Skip to Content

Survivor Narratives

Joseph C. O’Brien

Father Joseph O’Brien was a master in grooming children. He was a charismatic priest with, rumor had it, friends in high places at the Diocese of Springfield. Unlike others in the church, O’Brien was happy to talk to inquisitive young boys about sex. And when he asked these children in confession to talk about their sexual fantasies, he insisted it was only because he was trying to help them “get control” and stop the sin of “self-abuse.” Two survivors of O’Brien’s abuse came forward to share their experiences with the Attorney General’s investigators.

“Christopher” was 12 years old when O’Brien arrived at Saint Patrick in Alton in 1968. It was a small and relatively poor parish, and O’Brien’s reputation preceded him; everyone knew he was a friend of Bishop William O’Connor, and he was welcomed to the community with much fanfare. Christopher, on the other hand, had been having a rough time. His father was a police officer whose job required him to spend a lot of time away from home. At school, he was physically and emotionally abused by nuns.

O’Brien was kind and friendly to Christopher, who was an altar server. He showed an interest in the young boy like no one else did. “He listened to me,” Christopher remembers, “and I truly felt he cared about me.” Christopher gravitated toward O’Brien and even began to idolize him. His mother, a devout Catholic, was overjoyed to have a beloved priest in her son’s life.

O’Brien also curried favor among parish boys like Christopher by dropping in on their religion classes to offer some sex education. The boys were used to hearing lectures from the nuns denouncing all sexual activity and taking no questions. O’Brien, by contrast, used medical terminology to shed light on the subject and was surprisingly candid for a priest. He talked about girls and lust and masturbation, among other “forbidden” subjects. The boys, naturally curious about sex, always wanted to hear more from him. Looking back, Christopher recognizes O’Brien was grooming him and his classmates.

O’Brien did make some changes at Saint Patrick. Instead of the traditional confession, where the parishioner speaks to the priest in a stall through an obscuring screen, O’Brien told the parish boys he wanted to hear their confessions openly and face to face. He also said he would ask them probing questions to help identify and address any sins they may have committed. Sitting before the priest one day, Christopher was subjected to a barrage of highly personal inquiries in the guise of eliciting his confession. “I was a good Catholic and an altar server,” Christopher recalls. “I know I’m supposed to talk to a priest.” When O’Brien asked Christopher if he had ever masturbated, the boy admitted he had.

Christopher was embarrassed by what he thought was a failure. But O’Brien seemed to take it in stride. He told the boy he was brave for broaching the subject—and while his feelings were normal, they did have to be controlled. He told Christopher to drop by the rectory sometime after school if he wanted to receive some “counseling” on how to do so. When Christopher told his mother the priest wanted to meet with him, she was very happy. So the boy decided to go.

“Sexual abuse is a lifelong sentence for the child survivors,” Christopher explains.

Christopher can still picture O’Brien’s office in the rectory to this day. He was “star struck” by the majesty of the room—the wooden desk and the leather chairs, nothing like what his family had at home. At that moment, Christopher recalls, “I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be treated with respect and deference. I wanted people to look up to me and listen to me like they did the priests.”

O’Brien began the “counseling” session by offering Christopher a drink and some snacks. He said he was concerned about the boy yet confident he could help. He had also masturbated to fantasies about girls when he was a youngster. But, the priest continued, he had “overcome” those feelings—and he could teach Christopher how to do the same. First, O’Brien explained, he would need to see the boy’s penis. Christopher was scared and confused. “But what could I have done?” he asks in hindsight. “This was Father O’Brien.” Christopher had never seen a layperson confront a priest for any reason. “Clergy were on a pedestal. They could get away with anything.” So Christopher complied with O’Brien’s direction and pulled down his pants.

O’Brien seized Christopher’s penis and fondled it for several minutes. He seemed to become agitated, however, when the boy failed to develop an erection. So the priest changed tack. He unzipped his pants and pulled out his own penis; it was large and erect, Christopher recalls. O’Brien told him he too could have “a man’s penis” if he could just get control over himself. “He told me to touch his penis,” Christopher explains, “and when I just barely touched it, he had me stroke it much more aggressively like he had done to me.”

Eventually, it was over; O’Brien zipped up his pants and told Christopher they were done for the day. But, the priest continued, the boy should come back frequently so they could monitor his “progress.” O’Brien explained he could tell, just by looking at Christopher’s penis, whether he had been “a bad boy” who was touching himself again. Then the priest appeared to strike a bargain with the child. If he kept what had happened between them a secret from his parents and the nuns, he wouldn’t get in trouble for masturbating to impure thoughts of girls. “He made it sound like he was doing me a favor,” Christopher says.

