James O’Bryan was a good Catholic boy in 1928. Then 7 years old, he was in second grade at a Catholic school in Louisville, Ky. He counted his first Communion as one of the defining moments of his life and felt loved in his family. That all changed when he was fondled by a priest — a priest who died more than 50 years ago without any accusations publicly made against him.
Now, 82 years later, O’Bryan has returned to the Church, largely through the compassionate care of another priest. O’Bryan, one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Vatican that was recently dropped, shared his story with Our Sunday Visitor.
Our Sunday Visitor: What happened to you in 1928?
O’Bryan: At 7 years of age, I was surrounded by my family. I was a Catholic boy, and at that time, one was identified by the Catholic parish they lived in. Then the lies started. I knew what a lie was. When I was 6 years old, my grandfather, Gene O’Bryan, took me by the hand and enrolled me in St. Cecilia School, which was across the street from where I lived. I knew that Father Lawrence Kuntz had put his hand in my pants pocket, and when he said he was trying to prevent me from falling off a library stool, he was telling a lie. Catholic nuns had taught me in the first grade and most of the second, and I knew what a lie was.
At my first Communion, when the priest said the prayer of consecration, he was consecrating my young life to Jesus Christ. I thought that I was a special child of God. At six years of age, that’s all I remember: being taught by the nuns and first Communion and confirmation.
Father Kuntz, looking back on it now, he seduced me. He welcomed me into his garden behind the rectory when I was a small boy playing in the schoolyard. He grew vegetables there and flowers for the altar, and I thought it was the most wonderful thing.
My mother was a single parent, non-Catholic, and I spent about half my time living with my grandparents and half my time with my mother.
When Father Lawrence put his hand in my pants pocket in the school library, it terrified me. I had no idea what to do. So I ran home and hid in a closet until my mother got home from work, and I told her what happened. She took me right across the street to the rectory to confront Father Lawrence. He wasn’t there, so she spoke with the pastor, who said he would talk to Father Lawrence and talk to us later. Well, he came back and said Father Lawrence said he was trying to prevent me falling, and he believed him.
When this was all discussed in the family, my grandparents didn’t believe me. I can remember him [Father Lawrence] having a drink with my grandpa in the kitchen — they thought I was just looking for attention or something. My mother believed me and took me out of Catholic school and church immediately.
OSV: What did this do to the relationships in your family?
O’Bryan: It broke them. My grandparents told my mother that we would both go straight to hell. You can’t imagine what that does to a small child. … I felt I’d lost the love of my grandparents; I was kind of ostracized. We still saw them, but it was never the same.
OSV: How did it affect you in later years?
O’Bryan: I joined the Marines two days after Pearl Harbor, and I was with the First Marine Division Aug. 7, 1942, when we landed at Guadalcanal. Two days before we landed, when the priest on the ship, the chaplain, started holding confession and guys were lined up, when he had Mass before we landed, I wasn’t part of that. The next four months in the fighting on Guadalcanal, I was not in a state of grace. If something had happened to me… I was miserable, because of the fighting but also because I didn’t have my faith to comfort me. I didn’t feel like I had left it; I felt like my faith had left me.
Another thing: This has really affected five generations of my family. I told you about my grandparents and my parents and me, but there’s also my son and my grandchildren. When my son was born, it never entered my mind to have him baptized or to take him to church. He’s 53, and he doesn’t have any faith. And now my grandson who is 16, it’s the same thing. I can’t tell you how much that has affected me. I don’t put any kind of importance on that the priest put his hand in my pocket. The big thing is what happened to me, my grandparents, my children and my grandchildren. I resent that part. I really do.
OSV: How did the lawsuit against the Vatican start?
O’Bryan: The lawsuit started six years ago. I contacted William McMurry [a Louisville attorney] in 2004, after the big meeting of the bishops in Texas [in 2002, which established reforms to prevent future clerical sex abuse]. I started thinking about the hierarchy’s role in all of this situation. I remember how they put [former Oklahoma] Gov. Frank Keating in charge of the group that was supposed to get to the bottom of this, and he came back and told how he was thwarted at every turn.
That’s when I contacted Mr. McMurry, and he said he was thinking about a class-action suit for people who had been molested as a child. He asked if I would be the head plaintiff, and I said yes.
My wife knew about it, and my son knew about it. I didn’t keep it inside me, but I didn’t go telling everyone. It was overwhelming to me, the number of priests and victims, not only here but in Ireland, because that’s where my family came from. It’s all over the world, and I’m sure there’s an awful lot of people who were affected by it.
I live about 150 miles north of San Francisco, and in 2006, I had to go to San Francisco for a deposition. There were three attorneys on each side questioning me, and it went on four hours late one afternoon and another four hours the next morning. I started wondering, my goodness, what am I doing?
When Mr. McMurry called me and said he was thinking of dropping the lawsuit, he said he’d already invested a lot of money and time, and 1928 was a long time ago, and trying to prove the thing that happened would be difficult. And when he advertised for people who had been molested, he didn’t have anyone come forward.
OSV: What did you want when you filed the lawsuit?
O’Bryan: I wanted what’s happening now, for the Church and the bishops to start taking steps to confront this. For the pope to recognize this, to say he is ashamed this happened. That’s helpful to me. Maybe the healing process has begun. For me it has.
OSV: How did you start going to church again?
O’Bryan: I called Father Lou Nichols [of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Mendocino, Calif.] at the request of my wife, Grace, who was in the hospital. We had already been told she was terminally ill, and it was a matter of maybe days or weeks. This was my wife of 52 years, and she was estranged from the Catholic faith also, because when she was young, she had married a fellow who was divorced. In our 52 years of marriage, we never went to church. But she wanted last rites, and that’s when I called the priest.
I was there when he attended my wife. Just prior to attending my wife, he was visiting one of his parishioners who was in the next bed, and I could hear how kind he was. I was very impressed with how caring and compassionate he was with my wife. Jan. 21 was the date of my wife’s death, and since then I’ve been going back to church.
The Louisville Courier-Journal [which profiled O’Bryan in its Aug. 13 edition] did say one thing that was interesting: This was started by a priest, and it looks like it’s ending by a priest.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.