A new clergy sexual harassment lawsuit claims the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota failed to address repeated complaints involving one of its priests.
This is not the first time the St. Cloud Diocese has been accused of mishandling sexual misconduct complaints. In fact, it currently faces roughly 70 clergy sexual abuse lawsuits involving priests who were accused of molesting children, and announced last year that it would seek bankruptcy protection because of the litigation.
According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, however, this is the first time a female employee has accused the diocese of covering up clergy sexual harassment.
According to a complaint filed in Stearns County District Court, Theodosia Orlando, 32, was employed by the St. Cloud Diocese from August until January. She served as Pastoral Associate at two parishes, where she allegedly endured “unwelcome, offensive and ongoing verbal and physical sexual harassment” at his hands of her supervision, Rev. Joseph Backowski.
The alleged harassment began in August, when Backowski started calling Orlando “my virgin” and made remarks about her “beauty. On various occasions, he touched her breasts, told her he struggled with a pornography addiction, offered to “dust the rust off your beauty,” and wrote that he prayed he wouldn’t “become a wolf to consume you like meat.”
Orlando said she initially reported the misconduct to another priest last October. She subsequently made repeated requests to meet with Vicar General Robert Rolfes, who finally agreed to see her in January. At that time, Orlando presented Backowski’s written messages as proof of her claims.
“He [Rolfes] was reluctant to read them and read only one,” the clergy sexual harassment lawsuit states. “His only response was to criticize the handwriting.”
While Backowski was sent to treatment, members of his congregations were told it was because of a medical condition. They were never informed of the sexual harassment complaints.
Backowski and Rolfes are also named as defendants in Orlando’s lawsuit.
Catholic Dioceses throughout the United State have paid over $3 billion to settle clergy sexual abuse lawsuits during the past 16 years. In many cases, church officials sent predatory priests for “treatment” and transferred them to other parishes without informing congregants that they had been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Such crimes were rarely ever reported to law enforcement, and because church officials frequently shamed or intimidated victims and their families into silence, most of the allegations remained secret for years, even decades. As a result, hundreds of predatory priests were able to abuse multiple children in the course of their careers.
In recent years, Minnesota and a handful of other states opened one-time windows that allowed adult survivors of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits long after the statute of limitations governing their claims expired. Minnesota’s 3-year window closed in May 2016.
New York opened a one-year window earlier this year. The state’s Child Victims Act also extended the statute of limitations governing civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse until a victim’s 55th birthday, while the deadline for filing criminal charges until the victim turned 28.