(The Kansas City Star) They held pool and lake galas where drinks were freely flowing, even for their teenage guests. They let the young boys drive and smoke in their cars, left dirty magazines around the rectory for them to read, and talked openly in graphic terms about sex.
For boys just entering the awkward stages of adolescence, nothing seemed cooler than hanging out with Monsignor Thomas O’Brien and Father Thomas Reardon of Kansas City.
Except for the price that many of the boys – now men – say they paid. They allege that the priests used their positions of power to prey on the youngsters, plying them with alcohol, groping them, and offering them money for sex.
Though the alleged incidents occurred years ago, they are haunting both priests and the diocese today. A dozen lawsuits against either O’Brien or Reardon are winding their way through the courts, painting a graphic picture of lewd behavior involving scores of young men spanning several decades.
It included accusations of rape, sodomy, oral sex and masturbatory acts, according to the lawsuits.
Since January 2004, 12 men have sued O’Brien and 14 have sued Reardon. The lawsuits, one now settled and others moving toward trial, allege that the priests abused dozens of boys in locations ranging from the St. Elizabeth’s rectory at 75th and Main streets to a house on Lake Viking, a community about 60 miles northeast of Kansas City, where O’Brien and Reardon often took the youths for a weekend of swimming and partying.
Those lawsuits and several involving other priests had been placed on hold pending a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court on whether too much time had passed for such cases to be filed. However, a ruling last year allowed many of them to proceed, and some now have tentative trial dates.
The Kansas City Star began documenting the alleged abuse in 2002. Since then, the newspaper has interviewed dozens of men who, along with the lawsuits, allege a pattern of molestation that began in the early 1960s with O’Brien and continued unchecked with Reardon throughout the 1980s.
Through their lawyers, both O’Brien and Reardon have vigorously denied the accusations. Both men are no longer active as priests. O’Brien told The Star last week that he had never molested anyone.
“I deny that I’ve abused anybody,” he said. “Some of the accusers, I don’t even know. As far as teenagers, I may have used bad language around them once in a while, but I absolutely, positively, never physically abused any young men.”
Earlier this year, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph agreed to a $60,000 settlement with a Northland man who accused O’Brien and Reardon of molesting him in 1967.
Then in September the diocese agreed to pay an Independence man $225,000, its biggest settlement ever in a case of alleged abuse. The retired priest in that case, the Rev. Francis E. McGlynn, also was expected to pay $2,000 to the victim.
But as trial dates in the other lawsuits involving O’Brien and Reardon approach, The Star has learned that the diocese may have known about O’Brien’s alleged abuse as long ago as 1979.
Three alleged victims told the newspaper that either they or their parents contacted diocesan officials about O’Brien, yet he remained an active priest for decades afterward.
However, the diocese disputed that church officials knew about the alleged incidents but failed to act.
“There isn’t any evidence that is in our files or that we’ve seen that we had notice of claims and then didn’t do anything about it, or failed to take appropriate steps,” said Jon Haden, the attorney representing the diocese in the lawsuits.
Rebecca Randles, the Kansas City lawyer who is representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against Reardon and O’Brien, said her firm has talked to about 75 alleged victims and witnesses.
“This is just an incredibly shocking, amazing story,” Randles said. “These men were at the upper echelons of prestige in the church in their day, and they used their power for decades for their own self-gratification.”
Pat Noaker, a Minnesota attorney who is helping with some of the lawsuits, said the cases of O’Brien and Reardon are even more egregious in that some alleged victims accuse the priests of committing the abusive acts in tandem.
“We just don’t see it that often, multiple priests sharing kids simultaneously,” he said. “It’s a very sick situation.”
Lack of oversight
The men who claim they were victimized told The Star that when they were growing up, the priests’ lewd behavior was so blatant that it became common knowledge among parish youth.
But the abuse continued, they said, because many parents either didn’t want to believe it or feared repercussions if they reported their concerns. And in the cases in which allegations were made, they said, the church hierarchy dismissed them.
Those actions, critics said, reflect what they called a conspiracy of silence that for years dictated how the Roman Catholic Church handled sex abuse cases of minors and led to the scandals that plague the church today.
“It was absolutely common knowledge that this stuff was going on,” said Mike Park, whose family lived in St. Elizabeth’s parish in Kansas City and who with his brothers contend they witnessed inappropriate behavior. “We tried, people tried, to bring it to the church’s attention years and years ago, and nobody would do anything about it.”
Park said his mother complained to George Fitzsimons, the auxiliary bishop, in the 1970s.
