to prove Couzens’ abuse allegations and argues that his claims of repressed memory are invalid.
O’Brien, who has been the subject of dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits, was named as a co-defendant but was dismissed after his death in October 2013. He was 87.
Jurors heard testimony from five witnesses Wednesday, including Suzanne Ellis, who said her brother told her years ago that O’Brien had sexually abused him in 1963. She said she called the diocese to report it on numerous occasions, starting in 1979. Each time, Ellis said, she was told that the diocese could only take a report from her brother.
“They didn’t want to hear me,” she said. “My reaction was disbelief. I was not asked my phone number, I was not asked my address, I did not receive any follow-up calls.”
Ellis said she had told her sister, a nun with the Sisters of St. Francis, about the alleged abuse between 1989 and 1991. The nun, Sister Marilyn Barry, told jurors she looked up O’Brien’s phone number and called him the night she was told.
“I said, ‘Hello, monsignor. ... You abused my little brother,’” Barry told jurors. “He said, ‘Which one was he?’ My final words were, ‘You dirty son of a bitch.’ And I hung up the phone. I was so violently upset with the response that I got.”
Janice Fristoe, who had a son at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary elementary school in Independence in the early 1980s and was vice president of the school board, testified by video that she received numerous complaints about O’Brien. Some teachers told her that boys were being called out of class by O’Brien for so long and so often that they’d fallen behind and had to receive tutoring. She said stories also were circulating about O’Brien taking boys to his house at Lake Viking, drinking with them and “having his way” with them.
She said she met with then-Bishop John J. Sullivan and Monsignor Robert Hogan to voice her concernsabout O’Brien.
“He (Sullivan) simply said, ‘Well, we think he might have a drinking problem, and those things happen when he’s drinking,’” she said. “I came away from that meeting very disappointed. I felt that the bishop let his parishioners down, let me down.”
Three weeks later, Fristoe said, teachers told her there had been a fire drill. They said the school had been evacuated but that they’d all had to wait 45 minutes because O’Brien had three boys with him in the sacristy and they hadn’t come out.
Fristoe said she confronted O’Brien at the next school board meeting.
“He looked at me with gritting teeth and said, ‘You will never question anything I do in this parish ever again,’” she said. Fristoe said she left the meeting and called Hogan the next day.
“I told him I could no longer leave my son in that school because I felt that he was in danger,” she said. She transferred him at the end of the school year.
Couzens’ attorney, Rebecca Randles, asked Fristoe if O’Brien’s access to boys was limited after she met with Sullivan.
“None whatsoever,” she said.
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