Appellate court affirms dismissal of former KC-area altar boy’s defamation lawsuit

By Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
April 18, 2017

he 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that Jon David Couzens waited too long to file a defamation lawsuit against the Catholic League and others. Couzens says he was abused by a priest when he was an altar boy in the 1980s at the Nativity of Mary in Independence.
Photo by Jill Toyoshiba

A lower court was correct in dismissing defamation and other claims against a national Catholic organization by a former altar boy whose sexual abuse case was part of a $10 million settlement with the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, a federal appellate court has ruled.

In an opinion issued Tuesday, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that Jon David Couzens waited too long to file the lawsuit.

The case, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court in 2013, named as defendants the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; its president and CEO, William Donohue; the KC Catholic League; and two Kansas City men who were officers of the now-dissolved local organization.

Couzens said that Donohue published false statements about him in news releases, on the Catholic League’s website and in documents distributed to churches. Couzens also accused the defendants of invasion of privacy and inflicting emotional distress.

The New York-based Catholic League successfully got the lawsuit moved to U.S. District Court. That court dismissed the case in 2015 after agreeing with the Catholic League that the material was first published in New York and because of that, the statute of limitations had expired.

The statute of limitations for defamation in New York is one year; in Missouri, it’s two years.

Couzens appealed the decision. In Tuesday’s opinion, the appellate court also dismissed Couzens’ claims of invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress, saying his only grounds on which to bring a lawsuit were defamation.

The Thomas More Law Center, which represented Donohue and the Catholic League, said in a statement that the appellate court “reached the just result.”

“The lawsuit filed by Jon David Couzens lacked legal merit and required dismissal of all claims,” the statement said. “The Thomas More Law Center exalts the court’s decision both as a victory for free speech and as a victory for our legal process that allows meritless and improper lawsuits to be dismissed at the earliest possible time.”

Couzens’ attorney, Rebecca Randles, said the opinion was disappointing.

“We’re strongly considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said. Publishing material on the internet, she said, creates a whole new form of defamation that needs to be evaluated by the higher court.

“The moment you press that ‘enter’ key, it goes everywhere,” she said. “So you can’t say it was published in New York just because the ‘enter’ key was pressed in New York.”

Couzens’ story came to light in 2011 when he filed a lawsuit against the diocese alleging sexual abuse by Monsignor Thomas O’Brien, a priest who had been the subject of more than two dozen sexual abuse lawsuits. Couzens said O’Brien sexually abused him and three other altar boys in the early 1980s at Nativity of Mary in Independence. One of the boys, Brian Teeman, 14, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in 1983. Brian Teeman’s parents sued the diocese in 2011 after Couzens told them of the alleged abuse, and the diocese eventually settled with the family for $2.25 million.

In 2014, the diocese agreed to a $10 million settlement with Couzens and nearly 30 others who alleged sexual abuse. The lawsuits involved 13 current and former priests and alleged sexual abuse going back decades, from 1963 to 1987.

Donohue began attacking Couzens’ credibility after The Star published a three-day series in early December 2011 that told the story of Couzens and the others who he said were abused. In a news release, Donohue said Couzens’ allegations were a lie and that he was not credible, “especially given the fact that he has been implicated in a murder.”

Couzens had been a witness in a 1992 murder case in Independence. Donohue cited an appeal in which the convicted murderer alleged that Couzens had fought with the victim “over a botched drug deal” and that Couzens and two others had motive and opportunity to commit the crime.

Couzens called the allegations “absolutely false” and in his lawsuit said he actually helped bring the perpetrator to justice, even receiving a commendation by the Jackson County prosecutor for being a good citizen.

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