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.