Kansas City diocese settles 30 lawsuits to the tune of $10 million

Independence, Mo. — After 11 days of testimony from three dozen witnesses related to a lawsuit alleging clergy sexual abuse, jurors here never received for deliberation the case brought by a former altar boy against the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese.

Instead, a global $9.95 million settlement Tuesday night resolved the suit and 29 others against the diocese, just hours before closing arguments were set to begin Wednesday.

A statement from the diocese said the claims were filed between 2010 and early 2014 and involved allegations dating back 20 years or more. Insurers will cover "a significant amount of the settlement," it said, with the diocese responsible for the remaining balance.

The diocese indicated the agreement resolves all outstanding historical sexual abuse claims. A case related to former priest Shawn Ratigan remains pending.

"The Diocese sincerely hopes that this settlement can bring about some closure to those hurt by abuse in the past. The Diocese also prays for a healing which can bring peace to the hearts of all of those hurt by child sexual abuse," the statement said.

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The agreement, first reported by The Kansas City Star, came on the cusp of closing arguments in the trial brought by Jon David Couzens against the diocese. Couzens, 44, alleged in a 2011 suit that he was sexually abused on numerous occasions and at times alongside three other altar boys in the early 1980s by Msgr. Thomas O'Brien at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, in Independence.

The case was the first for the diocese to reach the trial stage.

Attorney Rebecca Randles, who represented all 30 claims, told NCR the trial served as "the impetus for the settlement," for which talks had been ongoing since April.

"From our perspective, it allowed us to really analyze the risk that we face, but I'm sure that's exactly what the deal was with the diocese as well," she said outside the courtroom Wednesday.

Even without a jury decision, Randles called the Couzens trial "incredibly significant" in that it allowed the story to be told under oath for the first time.

"I think for the diocese, being able to see how the story plays out when it's given air is also important for them to develop appropriate responses in the future," she said.

During the trial, Randles and her two co-counsels argued that the diocese had knowledge of misconduct by O'Brien before the alleged abuse occurred, as early as 1975. The plaintiff's lawyers said that following O'Brien's October 1983 removal from Nativity -- after a teenage boy told his father the priest asked the boy to rub lotion on him -- the church did not take proper steps to keep O'Brien from children or alert parishioners about why he left for New Mexico, where he underwent treatment for alcoholism and sexual issues.

The priest returned to ministry in the diocese in 1984, serving as a hospital chaplain until 2002, when he was removed from active ministry. He died in October 2013 at age 87.

Couzens testified in the trial for more than four hours on two separate days that O'Brien molested him alone in the church confessional and at times with three other boys in the sacristy.

He had said before and during the trial that he repressed memories of the abuse for much of his life, recalling them once briefly in high school during a meeting with a priest in the Nativity rectory, and more recently in May 2011 after a close friend called him, worried that her daughter had been sexually abused.

Lawyers for the diocese spent a significant portion of the trial challenging that assertion, bringing in witnesses from Nativity who refuted various aspects of Couzens' story, as well as two experts who told the jury that science had backed away from repressed memory.

Dr. Harrison Pope, a research psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, posed two possibilities to explain Couzens' belief that he was sexually abused: Either some or all of the abuse happened and Couzens has always been able to remember it, or some or all of the abuse never occurred and thus wasn't there to be remembered in the first place.

"I'm not pretending to tell you which one of those is right," Pope told the jury Oct. 8, though he allowed the possibility of a combination of the two.

Justin Borders, one of several jurors who spoke to reporters after the case was dismissed, said the high cost of Pope and other expert witnesses tarnished how he viewed their testimony.

It was revealed during the trial that Pope billed the diocese at $600 per hour for a total of $55,000 at the time he took the stand. A second expert for the defense, psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, billed at $800 per hour. Dr. Richard Sipe, who testified for the plaintiffs as an expert for the first time in a trial, billed at $400 per hour.

Borders said what stood out for him were two documents: a 1983 questionnaire concerning O'Brien's treatment completed by Bishop John J. Sullivan, in which he noted alcohol issues and "solicitation of young boys"; and a letter from O'Brien to Pat O'Neill apologizing for inappropriate behavior. O'Neill testified that the priest groped him at a Halloween party in 1975 when O'Neill was 20.

"When I saw that letter that the plaintiff had saying he had alcohol and sexual problems, that was enough for me. ... I didn't need anything after that," Borders said.

Asked how they were leaning as a group, Borders and other jurors described a split among them in the quick hand vote they took before departing, and anticipated a long deliberation.

Of the four jurors who spoke with NCR, two indicated they remained undecided about the case's outcome.

One was Jonathan Pryor of Kansas City, who said he was disappointed there wasn't an opportunity to deliberate, particularly after devoting three weeks to the trial. While he said he felt the evidence made it "pretty clear" the diocese knew something, "for me what was most difficult was being certain that Jon David was one of the victims."

"Whether it happened to him or not, the diocese had evidence to remove that guy," Borders said.

Tracie McClelland of Kansas City said she had planned to recommend to her fellow jurors that they award Couzens $21 million, or $11 million more than he requested.

Borders said the diocese was smart to settle based on his impressions of the jury's leanings.

In 2008, a separate settlement paid $10 million to 47 plaintiffs, as well as established 19 nonmonetary commitments for the diocese regarding abuse prevention. A breach of those conditions led to an additional $1.1 million payment by the diocese earlier this year.

According to the Star, the diocese has paid around $17 million in civil cases in the last 15 months.

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

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 24-Nov 6, 2014 print issue under the headline: Settlement wraps up 30 abuse cases .

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