Documents obtained by the Catholic Herald cast doubt on the response the Diocese of Nashville has offered to allegations it mishandled an abuse claim against a priest ministering in the diocese.
On Friday of last week, the Catholic Herald published an investigation into a young woman’s allegation that Fr Kevin McGoldrick sexually assaulted her in August of 2017, while he was serving as chaplain on the campus of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville. The assault is alleged to have taken place in the rectory where Fr McGoldrick lived while serving as chaplain to the Dominican Campus, which included not only the College but a primary school and an all-girls secondary school as well.
The Diocese of Nashville’s Response
In a statement released Monday and carried in the official diocesan Tennessee Register newspaper, the Diocese of Nashville reiterated a line it had taken in a statement to the Catholic Herald regarding the matter: “The report by the adult woman who wished to remain anonymous of an incident that happened a year and a half earlier appeared to be neither a civil nor canonical crime.”
“The report made to us was significantly different than the description of sexual assault subsequently reported to others and contained in published media reports,” the diocesan statement continued.
The Catholic Herald has obtained documents that complicate those claims.
One memo in particular contains the recollections of Deacon Hans Toecker, the Nashville diocesan official who received the victim’s complaint. Toecker’s account is short on details of the report he received, but does say the victim told him, “She fell asleep on the couch,” and “[a]woke with Father Kevin lying on her[.]”
It is in that same recollection that Deacon Toecker claims he “encouraged [the victim] to contact the Archdiocese of Philadelphia directly.” Toecker also says that he “spoke with Fr. Kevin McGoldrick,” who “admitted to being alone with a female friend and consuming alcohol, but there was no sexual contact.” Toecker recalls that he, “[i]nformed [the victim] of Father McGoldrick’s denial of sexual contact and that the Dominican Sisters would not be renewing his contract.”
“The report was immediately referred to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia who had employed and supervised Father McGoldrick for six years and who had the authority and purview to investigate and respond to this matter.”
As a matter of canon law, that last assertion regarding the Sisters’ authority and purview to investigate and respond is imprecise. It could only be true if the Nashville diocese had properly conducted a preliminary investigation – praevia investigatio in technical parlance – and found no crime to have been committed.
Canon 1717 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law reads: “Whenever an ordinary has knowledge, which at least seems true, of a delict, he is carefully to inquire personally or through another suitable person about the facts, circumstances, and imputability, unless such an inquiry seems entirely superfluous.”
It appears that Nashville diocese did not follow the law, but merely decided that the victim’s allegations did not have the appearance of a crime, despite Deacon Toecker’s recollection of the victim’s having told him at least that she awoke with Fr McGoldrick on top of her, and despite having elicited a denial from McGoldrick.
Having been briefed on the facts of the case, a leading expert in the Church’s penal law confirmed this understanding for the Catholic Herald. “The bishop should have investigated,” he said. “It is the bishop’s responsibility to ensure good order within his diocese, and this includes the investigation of crime or possible crime.”
In its statement, the diocese also published details which could have been used to identify the alleged victim, to whom the Catholic Herald has referred by the pseudonym, Susanna, who was a student at Aquinas College in August of 2017.
“Early in 2020,” reads the statement carried in the official diocesan paper, “the diocese was contacted by an attorney representing the woman who made the report in 2019 investigating the possibility of filing a lawsuit.” The statement goes on to say, “The person making the report indicated that she had an employment opportunity,” and went on to name the place of her prospective employment. “[I]n an effort to work toward a level of healing as a matter of pastoral concern for the person making the report, we entered into settlement discussions.”
“Out of pastoral concern,” the diocese says, “we are choosing to continue to honor her request for anonymity, although we are under no obligation to do so.”
The diocese reached a settlement agreement with Susanna before formal filing – a detail the Catholic Herald is happy to clarify – on May 15th, 2020.
The Nashville Dominicans’ Response
The Dominican Congregation of St. Cecilia in Nashville – the “Nashville Dominicans” as the Sisters are colloquially known – never issued any statement regarding the priest or asking other potential victims to come forward, until the Catholic Herald published its investigation Friday.
The Sisters originally claimed that Susanna’s attorney had asked them not to make a statement while settlement negotiations with the Diocese of Nashville were underway.
Susanna confirmed for the Catholic Herald that there was early discussion of waiting to make a statement until it was clear that non-disclosure would not be a part of the settlement. Email exchanges obtained by the Catholic Herald show that discussion of language acceptable to the Nashville Dominicans continued through the week in which the settlement between the victim and the Diocese of Nashville was signed, and into the week following the signing of the settlement, which took place on May 15th.
Then, on May 22nd of this year, the Nashville Dominicans informed Susanna they would not be making a statement. They said they believed it was a matter for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which did investigate Susanna’s claim after receiving it in July 2019, and in January 2020 found the allegation against Fr McGoldrick credible.
“After careful reflection,” the Nashville Dominicans’ legal representative wrote to Susanna’s attorney on May 22nd, “they [i.e. the Sisters] have decided not to issue a statement about Father McGoldrick at this time.” The email went on to say, “They believe that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia should be the organization that speaks about its actions in response to the July 2019 report, the procedures followed and the basis for decisions made.”
Over the weekend, the Nashville Dominicans sent emails to school parents and College alumni explaining why they had not taken immediate action against Fr. McGoldrick or informed parents and students sooner. “If the Congregation had known from the beginning in March 2019 what we learned from the woman’s meeting with the Congregation in February 2020, we would have immediately taken more severe action regarding Father McGoldrick and communicated to our school community,” one of those emails said.
The same email – addressed to the “Dear Members of the Overbrook School, St. Cecilia Academy and Aquinas College communities” – also says: “We wanted to make a statement to you at that time,” i.e. in February 2020, when the Nashville Dominicans’ Prioress, Mother Anna Grace Neenan, received a complete description of the alleged assault directly from the victim, “but the situation was still unfolding.”
“Based on the information we had,” the email went on to say, “we attempted to make the best decision we could about a highly complex situation.”
In response to queries from the Catholic Herald regarding precisely when the Sisters reached their decision, with whom thy were in consultation regarding it, and why they took the decision the eventually reached, the Nashville Dominicans said: “For the Congregation, many questions remained unanswered even at the end of May .” The Sisters’ email response to the Herald also acknowledged that their discussions with the victim’s attorney continued past the signing of the settlement.
“Moreover,” the Nashville Dominicans’ answer continued, “after she worked out an agreement with the Diocese of Nashville in May, we discussed the topic of a statement with the woman’s attorney and understood that should we issue a statement, she did not want us to identify her as having been an Aquinas student.”
The language Susanna suggested to the Nashville Dominicans omitted mention of her status as a former student. The alleged victim had been trying for months to get the Nashville Dominicans to say something about her assailant. The Sisters decided not to say anything.
“We did not want a statement to cause more confusion by raising questions we were not able to answer,” the Nashville Dominicans said. “Under the circumstances, and trying to make the best decision we could, we thought it was more appropriate for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to make a statement.”
The Nashville Dominicans maintained in their answer to the Herald that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia “had the facts regarding the woman’s complaint, their investigation, and Father McGoldrick’s status.”
“We told the woman’s attorney this in May,” they said, “and he responded that he understood our position.”
“We have learned much from this situation and the feedback we have received,” the Nashville Dominicans went on to say. “We apologize for not communicating more quickly and for any pain our decisions have caused.”
“As educators,” the Nashville Dominicans went on to say, “we are committed above all to the safety and well-being of our students and those entrusted to our care and we strive for transparency in all we do.”
(Picture: The Cathedral of the Incarnation, Nashville, by Nheyob – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24484689)
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