Former altar boy on monsignor: 'I have never seen him touch or harm anyone'

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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He came into the courtroom late Friday afternoon and spoke without equivocation.

"I have never seen him touch or harm anyone," Jeff Barlow said of Msgr. Thomas O'Brien, the now-deceased priest of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese accused of forcing four altar boys into various sexual acts on numerous occasions in the early 1980s.

While other witnesses brought by the defense have made similar statements during the course of the now-two-week trial, Barlow's words carried greater weight because he is the only living altar boy among the three that Jon David Couzens has alleged were sexually abused alongside him.

Couzens brought a lawsuit against the diocese in 2011, alleging that O'Brien sexually abused him, Barlow and two other boys between fifth and eighth grade at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence.

Couzens has stated that he blocked out the memories of the abuse for much of his life, recalling them once briefly in high school during a meeting with a priest and more recently after a friend called him in May 2011 with concerns that her daughter had been sexually abused.

On the stand under subpoena by the diocese's attorneys, Barlow spoke with clarity and detail as he recounted his memories of working for two school years (1981-1983) in the rectory, the same timeframe in which O'Brien served at the parish. O'Brien was removed in October 1983 following an accusation of sexual misconduct with a teenage boy.

The job had Barlow in the rectory around two hours in the evening on weekdays and Saturdays; his hours picked up during the summer. He cleaned inside the rectory (including taking dishes from the bedrooms), answered phones and ran errands. He told the court he saw copies of Playboy and Penthouse magazines while cleaning in O'Brien's room.

Did you ever see boys hanging around the rectory? defense attorney David Frye asked.

No, Barlow said.

Did you ever see Couzens at the rectory? Frye asked.

No, Barlow said.

Is your testimony that the alleged abuse of you and the other three altar boys never happened? Frye asked.

"It never happened," Barlow said. "I would remember something like that."

Barlow said he has yet to hear Couzens' story and said he first heard of his inclusion in the allegations from Don Teeman, the father of his best friend, Brian Teeman, who took his own life in November 1983 at age 14. Both Don and his wife, Rosemary, with whom the diocese settled a wrongful-death lawsuit in July 2013 for $2.25 million, have been present for most of the trial.

Barlow said it was at Don Teeman's request that he spoke to Judy Thomas of The Kansas City Star in 2011. When Couzens' story was documented in a three-part series titled "The Altar Boys' Secret" in December that year, Barlow said he was shocked with what he read.

"I was infuriated because it was clear The Kansas City Star was not interested in the truth," he told the jury.

He accused The Star of not returning the email he sent following publication and of not contacting him outside of one phone call for the series.

However, The Star in its reporting on Friday evening said Barlow spoke during two recorded interviews in 2011, that he said "he 'absolutely' witnessed inappropriate behavior by O'Brien"; referred to the priest as a "pedophile" and "sicko"; stated he was not abused by O'Brien but thought it "very possible" the priest could have abused Brian Teeman, Couzens or others; and told the newspaper post-publication the series was a "fine story."

Sometime after the series published, Barlow said he and Couzens spoke briefly and attempted to arrange a meeting over coffee, but it never occurred.

Asked at the end of questioning if he had anything to add, Barlow said it pained him to think about Couzens pulling him and the Teeman family into what he described as a road trip on a bus with "no engine."

"This is just such a bizarre position to be put in," he said.

During the cross-examination, Barlow stated his knowledge of O'Brien led him to view him as a bad guy, and he recalled O'Brien making sexual jokes, having a bad temper and at times yelling without provocation.

He also acknowledged he was not in the rectory at all times. When asked by plaintiff's lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray if Couzens might have confused him with someone else, Barlow said there is that possibility.

The trial resumed Friday with Dr. Park Dietz, psychiatrist and expert witness for the defense, summarizing his opinions on Couzens that he based upon his own examination and a review of depositions and case files.

Dietz said Couzens received ineffective treatment for his various symptoms, including depression, following the 2011 phone call from his female friend. Dietz also said because of several personality disorders, Couzens was vulnerable to influential people who encouraged the idea of false memories and the adoption of the victim role.

Following a newsreel-esque recap of U.S. life in 1983, Dietz then outlined the history of child sexual abuse prevention in the country since 1976 in an apparent effort to show the Catholic church acted in line or ahead of secular organizations and universities on the issue.

Dietz at one point said the Kansas City diocese was ahead of most nonprofit organizations in the U.S. in preventing child sexual abuse.

During cross-examination, Dietz said he did not know one way or the other of a single report made by the diocese to local authorities regarding child molestation.

Irigonegaray spent a bulk of his questioning attempting to pick away at the numerous diagnoses Dietz gave to Couzens. Dietz had said the way Couzens presented himself -- dressed sharply, wore ironed shirts, exercised for two to three hours a day five to six times a week -- played a role in the diagnoses of two personality disorders. Irigonegaray asked how the psychiatrist himself dressed when appearing at press conferences or for interviews.

A suit, Dietz replied.

Throughout the questioning -- also addressing Couzens' anger and emotions during his depositions and his posing for photos for The Star and other media outlets -- Dietz reiterated that his diagnoses were not criticism but a reflection of a particular pattern of behavior.

Irigonegaray also challenged Dietz on the role his testimony played in the 2005 reversal of the 2002 conviction of Andrea Yates, who in 2001 drowned her five children in a bathtub.

You gave false testimony in the trial? the lawyer asked.

"Mistaken testimony is false testimony," the psychiatrist said.

Given a chance to later describe the details, Dietz said he had mistakenly recalled in testimony an episode of "Law and Order," for which he consulted, that included a mother drowning her children. The episode didn't exist but was discussed during a conference call, he said.

His testimony led to the mistrial, though Dietz said he was later rehired to again evaluate Yates, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2006.

The trial in Independence resumed Tuesday morning after Monday's federal holiday.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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