“She told him about the get-togethers down at the lake and that they’d have alcohol and there were things going on that weren’t real pretty,” Park said. “And he basically said, ‘Look, we can’t just go after a guy because some kids said he did such-and-such.’ ”
Another Kansas City man, who is not suing, told The Star last month that O’Brien tried to grope him at a party in the early 1970s.
“I was old enough to take his hands off me, which he had done all of a sudden out of nowhere, standing at the dining room table,” said Pat O’Neill, whose family also lived in St. Elizabeth’s parish. “I was big enough to say, ‘Please remove your hands before I punch your lights out.’ ”
O’Neill said he later called and wrote then-Bishop Charles Helmsing about the incident but got no response. His father then told him to contact Fitzsimons. O’Neill said he did so, complaining about the actions of both O’Brien and Reardon.
“I’d heard those stories for so long,” he said. “It was their unchecked behavior that bothered me.”
O’Neill received a letter from Fitzsimons dated Nov. 16, 1979.
“I will discuss this with Msgr. O’Brien and Fr. Reardon,” Fitzsimons wrote. “While clearly understanding the tragic dimension of this problem, I pray that you will forgive them as you continue your search for Jesus Christ.”
Three weeks later, O’Neill received an error-riddled letter from O’Brien.
“Bishop Ftizsimons stopped by to see me a few days ago and showed me a letter he had received from you,” the Dec. 8, 1979, letter reads. “My memory of that night are very hazy. As you mentioned, I drink too much. But it is obvious that I owe you a very sincere apology, and I do now give that. I am ashamed and embarrassed and really don’t know what to say. Bishop Helmsing spoke to me about this a couple of years ago.
“I can only assure you that this is not a normal activity for me, and especially since Bishop Helmsing spoke to me, I have greatly reduced my drinking and consequently this time of activity. I too am repulsed by such things.”
Yet it wasn’t until 2002 that O’Brien stepped down from the position he held as a hospital chaplain.
Rebecca Summers, spokeswoman for the diocese, said church officials first learned about the letters earlier this year.
“There was no record of those letters here,” Summers said. “I certainly had no connection to any of those events, and we knew of no letters of that nature.”
Fitzsimons, who is retired and living in the Diocese of Salina, Kan., did not respond to requests for an interview. Helmsing died in 1993. O’Brien’s attorney, Gerald McGonagle, said his client did not recall the letter.
Haden, the diocese’s attorney, maintained that it’s not clear from the letters what Fitzsimons and O’Brien were apologizing for.
“The way I read the O’Brien letter, you can’t really tell what this thing that Helmsing talked to him about is,” Haden said. “He’s talking about having an alcohol problem. I don’t know whether this (apology) means his alcohol problem, which was well-documented, or some other issue.”
Haden said he discussed the issue with Fitzsimons, “and he doesn’t recall that exchange at all.”
“And O’Brien’s attorney will tell you that he has zero recollection of it now,” Haden added.
Haden said that while he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the letters, “it’s difficult to have context about that when it’s 30 years later and the parties say they don’t remember anything about it, and Helmsing is dead.”
O’Brien, now 81, retired in April 2002 after serving as a chaplain at St. Joseph Health Center for 18 years. In announcing his retirement, the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese revealed that the monsignor had been accused of sexually abusing minors five separate times. Summers said that since 2002, he has no longer been allowed to present himself as a priest.
The Rev. Patrick Rush, the diocese’s vicar general at the time, said in 2002 that the allegations first surfaced in 1983. All involved “inappropriate touching” of teenage boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rush said.
Rush said that O’Brien was sent for residential psychiatric treatment from October 1983 until June 1984 and also was treated for alcoholism. Upon his return, Rush said, O’Brien was removed from his position as pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Independence and assigned as a chaplain at St. Joseph.
Reardon, now 65, sought treatment for alcoholism and left the priesthood in 1989. Rush said that two people complained about Reardon in the 1980s and that he was treated for multiple addictions, possibly including a sexual addiction.
O’Brien’s alleged inappropriate behavior dates to at least the 1960s and became more blatant as the years passed, those interviewed by The Star said.
In the early 1960s, Dennis Nigro spent the summer working at Camp Little Flower, a girls’ retreat in Kansas City. For $25 a week, the 13-year-old shoveled gravel, took care of the horses and performed odd jobs around the camp.
“At the end of the workday, we would occasionally go swimming when the girls were doing something else,” said Nigro, who is now a board certified plastic surgeon in California, but is not one of the men suing. “One day, we had just gone swimming and we were sitting in the front seat of (O’Brien’s) blue car. And he reaches down my pants. … And I wound up and I pasted him right in the teeth.”
