Faith & Works | after Eight Decades and a Suit against the Vatican, Man Reconciles with Church

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal
August 13 2010|+After+eight+decades+and+a+suit+against+the+Vatican++man+reconciles+with+church

James O'Bryan's photo from his First Communion at St. Cecilia Church in Portland. He's returned to the Catholic Church after 80 years. (Photo courtesy of James O'Bryan)

In the annals of people who returned to their childhood faith after a time of alienation, few have had a longer sojourn than James O'Bryan.

The Louisville native has reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church after being away from it for more than 80 years.

In the end, O'Bryan reconciled with the church because of the actions of a priest — the same reason he said he left in the first place.

O'Bryan, now 89 and living in northern California, was one of three plaintiffs who sued the Vatican in 2004, alleging that the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church had orchestrated a cover-up of sexual abuse through centuries of secret policies. He said he was sexually abused by a Louisville priest in 1928.

That lawsuit effectively ended on Monday when the plaintiffs asked the court to dismiss their case. They conceded they faced insurmountable legal obstacles, including the Vatican's status as a sovereign nation, which made it immune to most lawsuits, and the limited evidence on how bishops handled abuse cases decades ago.

But even as that lawsuit proceeded, O'Bryan was finding his way back to church.

In January, his wife of 52 years, Grace, was dying, he said. She was an Irish-American from Boston's deeply Catholic culture, but had herself been long estranged from the church. However, she asked for last rites. the Rev. Louis Nichols, a local priest, came and performed them, then did the funeral Mass.

“I saw how compassionate he was and how caring he was,” O'Bryan said. So O'Bryan called Nichols for a follow-up appointment, and “I've been going to church ever since.”

Nichols said in a phone interview he didn't know about the Vatican lawsuit at the time, but that was “no obstacle” to welcoming O'Bryan. He was impressed that O'Bryan “wasn't bitter or anything” despite his past trauma.

O'Bryan “is a great gentleman,” added Nichols, a priest at St. Anthony Church in Mendocino, near O'Bryan's home of Albion. “He's well received here.”

The World War II Marine vet, also connected with Nichols because he was a Marine chaplain in Vietnam. Nichols said O’Bryan “still looks like a Marine, walks straight.”

O'Bryan has had to get used to how Roman Catholics have been worshipping for more than 40 years since the Second Vatican Council: in English, with more simplified rites than those used in the past.

“I don't know the liturgy,” he said. “I'm used to the Latin Mass.”

Early faith, and trauma

O'Bryan, a retired property manager who has lived in California since the war, still has vivid memories of his Louisville childhood.

He grew up in the Portland neighborhood, living in a walkup apartment on Slevin Street across from St. Cecilia Church.

The parish, its school and its daily Mass formed “the center of my life,” O'Bryan recalled. He dreamed of one day attending St. Xavier High School and getting a basketball scholarship at the University of Notre Dame. He eagerly took part in his First Communion, dressing in a new blue serge suit, large bow-tie, black stockings and black patent-leather shoes.

In a 2006 deposition in the Vatican case, O'Bryan testified he was befriended by the Rev. Lawrence Kuntz, who was assigned to St. Cecilia.

O'Bryan alleged that in 1928, when he was about 7, he was on a ladder shelving books in the school library when Kuntz approached him from behind and fondled him.

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

O'Bryan told his mother, who was not Catholic. She believed him and withdrew him from 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.

O'Bryan added that the experience severed his close relationship with his paternal grandparents.

“It wasn't the act itself that bothered me,” he said in the interview. “It was how it really broke up families (with members) taking sides.

Father Lawrence would “drop in and have a drink with Grandpa. When it happened, they couldn't believe Father Lawrence would do a thing like that.” They told O’Bryan and his mother they "were all going to hell," he recalled.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.