A Catholic priest accused five separate times of sexually abusing minors served as a chaplain at a Kansas City hospital until he retired Friday, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph announced Monday.
Monsignor Thomas J. O’Brien, 75, had been working at St. Joseph Health Center, a Catholic hospital. During his more than 50-year career in the priesthood, O’Brien also directed the Catholic school system in the diocese and was principal of a Catholic high school.
O’Brien “vigorously denied any wrongdoing” and the diocese never paid financial settlements in any of the cases, said the Rev. Patrick Rush, the diocese’s vicar-general, in a prepared statement.
O’Brien could not be reached for comment Monday.
Last month, Bishop Raymond J. Boland assured parishioners that “we presently have no priest, teacher or youth minister in a parish or school who has ever been accused of any form of child sexual abuse.”
Rush said Monday that Boland’s statement applied only to schools and parishes and therefore was accurate.
The allegations against O’Brien first surfaced in 1983, Rush said. All involved “inappropriate touching” of teen-age boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rush said.
Alcohol played a role in some of the alleged incidents, Rush said. At least one allegedly took place at a lake house O’Brien owned, Rush said.
Several men interviewed in recent weeks by The Kansas City Star told of attending parties at which O’Brien served beer and hard liquor to minors. Those parties, they said, were widely discussed by altar boys and other teens at area parishes.
David Ford, who was an altar boy at St. Gabriel’s in the late 1970s, said he served drinks to O’Brien and other priests at numerous social gatherings. Ford, who was 14 and 15 at the time, said that young boys in their teens also attended those parties and that he served drinks to them as well.
“I was the bartender,” said Ford, who said he was not abused by O’Brien. “Everybody was drinking. It was like a social club, and Monsignor O’Brien was definitely a part of that whole scene.”
After the 1983 allegations, O’Brien was sent for residential psychiatric treatment at Catholic facilities in New Mexico, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., from October 1983 until June 1984, Rush said. O’Brien also was treated for alcoholism, Rush said.
Upon his return, O’Brien was removed from his position as pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish and was assigned as a chaplain at St. Joseph.
“His therapist felt comfortable saying that he should be reassigned, but he should be reassigned in a situation that did not put children at risk,” Rush said in an interview.
There have been no allegations of sexual abuse against O’Brien since his return to the diocese, Rush said.
From 1985 until 1994, while he was working at the hospital, O’Brien lived at the rectory of St. Thomas More parish in south Kansas City. There, he celebrated Mass “but otherwise performed no pastoral ministry which could put children at risk,” Rush said.
“For a little while, he lived on his own, but then on the advice of his therapist, he was put in a residential setting of a parish,” Rush said.
Rush, who was then pastor of St. Thomas More, said limitations on O’Brien’s activities were made clear to him by diocesan officials.
But parishioners of the church were never told of the allegations against O’Brien.
“Would we handle the situation differently now?” Rush said. “Yes, we would.”
Rush said hospital officials at the time were told of the allegations.
But Debbie Brinkoetter, a hospital spokeswoman, said Monday that the current administrators did not know of the allegations. Brinkoetter said officials were told within the last few weeks, when diocese officials began thinking about making the accusations public.
“Monsignor Tom O’Brien has been a loyal servant of the church and an exemplary employee participant in our health-care ministry,” Brinkoetter said in a statement.
While Rush said he could not be sure that O’Brien was never alone with a minor, he said he felt that no children were at risk during the last 18 years.
O’Brien worked a full 40-hour week at the hospital until 1994, when his health began to fail. Since then, he has worked from 12 to 20 hours a week, Rush said.
The diocese has had a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse by priests since Boland became bishop in 1993. Boland was not available for comment, Rush said.
O’Brien was born and raised in Kansas City and graduated from Conception Seminary. In a career dating to 1950, he ministered several local parishes, including St. Patrick’s, St. Elizabeth’s and Nativity.
He also was principal of St. Pius X High School in Kansas City, North, from 1961 until 1968. He was assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools from 1956 until 1969, and superintendent from 1969 until 1971. He also served as president of the Education Department of the Missouri Catholic Conference.
O’Brien has been told not to celebrate Mass while the diocese’s Independent Review Board considers the old allegations, Rush said.