The following is a first-person account by Susanna*, the young woman who alleges Fr Kevin McGoldrick sexually assaulted her in August of 2017. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia found her accusation credible early this year.
We received the document unsolicited, and present it to our readership without any editing on our part, save what was strictly necessary for digital impagination. For our investigative report of her case, and its aftermath, click here. What you are about to read is Susanna’s story, in her own words.
–The Catholic Herald
Early dawn—the cool air of the south rose to meet my heavy lungs as I dragged my feet towards my car. My eyes watered as I looked down at my worn Chacos and the distant sound of the CSX train reached my ears. Its voice beckoned with the promise of not having to face tomorrow…but my funeral flashed before my eyes and the broken hearts of those whom I loved crushed me… so I fumble for my keys, my engine turned over, and I lived to see another day while part of me lay dead in the rectory of Father Kevin McGoldrick. Because of that night, my life will never be the same. Because of this story, I hope yours won’t either.
I fumble for my keys, my engine turned over, and I lived to see another day while part of me lay dead in the rectory of Father Kevin McGoldrick.
When I started my freshman year at Aquinas College, I thought all of my dreams had come true. I finally got to be challenged academically and embrace my faith with radical abandon. I enjoyed the close-knit community, the familial atmosphere, and the fact that I felt completely safe. At Aquinas, we had a full time chaplain—something I was absolutely thrilled about. Father Kevin was pious, intelligent, and loved by virtually everyone. During my first few years of school, I prayed at countless of his Masses, chatted casually with him during class breaks, and came to trust him as a spiritual mentor just as almost every student around me had… So when he started inviting a few of us over to his rectory for cookouts and bourbon tastings, we didn’t think anything of it.
It felt like he was kindly inviting us into one of his hobbies. “It isn’t a big deal, but don’t tell anyone about this,” he would tell us, “Sister would kill me if she knew.” Looking back, I can see that statement seething with manipulation, but at the time, I just shrugged it off. It never occurred to me to wonder if I trusted him…I just did. After all, he was my chaplain.
On one of those cookout-bourbon evenings in August of 2017 Father Kevin introduced us to more bourbon than he usually did and we listened to our favorite songs on YouTube. When the friend I was with left abruptly, I instinctively gathered my things to leave. “Hang on, you’ve gotta hear the end of this song. I’ll get you another drink,” he said, already on his way to his bourbon bar. I looked down at my glass, realizing it wasn’t even empty. “I’m good! I should go, anyway,” I shouted back. When he returned, glass in hand, I didn’t know how to decline the very expensive bourbon without upsetting him, so I drank it.
Slowly, as the hour got late and the summer sun sank behind the trees, he turned our conversation from normal, everyday things to his emotional need for connection and understanding, all the while refilling my glass several times. I didn’t know why he was telling me these things that I simply did not want or need to know, but he made me feel somehow responsible for his pain. This pattern continued and my desire to leave increased, but I didn’t know how and I didn’t want things to be awkward if I told him I didn’t think I should be there alone or that late. He had also encouraged me to drink so much bourbon—exceptionally more than I ever had in my life—that I knew I couldn’t safely drive home.
As he talked, I felt my head beginning to spin. It was near midnight by the time I ran outside to vomit from the excessive amount of alcohol. When I returned from his porch, he gave me a glass of water… and ten minutes later another heavy pour of bourbon.
As he talked, I felt my head beginning to spin. It was near midnight by the time I ran outside to vomit from the excessive amount of alcohol.
When he started touching me, I was paralyzed. I wanted to run, to scream, to do anything, but I couldn’t. I was crippled by fear and confusion. “What the hell is going on? Is this really happening right now?” I remember asking myself over and over again. But my thoughts wouldn’t do me any good. Several hours went by, my consciousness fading in and out. Every time I woke up I hoped I was in a nightmare and the chaplain of my college wasn’t on top of me, touching me in ways I had never let anyone touch me. I was wrong each time.
Finally, in the early hours of the morning, I left. That evening I had gone with my friend to the rectory of the chaplain I admired as his spiritual daughter; I left as a suicidal victim of sexual assault.
The next day he told me we needed to talk…and by talk he meant he needed to tell me all of the reasons I couldn’t tell anyone what “happened.” In the same breath that he said it wasn’t a big deal, he also told me that if I told anyone his reputation would be ruined. He pleaded that if I cared about him at all I would just keep it between us, that we could pretend it never happened, that this would be better for both of us.. Later I sat shaking on the floor of my apartment not knowing what to do. I couldn’t make sense of it all. He was a priest…my priest. Was what happened okay like he said it was? The Sisters who ran my college trusted him…I had trusted him… it seemed like everyone trusted him. My classmates gushed about how great he was and the Nashville Catholic community adored him. Could everyone be wrong?
