Lawsuit against former Aspen priest dismissed

Aspen Daily News [Aspen CO]

August 26, 2023

By Rick Carroll

A civil trial scheduled in December for a priest accused of molesting an altar boy at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen was canceled last month after parties agreed to dismiss the case, according to court records.

Father Michael O’Brien was set to stand a five-day jury trial in Denver County District Court beginning Dec. 4. District Court Judge David Goldberg approved the dismissal of the lawsuit on July 14. O’Brien, who was ordained in 2000, was the pastor at St. Mary from 2002-11.

Both sides agreed to pay their legal costs and attorneys’ fees, according to filings in the lawsuit. They also agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice, which means the plaintiff cannot refile the same claims against O’Brien. 

Neither side, however, backed off of their positions. 

The plaintiff’s lawyers said they agreed to the dismissal because of a recent Colorado Supreme Court opinion issued in an unrelated civil case, which changed the legal landscape regarding child sexual abuse lawsuits and presented an uphill fight for their lawsuit. The ruling was delivered on June 20 and was the basis for agreeing to the lawsuit’s dismissal, attorney Paige Singleton of the Englewood firm Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardin PC said in an emailed statement to the Aspen Daily News. 

O’Brien’s defense lawyer in the civil proceedings, Kevin McGreevy of Denver, maintained that the priest is innocent of the accusations, pointing to the April announcement by the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office to not pursue criminal charges against O’Brien following an 18-month investigation led by the Aspen Police Department with the assistance of the FBI and local prosecutors.  Other recent developments also buoyed his defense, McGreevy said. 

APD began an investigation into the former altar boy’s claims in September 2021 that O’Brien had molested him hundreds of times from 2004 to 2008, leading the Archdiocese of Denver to place the priest on administrative leave. That December, the former altar boy, Keegan Callahan, brought civil claims against O’Brien in a lawsuit filed in Denver District Court. Callahan filed the suit while he was incarcerated in state prison on sex-crime convictions not related to the church or O’Brien. He remains there today. 

The tide began shifting for O’Brien in April when local prosecutor Don Nottingham and APD announced that the investigation, which included interviews with more than 80 witnesses and 500 hours of detective work, didn’t turn up evidence sufficient to bring charges against O’Brien. 

As well, the archdiocese announced on June 5 that it was reinstating O’Brien into the ministry and that he would be returning to St. Anthony of Padua in Julesburg and St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Crook on July 1. 

That announcement said O’Brien’s reinstatement was agreed upon by the archdiocese’s review board, which had been advised by attorneys that the lawsuit was frivolous and the claims didn’t have merit. 

“I will not let irresponsible and unfounded civil lawsuits keep a good priest from ministry,” Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said at the time. 

The statement from the law firm representing Callahan said the Colorado Supreme Court opinion, which came down June 20, hurt the lawsuit because it struck down state law that had given victims of child sex abuse three years from Jan. 1, 2022, to sue their abuser and the employer or organization responsible for their behavior for sexual incidents dating to 1960. The high court unanimously ruled in a case involving Aurora Public Schools that lifting time bars on child sexual abuse claims was unconstitutional, effectively eliminating part of Senate Bill 88, also known as the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act, adopted by the state legislature in July 2021. 

“On June 20, 2023, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Aurora Public Schools v. A.S., holding that the retroactive application of the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act (CSAAA) is unconstitutional,” the statement said. “The CSAAA — which was enacted by the legislature in 2021 with bipartisan support — gave child sexual abuse survivors a window to bring claims against their abusers and the organizations responsible for their abuse, regardless of whether previously available causes of action were time-barred.

 “The Aurora Public Schools opinion affected many victims of childhood sexual abuse, including our client. It closed the door on his claims against [St. Mary Church] and the Archdiocese. That is the sole reason the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed.”

The claims against O’Brien were for negligence/infliction of emotional distress, sexual abuse, breach of fiduciary duty and exemplary damages. 

 Callahan added St. Mary Catholic Church and Archdiocese of Denver to the lawsuit against O’Brien in April 2022. The judge dropped the defendants from the suit in July 2022, issuing a written ruling that Callahan’s complaint “did not assert facts that show the Archdiocese or St. Mary’s had actual knowledge of the ongoing abuse” against Callahan. 

In March, Callahan’s legal team notified the Court of Appeals that it was contesting the judge’s decision, but withdrew the appeal in July, according to court documents. 

Callahan, 25, began serving a 14-year prison sentence in September 2019 following his guilty pleas in Pitkin County District Court to felony charges of sexual exploitation of a child and sexual assault. He also pleaded guilty to lesser misdemeanor counts of unlawful sexual contact and is incarcerated at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections website. His next parole hearing date is scheduled for April 2024. 

Callahan and an accomplice were arrested by Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies in October 2018 on accusations that they violently raped a 16-year-old girl and assaulted other teenage girls. 

Callahan’s lawsuit alleged that O’Brien’s repeated abuse of him molded his views about violent and sexual behavior. 

“​​The egregious acts of sexual, physical, mental, and emotional abuse Plaintiff suffered resulted in the loss of his innocence; the loss of his faith in any church or institution that he once had; the developed false belief that rape and torture is normal; and severe emotional, physical and mental anguish, all of which has affected him and will continue to affect him throughout the remainder of his life,” the suit said. 

At the time of his departure in 2011, O’Brien told the Aspen church’s congregation he was leaving due to health reasons.