Several men told the newspaper and allege in lawsuits that they used to play basketball in junior high and then drop by St. Elizabeth’s rectory, where O’Brien would give them beer and dirty magazines and drink with them. One of the men said the drinking at an early age led to a 20-year battle with alcoholism.
O’Brien’s behavior became worse in the 1970s, the alleged victims said. And, they told The Star and allege in lawsuits, Reardon often accompanied him. In several of the lawsuits, they said the abuse also occurred at Lake Viking, where O’Brien’s family owned a home.
Several men with pending suits told The Star that they rode with O’Brien to the lake, saying he would let them drive even though they were underage. They said O’Brien would stop on the way to the lake to purchase beer and sexually explicit magazines. Some said O’Brien provided them with marijuana as well.
At the lake house, the alleged victims said, O’Brien took different boys into his bedroom each night, and then molested them. One said in his lawsuit that on one occasion, the boys waited until O’Brien got drunk and passed out, then “we locked the door to keep him from getting up to molest us in the night.”
Frank Maggard, a Kansas City, Kan., pharmacist who worked in the rectory and graduated from St. Elizabeth’s in 1977, said everybody knew about the trips to Lake Viking. He said he wasn’t molested but often witnessed inappropriate behavior.
“He tried to get boys who were from a shaky family background, or kids who were kind of quiet who he didn’t think would say anything,” Maggard said.
But the alleged abuse didn’t occur only at Lake Viking or St. Elizabeth’s.
David Ford worked at St. Gabriel’s parish in 1978 and 1979, when he was 14 and 15. He served as an altar boy, a lector, a groundskeeper, a cook – “whatever they needed,” he said. Ford said he also was a bartender at numerous gatherings, serving liquor to priests and teenage boys. The parties, he said, were like a social club.
Ford said that Reardon was host at many of the parties, and O’Brien “was definitely a part of that whole scene.”
In a deposition taken in August 1998 in a sexual abuse case involving a different priest, Ford said he attended more than a dozen of the events in 1978 and 1979. He said the parties were for priests, and that some priests brought teenage boys – younger than 16 years old – with them.
Ford said he witnessed “the fondling of youth for what appeared to be personal gratification.”
He said that at the parties at the rectory, Reardon took him into empty rooms, where he performed acts of exhibitionism and made unwanted contact with him. He said other priests at the parties took other boys into rooms as well.
Ford said he confronted Reardon about the alleged misconduct in 1979. Around 1980, he said, he went to see Bishop John Sullivan, telling him he had suffered abuse and that he wanted Reardon removed from contact with children.
He said the bishop, who is now deceased, promised him that his concerns would be addressed immediately. But Reardon continued to be a priest in the diocese. Indeed, in the 1980 Official Catholic Directory, he was listed in charge of the Catholic Youth Organization.
“I felt they were evasive and dismissing the whole thing,” Ford said. “They didn’t get rid of him until years after knowing and moving him to several different posts.”
Haden, the attorney for the diocese, said he could not respond to Ford’s allegations.
“I’m not going to comment about any individual that hasn’t filed a lawsuit, because they have not made themselves public to me,” he said.
Two brothers interviewed by The Star – both who attended St. Elizabeth’s school and served as altar boys for O’Brien – said they had been molested by O’Brien, and one said he also was molested by Reardon. They said their parents were good friends of O’Brien and respected him.
The older brother, who is now a therapist, is suing O’Brien and Reardon under the name John SJ2 Doe, and his sibling is suing O’Brien under the name John SD Doe.
The elder sibling said many of the alleged incidents occurred when he worked at St. Elizabeth’s rectory in seventh and eighth grade, but added he also went to Lake Viking numerous times with O’Brien. He said the monsignor regularly served the boys alcohol, and that on one visit, he had an encounter with Reardon.
“Tom Reardon made me touch (him) when we were in the water at the lake,” he said. “He said, ‘Just put your hand down there.’ I pulled away.”
He said he tried to tell his parents what was going on. “They said, ‘Oh, you must have misinterpreted something.’ And I was a kid and I was scared, and so I just kind of gave it up.”
The man said his father believes him now, and feels terrible about it. He never approached his mother about it again. She died in 2001, and O’Brien officiated at her funeral.
“My brother was so mad at him saying the funeral Mass,” he recalled. “I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”
His brother finally told him why he was so upset. O’Brien had molested him as well, he alleged.
