KC Diocese trial extends culture of silence about abuse
By Mary Sanchez
October 1, 2014
The culture of silence continues. It’s hovering in a courtroom in Independence this week like a blanket threatening to smother.
Attorneys for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph invoke it with every objection, every debate about whether a particular witness should testify in the case of a former altar boy, Jon David Couzens, who alleges abuse by the late Monsignor Thomas J. O’Brien.
This trial is so important because it could tie together decades of allegations and emotions about what the diocese knew, when it knew it and what various clergy did or didn’t do with information. But what the jury is allowed to hear is a compressed and sanitized version. That’s often for good reasons: ensuring a fair trial to the accused.
But sexual abuse of children generally isn’t revealed in succinct ways that are always chronicled and documented, easily recounted in testimony years later.
Rarely do children who are being abused make the allegation themselves at the time, testified Charol Shakeshaft, a professor who helped write the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for detecting abuse in schools.
Rather, rumors, gossip and innuendo — essentially hearsay not allowed in courtrooms — are often the way initial suspicions about child sexual abuse first can be detected, she said. Over time, what Shakeshaft termed “a community of knowledge” about the abuse begins to develop. Couzens’ attorneys are trying to establish those in charge at the diocese were in that loop.
First, children talk and joke among themselves, coming up with nicknames for the alleged abuser. O’Brien, who died in 2013, was called the “party priest,” partly because of his excessive drinking.
Next, behaviors and patterns become apparent. A teacher taking a child out of class. A child not wanting to go to a certain activity. Couzens’ mother testified that her son wanted to quit being an altar boy. Another witness talked of O’Brien using the pretense of needing help with boxes to lure him into sexual activity.
Finally, sometimes, suspicions are reported, generally by a third party, Shakeshaft said. And it will often be tentative, someone thinking they might be over-reacting. All of this is why laws have been in place nationally since 1975 forcing the reporting of suspicions of child abuse by teachers, clergy and others.
But it is also why this case is so difficult. It’s as if the very nature of what is being discussed in that courtroom still has the power to remain hidden.
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