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By Dennis Brown
As John Doe recalls it, Father Thomas Cooper's rental property out in the country was "a really neat place to go" — at first. A city kid like Doe on summer break could scoop up lizards and poke at turtles. He can't remember the exact location of what he calls "the clubhouse" but remembers it was near the Big River.
Doe first got to know the priest by hanging around St. Mary Magdalen's school yard, located just down the block from where the boy's family lived. Cooper arrived at the parish in 1970.
"He was kind of a hippie," Doe says, recalling the priest's longish blond hair and sandals. He offered kids rides on his motorcycle and took them for ice cream. He invited Doe more than once to hop in his tool truck and accompany him on odd jobs.
"We always left from the rectory," Doe says. "Every time I was with that guy, it originated at St. Mary Magdalen." As for faraway excursions to Cooper's Big River clubhouse, Doe had to get permission from his parents. Of course, it was never hard to convince his father, who Doe says was an usher at Mass and a man of Italian descent for whom "the sun rose and set on the Catholic Church."
On several occasions Cooper drove groups of boys down to the clubhouse. The priest brought a .22 rifle and let them shoot it. He also recalls Cooper walking around naked and encouraging Doe and his comrades to skinny-dip. Not only that: He showed the boys "girlie mags" filled with pictures of half-naked women.
One day, according to Doe's sworn statements, Cooper invited him down to the clubhouse all by himself for an overnight stay. At some point during the night, a strange sensation awoke the young man. The priest was on the bed performing oral sex on him. After a few minutes, Cooper demanded that Doe do the same for him.
Cooper proceeded to flip the boy on his stomach and tried to sodomize him, spitting on his hand for lubricant. Cooper, claimed Doe, stopped when Doe cried out in pain.
The next morning, Cooper may have demanded that the boy keep this secret, but Doe can't remember. "I'm sure I wasn't going to say nothing to nobody," he says. "They would say I was a queer or a fag or something."
The other episode to surface during Doe's jolt of memory recovery occurred sometime later that summer, when Cooper managed to lure Doe back to the clubhouse. That time, he cornered the boy in his bedroom and instructed him to take his pants down. Again, he initiated an exchange of oral sex.
In a recent conversation with Church attorneys, Doe was asked for graphic details:
Lawyer: This is a hard question. Did [Cooper] get you to ejaculate?
Doe: I believe I did.
Lawyer: And did he ejaculate on you?
Doe: No, he did not.
Lawyer: OK. How do you remember that he didn't ejaculate?
Doe: I remember he was encouraging me, telling me that I — that I was good or something. I don't know. It was something goofy. I don't know. I'm not lying about this.
Lawyer: I know you're not.
When Doe filed his suit in June 2005, local victim advocates had never heard of Father Cooper. By this time, the clerical sex-abuse scandal that rocked Boston in 2002 had spread to dioceses across the country. Two-thirds of American bishops were revealed to have shuffled accused priests — some of them admitted pedophiles — from parish to parish, adhering to a culture of secrecy.
In St. Louis, dozens of people came forward to make fresh allegations, and several clergymen were removed from active ministry. In 2002, the year the scandal hit, the archdiocese settled zero cases. Over the next three years, they settled 39 cases and paid $4.5 million to victims.
On June 26, 2005, the day after Doe made his claim, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told reporters that the deceased Cooper had never been sued or accused of sexual abuse before.
As it turns out, they were wrong.
About a decade earlier, a different south-city man alleged in civil court that when he was twelve, he went on a canoe trip with Cooper near De Soto. The priest plied him with alcohol and marijuana and then sexually abused him, the petition reads. The nature of the abuse resembled Doe's account — both oral and anal sex — and would have occurred during the same summer. That plaintiff also mentioned two episodes of abuse inside the priest's living quarters at St. Mary Magdalen.
The case was settled out of court in 1997. John Doe had never heard anything about it.
Church officials, on the other hand, had known about Cooper decades before. Doe's court file contains a barely legible photocopy of a letter, dated December 21, 1968, from Father David Wichlan of St. Cecilia Parish in south St. Louis, addressed to Monsignor Adrian I. Dwyer. It concerns an unidentified young man and reads:
....In regard to Father Tom Cooper....I called the young man and asked him to come....and tell his story, which he did. I asked if he'd be willing to repeat his story in your presence and he said....he didn't want to get Fr. Cooper in trouble....but I explained to him that this may be necessary to help Fr. Cooper and perhaps preserve other innocent [unreadable] from harm.
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