Former Aspen priest faces civil lawsuit accusing him of 300 occasions of sex assault on altar boy

Lawsuit accuses Catholic priest of beating boy if he didn’t accede to sexual demands starting when accuser was 7 years old and lasting for four years

Jason Auslander
Aspen Times

A former Aspen Catholic priest not only sexually assaulted a local altar boy approximately 300 times in the early 2000s, he beat the boy when he declined to accede to his sexual demands, according to a civil lawsuit filed last week in Denver District Court.

The Rev. Michael O’Brien allegedly began abusing Keegan Callahan at age 7, soon after he moved to Aspen in the summer of 2004 with his devout Roman Catholic family, the lawsuit states. The abuse of Callahan, now 24 and serving a 14-year prison sentence for committing sex crimes against juveniles in Aspen, allegedly continued through 2008.

“If (Callahan) chose not to comply with O’Brien’s sexual demands, O’Brien would physically punish (Callahan) by hitting him in the torso, chest, and/or back,” according to the complaint, filed Dec. 22. “The egregious acts of sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse (Callahan) suffered resulted in … the developed false belief that rape and torture is normal.”

O’Brien served at St. Mary Catholic Church on Main Street in Aspen from 2002 to 2011, when he left for a six-month sabbatical to address health issues, the lawsuit says. He was later appointed pastor of a Catholic church in Julesburg, though he was placed on administrative leave in September when the Archdiocese of Denver was notified of the abuse allegations.

At that time, Vicar General Very Rev. Randy Dollins said O’Brien “resolutely denied these allegations” and that the archdiocese had not received any other similar allegations against him.

On Thursday, O’Brien’s Denver-based attorney echoed that statement.

“Father O’Brien denies the allegations made by Keegan Callahan in this complaint and will fight the allegations in court,” Kevin McGreevy said.

The Aspen Police Department is conducting a criminal investigation into Callahan’s allegations. Sgt. Rick Magnuson declined to comment Thursday on an open case.

Rev. Michael J. O’Brien
Archdiocese of Denver image

Mark Haas, an archdiocese spokesman, said Thursday the organization was waiting for Aspen police to determine the validity of the allegations. The policy of the archdiocese is to wait for the criminal investigation to be completed before undertaking an internal investigation.

“Since receiving this allegation in September, Fr. O’Brien has remained out of the ministry and on administrative leave while the Archdiocese of Denver has waited for the Aspen Police Department to conduct its investigation,” according to an email statement from Haas. “Fr. O’Brien has not been interviewed by Aspen PD and no criminal charges have been filed.

“We will do our own internal investigation at the appropriate time.”

Scott Eldredge, Callahan’s attorney, characterized the allegations as “horrific.”

“It was a repeated, horrific episode of abuse,” he said Thursday. “We’re looking forward to trial.”

The Aspen Times is naming the alleged victim because he has made his name known by filing the public document.

The Callahan family regularly celebrated mass, received the sacraments and participated in church-related activities, according to the lawsuit. Callahan greatly admired and revered the Roman Catholic Church, served as altar boy for O’Brien and attended classes he supervised.

“The abuse by O’Brien began only a few months after (Callahan) and his family joined St. Mary’s,” the lawsuit states. “O’Brien continued to groom (Callahan) by normalizing sexual abuse and represented to (him) that engaging in these sexual acts was a way of showing God’s love.

“Between 2004 and 2008, (Callahan) was sexually abused by O’Brien at St. Mary’s on approximately 300 occasions.”

The abuse not only caused Callahan to believe rape and torture were normal, it caused him “severe emotional, physical and mental anguish,” and left him with a loss of faith in “any church or institution” and a loss of innocence, according to the complaint.

“Moreover, (Callahan) did not discover … that he was injured or that the cause of his injuries was due to the abuse he suffered until recently because of the profound psychological damage that occurred as a result of (O’Brien’s) actions,” the suit states. “The sexual exploitation and circumstances under which the multiple acts of abuse occurred caused (Callahan) to develop various psychological coping mechanisms, including self-blame, denial, repression, suppression and disassociation from his experiences.”

The suit accuses St. Mary and the Archdiocese of Denver of negligence in employing and retaining O’Brien, which caused Callahan lasting injuries.

The complaint does not directly link Callahan’s alleged abuse to his prison sentence and Eldredge declined to comment Thursday on whether the two were related.

Callahan and another Aspen young man, Henry Henley, were arrested by Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies in October 2018 and accused of using extreme violence to rape a 16-year-old local girl. They were also accused of assaulting other teenage girls.

Callahan pleaded guilty in September 2019 to sexual exploitation of a child and second-degree assault — both felonies — and two misdemeanor counts of unlawful sexual contact in relation to those allegations. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison later the same month, and will have to serve five years of parole when he’s released and register as a sex offender for life.

He is currently being held at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway, according to Department of Corrections.

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