|Lawsuits Alleging Abuse Are Nearer to Trial
By Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
November 24, 2007
The boys called them the party priests.
They held pool and lake galas where drinks were freely flowing, even for their teenage guests. They let the young boys drive and smoke in their cars, left dirty magazines around the rectory for them to read, and talked openly in graphic terms about sex.
For boys just entering the awkward stages of adolescence, nothing seemed cooler than hanging out with Monsignor Thomas O'Brien and Father Thomas Reardon of Kansas City.
Except for the price that many of the boys — now men — say they paid. They allege that the priests used their positions of power to prey on the youngsters, plying them with alcohol, groping them and offering them money for sex.
Though the alleged incidents occurred years ago, they are haunting both priests and the diocese today. A dozen lawsuits against either O'Brien or Reardon are winding their way through the courts, painting a graphic picture of lewd behavior involving scores of young men spanning several decades.
It included accusations of rape, sodomy, oral sex and masturbatory acts, according to the lawsuits.
Since January 2004, 12 men have sued O'Brien and 14 have sued Reardon. The lawsuits, one now settled and others moving toward trial, allege that the priests abused dozens of boys in locations ranging from the St. Elizabeth's rectory at 75th and Main streets to a house on Lake Viking, a community about 60 miles northeast of Kansas City, where O'Brien and Reardon often took the youths for a weekend of swimming and partying.
Those lawsuits and several involving other priests had been placed on hold pending a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court on whether too much time had passed for such cases to be filed. However, a ruling last year allowed many of them to proceed, and some now have tentative trial dates.
The Kansas City Star began documenting the alleged abuse in 2002. Since then, the newspaper has interviewed dozens of men who, along with the lawsuits, allege a pattern of molestation that began in the early 1960s with O'Brien and continued unchecked with Reardon throughout the 1980s.
Through their lawyers, both O'Brien and Reardon have vigorously denied the accusations. Both men are no longer active as priests. O'Brien told The Star last week that he had never molested anyone.
"I deny that I've abused anybody," he said. "Some of the accusers, I don't even know. As far as teenagers, I may have used bad language around them once in a while, but I absolutely, positively, never physically abused any young men."
Earlier this year, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph agreed to a $60,000 settlement with a Northland man who accused O'Brien and Reardon of molesting him in 1967.
Then in September the diocese agreed to pay an Independence man $225,000, its biggest settlement ever in a case of alleged abuse. The retired priest in that case, the Rev. Francis E. McGlynn, also was expected to pay $2,000 to the victim.
But as trial dates in the other lawsuits involving O'Brien and Reardon approach, The Star has learned that the diocese may have known about O'Brien's alleged abuse as long ago as 1979.
Three alleged victims told the newspaper that either they or their parents contacted diocesan officials about O'Brien, yet he remained an active priest for decades afterward.
However, the diocese disputed that church officials knew about the alleged incidents but failed to act.
"There isn't any evidence that is in our files or that we've seen that we had notice of claims and then didn't do anything about it, or failed to take appropriate steps," said Jon Haden, the attorney representing the diocese in the lawsuits.
Rebecca Randles, the Kansas City lawyer who is representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against Reardon and O'Brien, said her firm has talked to about 75 alleged victims and witnesses.
"This is just an incredibly shocking, amazing story," Randles said. "These men were at the upper echelons of prestige in the church in their day, and they used their power for decades for their own self-gratification."
Pat Noaker, a Minnesota attorney who is helping with some of the lawsuits, said the cases of O'Brien and Reardon are even more egregious in that some alleged victims accuse the priests of committing the abusive acts in tandem.
"We just don't see it that often, multiple priests sharing kids simultaneously," he said. "It's a very sick situation."
Lack of oversight
The men who claim they were victimized told The Star that when they were growing up, the priests' lewd behavior was so blatant that it became common knowledge among parish youth.
But the abuse continued, they said, because many parents either didn't want to believe it or feared repercussions if they reported their concerns. And in the cases in which allegations were made, they said, the church hierarchy dismissed them.
Those actions, critics said, reflect what they called a conspiracy of silence that for years dictated how the Roman Catholic Church handled sex abuse cases of minors and led to the scandals that plague the church today.
"It was absolutely common knowledge that this stuff was going on," said Mike Park, whose family lived in St. Elizabeth's parish in Kansas City and who with his brothers contend they witnessed inappropriate behavior. "We tried, people tried, to bring it to the church's attention years and years ago, and nobody would do anything about it."
Park said his mother complained to George Fitzsimons, the auxiliary bishop, in the 1970s.
"She told him about the get-togethers down at the lake and that they'd have alcohol and there were things going on that weren't real pretty," Park said. "And he basically said, 'Look, we can't just go after a guy because some kids said he did such-and-such.' "
Another Kansas City man, who is not suing, told The Star last month that O'Brien tried to grope him at a party in the early 1970s.
"I was old enough to take his hands off me, which he had done all of a sudden out of nowhere, standing at the dining room table," said Pat O'Neill, whose family also lived in St. Elizabeth's parish. "I was big enough to say, 'Please remove your hands before I punch your lights out.' "
O'Neill said he later called and wrote then-Bishop Charles Helmsing about the incident but got no response. His father then told him to contact Fitzsimons. O'Neill said he did so, complaining about the actions of both O'Brien and Reardon.
"I'd heard those stories for so long," he said. "It was their unchecked behavior that bothered me."
O'Neill received a letter from Fitzsimons dated Nov. 16, 1979.
"I will discuss this with Msgr. O'Brien and Fr. Reardon," Fitzsimons wrote. "While clearly understanding the tragic dimension of this problem, I pray that you will forgive them as you continue your search for Jesus Christ."
Three weeks later, O'Neill received an error-riddled letter from O'Brien. To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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