As Christopher walked home from the rectory, he felt “stunned about what had happened.” He couldn’t make sense of it. “How could masturbating each other help me with my sinful problem?” he wondered. But on the other hand, “was this the right thing and had this respected priest really tried to help me? Had I caused this to happen?” There was just one thing Christopher knew for certain. “There was no way I could tell anyone.” He worried his mother wouldn’t believe him—and he worried his father would believe him and then kill the priest.

O’Brien continued his efforts to lure Christopher back to the rectory for further “counseling.” When the boy refused to go, O’Brien shunned him. “I felt rejected,” Christopher recalls of the priest he had once idolized.

O’Brien’s abuse affected the course of Christopher’s life for decades. “Very quickly,” he wrote years later, “the feelings of confusion changed to embarrassment, shame and guilt. Those feeling never went away either. No matter how much I tried to rationalize what had happened, repress it, or drink or drug it away, it never got better. Ever.” On the outside, Christopher appeared to be a successful professional. But on the inside, he suffered from addiction to drugs and alcohol. He also experienced guilt and embarrassment. He became secretive and steeped in shame—certain he did not deserve any of the good things that had happened to him in life. Finally, after seeing the movie Spotlight in 2014, he revealed O’Brien’s abuse to both his wife and therapist.

A year later, in December 2015, Christopher summoned the courage to disclose the abuse to the Diocese of Springfield. He penned a heart-wrenching letter to Bishop Thomas Paprocki. “Something died inside me during my time at St. Patrick’s,” he explained, “and I never got better.” Christopher described for the bishop in excruciating detail the abuse he endured at O’Brien’s hands. “Not a day has gone by that I have not thought about what happened to me and the consequences that I have suffered,” he wrote. “I am no longer going to be kept silent by shame and embarrassment.”

But Bishop Paprocki never responded to Christopher’s letter. “It was like a nail in the coffin,” Christopher says today. He did hear from the diocese’s victims assistance coordinator, who told him his allegation would be presented to the review board; a few months later, she reported back that the board had determined his allegation was credible. The diocese also offered to pay for Christopher’s therapy. He agreed. After all, he explains, “they are responsible for what happened to me.”

Christopher is not the only survivor of O’Brien’s abuse—not by a longshot. “Jason” also reached out to the Attorney General’s investigators to share his experience. He met O’Brien in 1974, when the priest was assigned to Saint Patrick in Decatur (following an abrupt 1970 departure from Christopher’s parish, Saint Patrick in Alton). Over the next two years, O’Brien “wined and dined” Jason and bought him expensive clothes. He told Jason he was a “pretty boy” and that he loved him. He said he was rich and someday would give Jason some of his money. He also took Jason on two trips to Florida. That’s where the sexual abuse happened.

By any account, their trips to Florida were extravagant. The priest stayed in exclusive hotels, dined in expensive restaurants, and drove around in a slick convertible. O’Brien told Jason money was no object—there was no limit to what they could do.

After a day of fun in the sun, they would return to their hotel room and O’Brien would prepare a bowl of ice cream for Jason. They sat together eating the treat in their underwear. Once, on a trip when he was 16 years old, Jason recalls passing out. When he regained consciousness, he was naked on the floor. It was only later he came to understand the priest must have put something in his ice cream. “This is not what’s supposed to be happening,” he remembers thinking. He walked out of the hotel and down to the beach to spend some time alone in reflection.

When he returned to the room, he found O’Brien fully dressed in his liturgical garments and praying on the rosary. He apologized to Jason and asked for his forgiveness. He also told Jason, “men don’t tell others about the things they do together.” About a year later, O’Brien gave Jason $500. “He was a master manipulator,” Jason explains.

Jason continues to deal with the effects of O’Brien’s abuse. He has been suicidal, suffers from depression, and has trouble with alcohol; he says the anger never leaves him. Recently, he saw a priest rubbing a young boy’s back at an event. He approached the priest and told him, “We don’t do that here.”

Christopher and Jason are not alone. More than a dozen survivors have reported to the Diocese of Springfield that O’Brien sexually abused them as young boys. And because these survivors had the courage to share their experiences, the diocese publicly identified O’Brien as a credibly accused child sex abuser in 2018. Both Christopher and Jason say this is a good start—but not nearly enough. The diocese’s website is difficult to find, they say, and lacks empathy for the children who suffered. “Sexual abuse is a lifelong sentence for the child survivors,” Christopher explains. He and Jason want the diocese to do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

See details for Joseph Cullen O'Brien

Back to Top

Scroll of Abusive Clerics/Brothers



Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*