That evening I had gone with my friend to the rectory of the chaplain I admired as his spiritual daughter; I left as a suicidal victim of sexual assault.
Like almost every victim of sexual assault, I didn’t know what to do, or how to even use the words sexual assault, so I blamed myself. Why did I even go there? Why did I take the drinks? Why didn’t I yell or leave? Why was I so stupid? These questions rattled in my mind. Simultaneously, I felt guilt for not saying anything because deep, deep within me I knew I had been violated at a foundational level. What if he hurt one of my classmates? What if he would go on to hurt one of the girls at Overbrook School or Saint Cecilia Academy where he was soon to become chaplain? I was overwhelmed by conflicting thoughts and emotions and a desperate desire to maintain the status quo.
Going forward into my senior year, I was haunted by flashbacks and nightmares as I began to slowly and in small bursts of clarity understand what Father Kevin did to me. I was disgusted all of the time—mostly with myself. I could hardly look in the mirror… but on the outside, I pretended everything was okay. If I ran into Father Kevin on our tiny campus, I would freeze until he moved on, hoping he didn’t see me and that no one noticed I was holding my breath and trying not to cry. In desperate attempts to escape the overwhelming confusion and guilt, I regularly contemplated taking my own life. Keeping it in, being silent about it, almost killed me. I knew I couldn’t go on this way, but I couldn’t find the words to explain what happened and I felt trapped in misplaced guilt.
In March of 2019, almost a year after I graduated, I finally had the courage to share my experience with my spiritual director. I didn’t take my eyes off the rim of his office table as I struggled to get the words out for the first time, but he confidently spoke a sentence that still echoes in my heart: “There is nothing you can tell me that would make this even an ounce your fault.” I needed to hear that truth to begin getting my life back.
Slowly, I began to understand and accept what happened that summer. I was sexually abused by my college chaplain. The reality of this hit me like a freight train. I didn’t want it to be true. Not for me, not for anyone. I wanted to go back to pretending, to rationalizing, to ignoring… but I couldn’t. My spiritual director’s example of authentic priestly fatherhood gave me the confidence and support I needed to do the right thing…for me, for others…for the Church. I was afraid of what would happen as a result of making a report, but I knew something had to be done.
However, doubts ate away at me: you were an adult, you should have protected yourself. Think about what this will do to your friends. Suck it up, it wasn’t that bad— All you’re doing is hurting the people you love. But with my spiritual director’s encouragement, I was able to overcome my fears and make a report to the Diocese of Nashville which, while not Father Kevin’s home diocese, was the place where the abuse (honestly, I was barely able to use this word yet) happened. It took every ounce of courage I had to tell the Victim Assistance Coordinator what happened, which I thought would be the hardest thing I had to do, but I knew I needed to make sure no one else got hurt.
Days, weeks, months, passed, but I received no substantial response or course of action from the Diocese, despite my calls and emails. To my disappointment, Father Kevin even maintained his assignment at the all girl’s High School. This made me wonder if their administration was even accurately notified by the diocese. As time went on, nothing seemed to change except my growing confusion, pain, and fear that nothing was being done with my report. This haunted me and all of the fears I had about reporting were amplified by the lack of communication from the diocese. Their silence made me feel like I didn’t matter. But why didn’t I matter? Was it because I was an adult? Because what he did wasn’t bad enough. Because it was my fault?
Days, weeks, months, passed, but I received no substantial response or course of action from the Diocese, despite my calls and emails.
Again with the help of my spiritual director, I was able to combat these lies. At that point, I had two choices: be quiet or speak louder. In June of 2019, I chose to speak louder. I wrote an account of my experience and sent it directly to the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Father’s Kevin’s home diocese, and to the Bishop of Nashville, just to make sure he was aware. Upon receiving my letter, I was informed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that Father Kevin had been recalled, an investigation was opened, and his faculties were restricted. In January 2020 I was informed that Archbishop Chaput found the allegations I brought against McGoldrick to be credible and the canonical process for his suspension was underway. I was relieved by this news, but something still wasn’t right. I wanted to be satisfied, but I wasn’t.
I didn’t understand why I, the person who got hurt, had to make a report to Philadelphia myself and I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t. Would another young woman find herself in the very position that I had? Worse yet, had another young woman already been there? My concern for the way the Diocese of Nashville handled my report ate away at me. I wanted to fight for change, for a better response when someone makes such a report, but I was petrified. “How can I fight against the Church that I love,” I asked my spiritual director. He again replied with words that accompanied me through the next steps, “You love Her enough to fight for Her.”
Would another young woman find herself in the very position that I had? Worse yet, had another young woman already been there?
