Louisville Native Suing Vatican

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal
August 2, 2007

Years after the eruption of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, James O'Bryan's story might seem drearily familiar.

He recalls that as a little boy, the church was the center of his life -- until he lost his faith after he says a priest molested him.

But what makes this case unusual is when O'Bryan says this happened: 1928.

That's earlier than any other case among the hundreds against the Archdiocese of Louisville and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Of those, one stretched back to the late 1930s and a couple to the 1940s.

Recently settled cases in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reportedly dated back seven decades. O'Bryan's goes back almost eight.

O'Bryan, 86, a Marine veteran of World War II, isn't suing the Archdiocese of Louisville.

The California man said he did not learn about the wave of litigation against the archdiocese until after it had reached a $25.7 million settlement with 243 people in 2003 -- at which point the statute of limitations would have made it difficult to sue.

He is suing a bigger target: the Vatican. He's one of three plaintiffs seeking class-action status in a federal lawsuit filed in Louisville alleging that the Roman Catholic Church orchestrated a worldwide coverup of sexual abuse from its headquarters.

The lawsuit, filed in 2004, has moved slowly, but a judge has allowed the case to proceed despite the Vatican's claim that it should be immune from the suit because of its status as a foreign nation.

In a deposition recently obtained by The Courier-Journal, O'Bryan testified last year that he grew up in Louisville's Portland neighborhood and attended St. Cecilia Church and its school, which formed "the center of my life."

He said he lived on Slevin Street in an upstairs apartment across from the school. He and his friends would go to daily Mass, attend school and often play on school grounds after hours.

O'Bryan said that he was befriended by Father Lawrence Kuntz, who was assigned to St. Cecilia and who taught the boy about his garden.

O'Bryan alleged that when he was about 7 and volunteering in the school library, he was on a ladder shelving books when Kuntz approached him from behind and grabbed his genitals.

"I panicked. I was terrified. I didn't understand what in the world was going on," O'Bryan testified.

O'Bryan said his mother, who was not Catholic, believed his story and pulled him out of the school.

But he said his father, who was divorced from his mother, believed the priest, who said he had caught O'Bryan after the boy lost his balance on the ladder. He added that the experience severed his close relationship with his paternal grandparents.

The parish priest also supported Kuntz, O'Bryan said.

He said his faith in the church was shattered, though he retained a belief in God and a devotion to St. Anthony.

O'Bryan eventually dropped out of high school, joined the Marines and saw fierce combat on Guadalcanal, which was followed by a severe bout of malaria.

"I thought of ... my life being in danger without the comfort of possibly a chaplain," he said. "I felt the loss of my faith keenly during my months of combat."

O'Bryan, who settled in California, said he's been married four times, and blames the breakdown of earlier marriages in part on psychological after-effects of the abuse. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in the 1950s that he acknowledges affected his memory.

Kuntz died in 1952. No other public accusations against Kuntz are known.

O'Bryan's lawyer, William McMurry of Louisville, claims there are documents to prove that the Vatican had a policy for covering up sexual abuse across countries and across generations.

Advocates for the Vatican say those documents are being misread.

Given O'Bryan's advanced age and the likelihood of years of legal maneuvering, McMurry got his deposition on videotape. It could be shown to a jury if the case ever goes to trial.

"I believe that there's still opportunity for the church to be restored to the church that I knew as a child," O'Bryan said.

"... It isn't going to happen in my lifetime, I don't believe. Things don't move that quickly, but that's one of my hopes."

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469


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