Kansas City diocese agrees to settle 30 lawsuits for $10 million

By Judy L. Thomas of the Kansas City Star

October 14, 2014

The Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on Tuesday agreed to pay nearly $10 million to settle 30 lawsuits that alleged sexual abuse by priests.

That action came on the eve of jury deliberations after an 11-day trial in a case filed by a former altar boy.

“The settlement resolves 30 pending claims filed between 2010 and earlier this year alleging abuse by diocesan priests 20 or more years ago,” the diocese said in a statement announcing a $9.95 million agreement. “The diocese sincerely hopes that this settlement can bring about some closure to those hurt by abuse in the past. The diocese also prays for a healing which can bring peace to the hearts of all of those hurt by child sexual abuse.”

The diocese said a large portion of the settlement will be covered by insurers, with the balance being paid by the diocese.

The man whose lawsuit was being tried said he was satisfied with the settlement.

“It’s a day of retribution,” said Jon David Couzens, whose case was among those covered by the settlement.

He filed his lawsuit in 2011, alleging that he was repeatedly molested by Monsignor Thomas O’Brien three decades ago.

“I got the secret out there, and it’s a secret that’s been held by the diocese for decades,” Couzens said. “People who knew, who should have done something about it, didn’t, and I got it out there. And that was my main goal.

“Even though mine is just one of 30 lawsuits, this gives the other victims a chance to be free and be able to speak about it,” he said. “Not just these 30 victims, but those who haven’t had a voice.”

The settlement brings to about $17 million the amount the diocese has paid to plaintiffs in civil cases in the past 15 months. It came as attorneys prepared to give their closing statements today in Jackson County Circuit Court in Independence.

The 30 lawsuits were filed from September 2010 through February 2014. They involved 13 current and former priests — several of whom have died — and alleged sexual abuse going back decades, from 1963 to 1987.

Twelve of those lawsuits contained allegations against O’Brien.

Rebecca Randles, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said, “This is one of those situations where we’ve reached the right result, because now each and every one of those victims of sexual abuse who filed their lawsuits will receive some compensation for the damages that have been caused to them.

“And, for the first time ever, the story of Monsignor Thomas O’Brien has been told,” she said. “I wish that it could be told about each and every one of the perpetrators in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, but Monsignor O’Brien, as the testimony showed, was a monster.”

Randles said the diocese would not agree to any non-economic demands in the settlement. In past cases, it agreed to establishing victims’ advocacy programs and immediately reporting any abuse or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities.

“They told us from the very beginning that there would be no non-economic demands,” she said. “Some were real simple things, like a prayer. They didn’t want to have it as part of an agreement.”

Tuesday’s settlement clears the deck on all but one pending case, Randles said.

Couzens’ lawsuit was the most visible of the 30 settled cases and the first go to trial in the Kansas City area.

Couzens accused O’Brien of sexually abusing him and three other youths in the early 1980s when they were serving as altar boys at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence. The diocese was told repeatedly that O’Brien was a danger to children, Couzens alleged, but failed to prevent the abuse.

The diocese contended that no credible evidence existed to prove those allegations. O’Brien, who has been the subject of dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits, died last year at age 87.

Couzens sought $10 million in actual damages as well as punitive damages. The specifics of the amount each plaintiff will receive from Tuesday’s settlement has not yet been disclosed.

Couzens called 24 witnesses and two rebuttal witnesses in his case, which stretched into 11 days. The diocese called 15 witnesses, including six priests, two nuns and two psychiatrists.

One of the other altar boys who Couzens says was sexually abused by O’Brien, then-14-year-old Brian Teeman, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in November 1983. His parents, Don and Rosemary Teeman, ultimately settled with the diocese for $2.25 million in July 2013.

The diocese said that it received a complaint in October 1983 accusing O’Brien of sexual misconduct with a teenage boy and that O’Brien denied any wrongdoing when confronted. O’Brien was removed from his assignment at Nativity and sent for psychological evaluation and treatment in New Mexico.

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 April 2002, when then-Bishop Raymond J. Boland told O’Brien that he no longer could present himself as a priest or celebrate Mass.

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

Trials in cases alleging sexual abuse by clergy are rare. Thousands of such civil suits have been filed in the United States, but only a few dozen have made it to trial.

Tuesday’s multicase settlement wasn’t the first time the diocese has settled a large group of lawsuits in a single agreement.

In 2008, the diocese announced a $10 million settlement with dozens of victims who alleged abuse by 12 priests going back decades. As part of that settlement, the diocese put into place more rigorous policies and procedures to prevent such acts from recurring.

But in 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 Bishop Robert Finn guilty of failing to report suspicions of child abuse to police or state child welfare authorities. 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. Last month, the Vatican dispatched a church official to Kansas City to examine Finn’s leadership. The purpose of the visit was to ask whether Finn was fit to be a leader, according to The National Catholic Reporter publication.

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

Joe Eldred, one of the 30 plaintiffs, said Tuesday night that he was angry about the settlement. He had planned to testify on Couzens’ behalf at the trial on Tuesday, but his testimony wasn’t allowed.

“Everything I set out to do, I did not get,” Eldred said. “It never was about the money. It was about protecting kids and bringing out in the open the lies and traumas that continued, as the Ratigan case proved. I think the cover’s been blown off, but I don’t think the diocese did anything to protect kids.”

Before Tuesday, several other lawsuits filed in the last few years had been settled for a combined total of more than $7 million. Beyond those settlements, the diocese has amassed millions of dollars in legal costs.

Some dioceses across the country have filed for bankruptcy, claiming financial hardship because of sex abuse lawsuits. In the past decade, 11 U.S. dioceses and two religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection. The diocese told The Star earlier this year that it had no intentions of taking such action.

During Tuesday’s testimony, a Catholic priest who lived with O’Brien at a rectory in the early 1980s told jurors Tuesday that O’Brien never sexually abused any boys at their parish.

The Rev. Jim Taranto, who was an associate pastor at Nativity, said “I lived with Monsignor O’Brien, and to my knowledge he did not molest any boys at Nativity.”

Taranto said the first incident he heard involving O’Brien came when a parishioner told him his son and a friend had gone to Lake Viking near Cameron, Mo., with O’Brien and the monsignor had become drunk and asked the boys to put suntan lotion on his legs. Taranto said he immediately took the concern to the Rev. Michael Coleman, who notified then-Bishop John J. Sullivan.

“Immediately, he was removed,” Taranto said of O’Brien.

One of the boys taken to the lake testified O’Brien took him to go swimming and do chores. While in the water, Darren Wahwassuck said, O’Brien groped them and later offered them pornographic magazines and alcohol. That night, O’Brien allegedly asked the boys to rub suntan lotion on him. O’Brien told them they could remove his underwear, Wahwassuck said, and when they didn’t, he removed it himself. Wahwassuck said the boys were afraid to sleep that night.

Sarah Brown, one of Couzens’ attorneys, asked Taranto whether Sullivan ever told him why O’Brien had left the Nativity parish.

“Bishop Sullivan never told me, never called me, never said a thing to me,” Taranto said.

To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to [email protected].

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