One month later, after multiple failed attempts to speak to anyone remotely competent in the diocese of Nashville to discuss the matter, I stood waiting in the lonely conference room of a respected Nashville law firm overlooking the cityscape. I was again overcome with self-doubt and the fear that advocating for change would cause more harm than good. A man walked in quietly, breaking the monologue of my doubt, almost startling me. As he introduced himself, his eyes offered comfort and, for a moment, I forgot he was a lawyer. I was still scared, but I felt better knowing I wasn’t alone and that hopefully now the diocese would listen.
In the months that followed, I tried desperately to make the Diocese of Nashville treat me as a person and not as a problem they just wanted to go away. It was one thing to be betrayed by Father Kevin, but feeling betrayed by the diocese felt like salt in a fresh wound. In time it became clear that when I reported what happened to the Diocese of Nashville, they failed to factually document, report, and make accurate notification to the appropriate parties, especially to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and St. Cecilia Academy. This needed to change if other vulnerable adults were to be protected in the future, and this was my goal. I never wanted to sue the diocese or go to court; I simply wanted to change the vague and incomplete policies for the protection of vulnerable adults and how reporting is handled. I settled with the Diocese of Nashville in agreement that they would continue to update and revise the diocesan norms and policies concerning sexual misconduct involving adults, with the hope that others would be protected in the future and reports would be handled with more care.
Again, I wanted to be satisfied… but I wasn’t. The Diocese of Nashville was potentially on a better course, but I still worried that others could have been harmed by McGoldrick. I didn’t tell many people about what happened, but of those whom I did tell, not a single one failed to ask the same haunting question: do you know if you’re the only one? Virtually no one thought I was. Because silence surrounded McGoldrick’s disappearance, no one knows. Recently, I was informed that even though the allegations brought against McGoldrick had been substantiated by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, he would be granted voluntary laicization, as if he had done nothing wrong.
I was informed that even though the allegations brought against McGoldrick had been substantiated by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, he would be granted voluntary laicization, as if he had done nothing wrong.
His reputation as a holy man, as a safe man, would go unphased. It seems that the Church would rather grant voluntary laicization than go through the trouble of holding an individual accountable for his crimes. I can’t stand by and passively support this inexplicably malicious policy…. I hope that soon, no one can.
I am also deeply troubled by the silence that echoes from the institutions who were made aware of what McGoldrick did to me. Who is responsible for making sure he didn’t hurt anyone else? Who will encourage other victims to come forward and illuminate what red flags we should be looking for? I gave every party involved ample opportunities to take any form of responsibility for the safety of others…but to my disappointment, the only person willing to speak up was me. When everyone chooses to save face and keep quiet, the only people that win are predators. Sometimes as a church we are so embarrassed by something bad happening, that we don’t speak about it. Maybe we should be more embarrassed by our silence that allows other people to be hurt. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that silence in the Church is toxic.
I now have answers to the questions that kept me silent when I was younger. I wasn’t stupid. I was groomed and manipulated by a sexual predator who weaponized his priesthood. He normalized hanging out with him like we were his friends, drinking with him, and spending time in his rectory. His authority as a priest made these seemingly little problems impossible for us to question and his status on my campus made it nearly impossible for me to tell anyone. Above all that, I was scared of being blamed as so many victims have been in the past. After all, I spent so long blaming myself, how could I expect anyone else to act differently?
I wasn’t stupid. I was groomed and manipulated by a sexual predator who weaponized his priesthood.
I am now painfully aware of why so many victims of any kind of abuse, stay silent. There are no words to describe how difficult it has been to not only come forward, but now bring my experience to the light. Many Catholics who suffer clerical abuse leave the Church, and now I understand why. Standing by a Church that has done so much wrong is torturous. I feel as though I have been through hell and back, and even on the days when I feel as though I’m still there, I remain grounded in the belief that the Church, Jesus, is worth fighting for. Nothing changes if nothing changes…and what I experienced needs to change.
It is a vulnerable thing to tell your story, to put it out there for others to pick apart, scrutinize, and question…and it doesn’t come without a cost. I’ve lost some of my closest relationships by bringing the truth to the light. I’ve had my faith shaken to its core. I’ve been terrorized by panic attacks and nightmares and some days, I’ve been so overwhelmed that all I could do was cry. It turns out that telling the truth isn’t always easy, but I do believe it is always worth it.
As I look back over the last three years, I am confident that every decision I have made has been motivated by love. I love the Church, and if I proclaim a love deep enough to die for her, I must also prove a love deep enough to fight for her to heal. It is my hope that speaking this difficult truth will help the Church to grow and change. I want to raise my children in a Church that is better than what I experienced. I want to be a part of the army that advocates for real transparency and responsibility, that doesn’t belittle abuse, and above all, that doesn’t fancy silence over truths that are painful or inconvenient. There is much work to be done, and if you ask me, we’d better get to it.
*Susanna is a pseudonym.
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