The younger brother, who worked at the rectory from 1976 to 1978, told The Star and alleged in his lawsuit that the incident occurred in O’Brien’s car when they were driving home from the lake. He said he was 12 or 13 at the time, and O’Brien allowed his brother to drive the car, even though he hadn’t gotten his license.
At one point, he said, O’Brien stuck his arm from the front seat to the back, reached under his swimming trunks and squeezed. The boy’s parents, who also had been at the lake, were following in their car. After that, he said, “I tried to block it out completely.”
He was successful, he said, until his mother died and his father asked O’Brien to officiate at her funeral. Just before the service, he told his older brother, and his older brother shared his story as well. They decided to go ahead with the service, because they didn’t want to upset their father.
“It was despicable. Unforgivable,” the younger brother said. “I looked in the reflection of my glasses the entire funeral Mass, because I could see the stained glass window and Jesus Christ in my glasses. And I thought that was the only thing was going to save me from rushing out and killing the guy.”
He said he still worries about some of the boys he knew who had encounters with O’Brien.
“A lot of the kids, they were troubled to begin with and they turned to the church for help,” he said. “It had to just worsen any problems they may have had.”
Trail of destruction
Indeed, many of the men interviewed said the alleged abuse by Reardon and O’Brien left a trail of personal destruction.
One teenager was found hanging in the laundry room of his home wearing a woman’s slip and underwear. His brother alleges in a lawsuit that the boy had been molested by Reardon and that Reardon then officiated at the teen’s funeral.
Jack Stuckenschneider said in a pending lawsuit that abuse by Reardon when he was 12 years old led to a life of drug and alcohol abuse. In 1993, he was ordered by the courts to attend a substance abuse treatment program.
When he got there, he discovered that the substance abuse counselor was Reardon.
“I’m doing this out of fear for other young children and young adults,” Stuckenschneider said of his lawsuit. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve gone through. It’s a pure living hell.”
Last year, local attorney Steve Schleicher and another man who was raised in St. Elizabeth’s parish – who were not molested but grew up with numerous alleged victims of O’Brien and Reardon – came up with an idea they thought would help their friends and family members heal: Tear down St. Elizabeth’s rectory.
They delivered a small check to the diocese to help with the demolition expenses. The check was returned.
“There is a general feeling that the wave has crested … new cases are not being reported,” explained the Rev. Robert Murphy, vicar general of the diocese, in a letter to them dated March 2006. “I take seriously your concerns and share them.”
Priest sex abuse cases in the United States have cost the Roman Catholic Church at least $2.3 billion since 1950. In recent months, several dioceses around the country have paid these settlements:
?The Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., agreed to pay $52 million to 175 victims in order to emerge from bankruptcy protection. The Diocese of Spokane, Wash., agreed to pay $48 million for about 150 claims to emerge from bankruptcy protection.
?The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego agreed to pay $198.1 million to settle 144 claims of sexual abuse by clergy, the second-largest payment by a diocese.
?The Los Angeles Archdiocese settled 508 cases for $660 million, the largest payment in the sex abuse scandal to date.
Thomas J. O’Brien, 81, attended St. Francis Xavier elementary and Rockhurst High School, then Conception High School and Conception Seminary.
Ordained in 1950 at age 23, he served at numerous parishes, starting at St. Agnes in Springfield from 1950 to 1954. His other assignments were in the Kansas City area, including Holy Trinity from 1956 to 1958; St. Pius X Home, an orphanage, from 1959 to 1964; St. Patrick, 1965 to 1971; St. Elizabeth, 1971 to 1981; Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Independence from 1982 to 1984; St. Thomas More, 1985 to 1994; and St. Joseph Health Center, 1984 to 2002.
O’Brien also was principal of St. Pius X high school from 1961 until 1968 and superintendent of Catholic schools from 1969 to mid-1971. He also served as president of the Education Department of the Missouri Catholic Conference.
Thomas Reardon, 65, was ordained in 1967 and served at St. Elizabeth’s parish from 1968 to 1971, followed by St. John Francis Regis from 1972 to 1973, then Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception from 1974 to 1977. He was at Church of the Santa Fe in Buckner in 1978, then St. Gabriel the Archangel from 1979 to 1981, then back at Regis from 1982 until 1989. During his priesthood, Reardon also served as the administrator of Camp Little Flower in Raytown, which provided educational camping for children age 7 through 12. In the 1980 Official Catholic Directory, he also was listed in charge of the Catholic Youth Organization.
Reardon left the priesthood in 1989. In recent years, he has worked as a substance abuse counselor and a compulsive gambling counselor, but last year he asked the state of Missouri to suspend his certification.
By JUDY L. THOMAS The Kansas City Star