Many Reports about Priest Preceded Boy’s Suicide, Parents Say
By Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
May 16, 2013
|In this 2011 file photo, Donald Teeman (left), Brian's father; Jackie, Brian's sister; Rosemary Teeman, Brian's mother; and Jon David Couzens (right) held photos of Brian as the family announced a civil lawsuit outside the Kansas City Catholic diocese headquarters accusing Msgr. Thomas J. O'Brien of causing their son's death in 1984.|
Local Catholic officials received numerous reports alleging inappropriate behavior by a priest before a 14-year-old boy took his life in 1983, a motion filed this week by the boy’s parents says.
But the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese failed to act on the reports about Monsignor Thomas O’Brien, the motion alleges, and Brian Teeman committed suicide after suffering repeated sexual abuse by the priest.
The motion, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, is packed with excerpts from depositions of dozens of witnesses — including priests and nuns — and an affidavit from a former school board member at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School, who said she complained about O’Brien to a former bishop, then resigned and pulled her son from the school in the 1980s because nothing was done about it.
Brian died of a gunshot wound to the head in November 1983 at the family’s home in Independence.
The motion is part of a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the diocese and O’Brien by Don and Rosemary Teeman. The Teemans filed the suit in September 2011 after a man who had served as an altar boy with their son told them of the alleged abuse. The lawsuit says the diocese shares responsibility for Brian’s death because church officials knew that O’Brien was sexually abusing boys but covered it up.
“They had, by the time Brian Teeman committed suicide, received no less than 17 reports of serious danger to children by this priest but chose to hide that information and ignore its responsibility to report his illegal behavior to the authorities,” the motion says.
After Brian’s death, the motion alleges, the diocese received at least 12 more reports about O’Brien. More than one linked the teen’s suicide to abuse by O’Brien, according to the motion.
“Despite more than 29 reports of impropriety, the diocese has never been truthful about O’Brien,” the motion says, “and has never reached out to the Teeman family or other victims of O’Brien and has never reported his abuses to (social workers) or the police, despite their clear obligation to do so.
“The diocese has consistently chosen to protect its priest predators instead of keeping its children safe.”
The diocese and O’Brien have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that too much time has passed. The statute of limitations for wrongful death is three years in Missouri. But Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners held as valid the Teemans’ argument that the statute of limitations should be suspended because of the defendants’ alleged cover-up, fraud and concealment of O’Brien’s abuse of their son and other children.
A trial is scheduled for July 8.
O’Brien, who has been the subject of more than two dozen sexual abuse lawsuits since 2004, has repeatedly denied that he abused any boys. His attorney, Gerald McGonagle, did not respond to requests for comment.
Diocesan spokesman Jack Smith said this week in a statement that “the Diocese intends to reply to these allegations and assertions through a pleading, pursuant to court rules and procedure.”
The reply probably will be filed next week, he said.
The motion comes the same week that the diocese settled a civil lawsuit involving the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who was convicted last year of producing and attempting to produce child pornography. That lawsuit, settled for $600,000, was filed by the parents of a young Missouri girl.
In a motion filed last month, the diocese contended that the Teemans told everyone that Brian’s death was an accident and that they had no proof that the diocese knew of O’Brien’s alleged abuse of Brian or any connection between Brian’s death and the alleged abuse.
The Teemans’ new motion says that while O’Brien was at St. Elizabeth’s Parish from 1971 to 1981, he was reported to two bishops and an auxiliary bishop for sexually abusing children and was confronted by the mothers of two alleged victims as well as a nun who was the sister of a victim.
Reports about O’Brien’s behavior also were made to numerous priests and another nun, the motion says. And two priests and another nun told the diocese that O’Brien “was drinking heavily, had a girlfriend, was having elderly parishioners make him executor of their estates, and was selling their antiques and other valuables without the funds coming to the church,” the motion says. “The Diocesan response to these reports was to transfer O’Brien from St. Elizabeth’s to Nativity in Independence.”
At Nativity, the motion says, a then school board member, Janice Fristoe, became concerned about O’Brien’s actions. Her affidavit says that she began receiving complaints about O’Brien from teachers after she was elected to the board.
One teacher told Fristoe that O’Brien was taking boys out of class and to the rectory or sacristy so often that they were falling behind in their studies. She said she also was told that O’Brien was regularly taking boys to Lake Viking north of Kansas City, where he drank alcohol and engaged in sexual activity with them.
Fristoe says in the affidavit that she went to see the bishop at that time, John J. Sullivan, about the concerns, and the bishop told her he thought O’Brien had a drinking problem. She said the bishop asked her to spy on O’Brien and let him know whether O’Brien was still drinking.
After about three weeks, according to the affidavit, Fristoe got calls from teachers who complained that there had been a fire drill at school and O’Brien had kept some boys with him in the sacristy for 45 minutes while everyone else waited for them outside. Fristoe said she confronted O’Brien about it at the next school board meeting.
“He snarled at me as he states, ‘You will never question anything I do in this parish ever again!’” the affidavit says.
After that, the document says, Fristoe reported the concerns to a monsignor at the diocese, then “I announced that I was resigning from the school board and taking my son out of Nativity School.”
A group of teachers also went to the diocese with concerns, the depositions indicate.
“Included in the conversation was the fact that O’Brien was a monster, he was abusive, drunk and spent an unnatural amount of time with young boys, among other topics,” the motion says. “These teachers were told if they did not like it, they could leave. Six teachers left before the next school year started — the 1983 school year during which Brian Teeman took his life.”
In the fall of 1983, the father of a student at Nativity reported to the diocese that O’Brien had sexually abused his son and another boy. As a result, the motion says, O’Brien was sent to counseling near Albuquerque, N.M., at the end of October 1983.
Brian committed suicide on Nov. 1.
The diocese has said that it received a complaint in September 1983 accusing O’Brien of sexual misconduct with a teenage boy and that O’Brien denied any wrongdoing. O’Brien was removed from his assignment as pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in October 1983 and sent for psychological evaluation and treatment, the diocese said.
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 2002. Later that year, the bishop at that time, Raymond J. Boland, told O’Brien that he could no longer present himself as a priest.
One of the exhibits filed with the Teemans’ new motion was a letter O’Brien sent to them after Brian died.
“Like yourselves I am in a state of shock,” he wrote. “Not until I reach eternity will I be able to understand tragedys (sic) like this.”
“Brian was special to me. I think he enjoyed working at the Rectory and I enjoyed having him around.”
The letter, written Nov. 13, 1983, was mailed from Albuquerque.