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  Lawsuit Accuses Three Priests of Sexual Abuse

By Kevin Murphy and Judy Thomas
Kansas City Star
January 22, 2004

In the most extensive sexual abuse lawsuit against Kansas City area clergy, three Catholic priests were accused Wednesday of molesting minors during a three-decade period.

The 210-page lawsuit names Thomas M. Reardon, Thomas J. O'Brien and retired Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart. Nine men make a series of allegations against each of the priests. Some of the abuse allegedly took place at a lake home or church facilities, often after liquor was given to the victims.

The suit alleges that most of the abuses occurred from the 1960s through the 1980s, when for a time the priests served together in local parishes. Reardon left the priesthood in 1989. O'Brien and Hart are retired.

Hart denied the allegations Wednesday. O'Brien could not be reached, and Reardon declined to comment.

The priests are accused of sometimes conspiring to lure the boys into sexual situations, and the diocese is alleged to have covered up the abuses.

"We have a cabal of priests who together and separately engaged in sexual abuse and molestation of children for in excess of 30 years," said Rebecca Randles, attorney for the plaintiffs, at a news conference outside the Catholic chancery. "We needed to include all of these plaintiffs so you could see the extent and duration of abuse these poor children suffered."

Three of the nine plaintiffs in the suit are named; six are anonymous.

"The allegations in this lawsuit against me are baseless," Hart said in through his Kansas City attorney, Larry Ward. "I am confident I will be dismissed from this lawsuit in the near future."

Reardon answered the door at his south Kansas City home Wednesday morning and declined to discuss the case. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't say anything. I just talked to an attorney."

Also named as defendants were the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and its current leaders, Bishop Raymond Boland and Vicar General Patrick Rush. The suit says the diocese failed to monitor its priests.

The diocese had not received the lawsuit Wednesday and could not comment on it, Rush said. He said the diocese had investigated complaints in the past against all three of the priests.

"As the tragedy of child abuse has come to light, the diocese continues to pledge accountability," Rush said in a prepared statement. "Priests who abuse children are removed from the ministry and eventually dismissed from the priesthood."

The diocese has attempted to review all past allegations of sexual abuse as part of a report required of all dioceses by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Two weeks ago, the diocese reported having found 35 complaints involving 20 priests in the past 50 years.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Wednesday ask for a jury trial, seeking unspecified damages for sexual abuses they said led to a lifetime of emotional distress, humiliation and in some cases alcohol and drug addiction.

"While the scope of the lawsuit will be troubling to many Catholics, to most victims these patterns feel painfully familiar," said David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who was in Kansas City for the news conference. "This is a small, long-overdue step."

Among the plaintiffs is Michael Hunter, leader of the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network. Though not a victim himself, Hunter said he had suffered emotionally from abuse that he said Hart inflicted on his brother, Kevin Hunter, who died in 1989.

"I saw what happened to my brother," Hunter said. "Overnight, his life went downhill. What I hope to get out of this is to have the truth told and to protect kids in the future."

The two other named plaintiffs are Ronald Garrens and Jack Stuckenschneider. Both accused Reardon of abuses, and Garrens also accused O'Brien. In all, Reardon is accused specifically by six plaintiffs, O'Brien by five and Hart by three.

The lawsuit accuses Reardon and O'Brien of a pattern of sexual abuse.

The sexual contact mostly occurred at church rectories and at a small house O'Brien bought in 1971 at Lake Viking, a private lake about 60 miles north of Kansas City, the lawsuit states.

O'Brien and Reardon took several boys there at a time for boating and partying, the suit alleges.

"During the stays at Lake Viking, alcohol was routinely served to minor children and imbibed by the defendants to the point of drunkenness," the suit states. Reardon and O'Brien also provided marijuana to the boys, the suit alleges.

O'Brien sometimes got so drunk that he would have the boys drive the car back to Kansas City, the suit says. In one instance, O'Brien passed out from excessive drinking and the boys locked him in his bedroom so he could not make advances on them when he woke up, a plaintiff said.

O'Brien and Reardon are also accused of sexual abuses at some of their parishes and of allowing boys as young as 12 to drink alcohol on church property. One of the plaintiffs who alleged abuse at age 12 by Reardon said that as an adult he happened to be referred to Reardon for alcohol counseling. Records show that Reardon is a certified substance abuse counselor in Missouri.

O'Brien provided marijuana to a boy at St. Elizabeth's parish, gave him pornographic movies and had sex with other boys while in the vicinity of one of the plaintiffs, the suit said.

Rush said Wednesday that he was aware of complaints about priests providing alcohol to minors. Priests are allowed to buy liquor as part of their room and board, he said, but in 1998 the diocese established a code of ethics putting in writing a policy against giving liquor or drugs to minors.

Accusations against O'Brien, 77, came to light in April 2002. He retired as chaplain of St. Joseph Health Center about the time the diocese revealed that five persons had alleged past sexual abuses, though not in a lawsuit. O'Brien denied the abuses. Randles said the five men who accused O'Brien of abuse in Wednesday's lawsuit were not the same five who accused him in 2002.

Rush said the diocese did not pay financial settlements in any of the cases.

In more than 40 years as a priest, O'Brien served at several parishes and was principal of St. Pius X High School from 1961 until 1968 and superintendent of Catholic schools from 1969 to 1971.

Hart, 72, is accused of sexual improprieties at parishes in Kansas City and of providing alcohol to minors. The lawsuit said Hart took Kevin Hunter on an extended trip to the western United States, during which they had sex.

The lawsuit also said Hart brought boys from Wyoming back to Kansas City while he was a bishop and engaged in improper activity, such as making one of the plaintiffs repeatedly change into swimming suits while he watched.

Hart had denied earlier abuse allegations reported in The Kansas City Star in April 2002. The report revealed that the diocese had spent thousands of dollars on two families in the 1990s for counseling and a new pickup after they accused Hart of sexual abuse.

Reardon, 62, served in five parishes in the Kansas City area, most recently at St. John Francis Regis, Rush said. He resigned in April 1989 and has not been an active priest since, Rush said. Reardon's tenure as a priest included a period as administrator of Camp Little Flower in Raytown, which provided educational camping for children ages 7 through 12.

Rush said Wednesday that two persons lodged complaints that Reardon was sexually abusive in the 1980s. One complaint came while he was an active priest, the other later, he said. Reports in Reardon's file show that he was treated for multiple addictions, Rush said.

The file was unclear whether one of his addictions was related to sexual activity, Rush said.

"I can verify that I think it's plausible that sexual addiction was part of the issue," he said. "I do not know why he resigned, the file does not show that."

The lawsuit contends that the diocese "had constructive notice of the sexual abuse and other immoral acts" by Hart, O'Brien and Reardon but did not act. Diocesan priests and other personnel knew the three priests entertained boys in their rooms and were present when they gave alcohol to boys, the suit says.

 
 

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