Why this woman is going public for the first time about how a Nashville priest abused her 60 years ago
By Holly Meyer And Anita Wadhwani
April 6, 2019
Kathleen Lisle cannot forget the summer day a priest at Christ the King Catholic Church called her childhood home, asking her to help fold bulletins for Mass.
She hesitated to go.
Lisle was 12. She did not want to be alone with the Rev. James Arthur Rudisill, but, in the 1950s, explaining that to her mother seemed impossible. A frequent guest at the Nashville home where she grew up with 10 brothers and five sisters, Rudisill sometimes sat next to Lisle, rubbing her leg while playing chess.
At her mother’s urging, Lisle walked the few blocks to the parish church.
"He was kind of touchy while we were doing that and then afterwards he said, 'I need to go over to the school,' " said Lisle, who asked to be identified by her maiden name. "I was afraid to go, but you heard back then, 'Do whatever father tells you to do.' So I went.
"He took me over to the gym and up on the stage to the closet on the right hand side and that’s where he molested me."
It would take Lisle about 40 years to find the courage to report the sexual abuse to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville. Nearly a quarter of a century would pass before the diocese would make the allegation against Rudisill public.
Diocese releases names, but critics think it can do better
The Nashville diocese is one of about 60 across the nation to release the names of accused priests they have long kept secret — in some cases for decades.
The names have rolled out in news releases and newsletters since a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation in August laid out in detail the "horrifying scale" of sexual abuse perpetrated by 300 priests on more than 1,000 identified victims spanning nearly eight decades.
Rudisill, who died in 2006, is among the 21 clergy the Nashville diocese has named since November.
The diocese published the names because of its commitment to transparency, accountability and pastoral care, said Rick Musacchio, the diocesan spokesman. The diocese reviewed its files to compile the initial list and has added to it as more information becomes available from other dioceses and religious orders, he said.
"We will continue to do that," Musacchio said.
But critics of the church, among them abuse survivors, longtime church members and the Tennessee chapter of the victim advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, say it's not enough.
They have asked for an independent investigation. In at least 18 other states, attorneys general have begun investigations. In at least four states, dioceses have opened up their files to independent consultants to conduct a review. Among them:
In Illinois, the attorney general issued a scathing report that identified more than 500 clergy who had not been named in the church’s own disclosure of accused priests. The Illinois diocese had identified 185 clergy with credible sex abuse allegations against them. The attorney general identified 690.
In an independent review in Arkansas, a consultant found credible sexual abuse allegations against 17 priests and four members of religious orders — five more than the Arkansas diocese had found on its own.
The attorney general of New York has announced he would work in tandem with district attorneys to investigate abuse allegations.
West Virginia’s attorney general is relying on state consumer protection laws to pursue an investigation.
In Tennessee, Attorney General Herbert Slatery has declined to open an investigation, saying he lacks the authority. Musacchio said the diocese may consider hiring an outside reviewer.
Musacchio said the church notified authorities when it released the names of accused priests but said prosecutors haven’t followed up with the diocese.
Without a full and independent investigation into clergy sex abuse in the Nashville diocese, and with decades of secrecy by officials, victims and their advocates say there can never be a full reckoning within the church.
They point to the dismissal from the ministry of a Nashville deacon who is demanding an independent review and the bumpy rollout of the list of accused priests.
Initially, the diocese released the names of 13 priests accused of abuse, misidentifying one priest as deceased and omitting assignments for some of the men. By March, the number had grown to 21 as more details emerged and the names of clergy connected to the Nashville diocese appeared on other lists. None are serving in active ministry.
Susan Vance, a leader of the Tennessee chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said more than 100 victims have come forward to her group. The most recent was a man who contacted Vance in early January, she said.
"If we ever got an investigation, people would come out," Vance said.
A victim comes forward
The sexual abuse occurred the summer before Lisle’s seventh grade year at Christ the King School, she said. Rudisill, ordained May 19, 1951, would have been in his late 20s and relatively new to the priesthood at the time.
For years, Lisle — now 77 — kept quiet about what happened in the gymnasium closet, but she never forgot it.
Inside the closet, Rudisill, who was fully clothed, rubbed his penis against Lisle’s body until he ejaculated, she said.
"I can remember you saying 'I have to clean up this mess,’ ” Lisle wrote in a letter to Rudisill 40 years later. "You turned around and unzipped your pants."
Afterward, Rudisill recited to her parts of a Bible verse.
Lisle ran home, scared.
"I had no one to tell because he told me nobody was going to believe me and if I did, he was going to deny it," Lisle said.
Lisle remembers how Rudisill made her confess the mortal sin he said she had committed to another priest in the days after he abused her. As a 12-year-old Catholic girl growing up in the 1950s, Lisle said sex was a foreign idea and she barely grasped what had happened to her, let alone how to ask God’s forgiveness for it.
In the years that followed, Lisle graduated from Nashville’s Catholic school system, received her nursing degree and got married.
But as her new family moved around for her husband’s job, Rudisill started calling her. He showed up at her home in Virginia, hundreds of miles away from his assignments in Tennessee.
Once he came while Lisle, then a night shift nurse at a local hospital, was home alone.
"He reached over and touched my hand and I pulled away," Lisle said. "He said, 'I'm holding on to a thread of hope that you care about me.' And all the anger I felt welled up in me and I thought, 'You’re not going to control me this time.'
"I said, 'You are holding on to a thread of hope that’s not there,' " Lisle said.
Therapy helps victim tell her story
After attending a workshop for victims in the 1990s, Lisle realized she needed help.
"I felt like I was having a panic attack, and I knew I had to get up and get out of there," Lisle said. "A counselor stopped me on the way out and asked me if she could help, and I said, 'I need to start in therapy. I need to be able to tell this story.' "
With therapy, she felt ready to tell her story. With help from attorneys, she reached out to the diocese.
The diocese offered to pay for her counseling expenses in the 1990s, but Lisle said she grew frustrated after twice submitting a bill without getting reimbursement.
Musacchio said the diocese has a process for reimbursement that needs to be followed, but it is still willing to pay for Lisle’s therapy expenses.
He declined to reveal the number of victims who have come forward or how many have received financial compensation from the church. According to a November statement, the diocese and its insurance company have spent about $6.5 million on counseling and pastoral assistance to victims of abuse since 2002.
Lisle is not one of them, but therapy helped her come forward.
What happened after Lisle reported the abuse?
Lisle reported the abuse to the diocese in 1994.
The Tennessean confirmed Lisle’s account of the interactions that followed with church officials, her former attorney and a friend present at one of the meetings, and reviewed contemporaneous notes taken at the meetings and a letter Lisle sent to the diocese outlining her abuse allegations.
"We responded at the highest level of the dioceses promptly," Musacchio said.
Bishop Edward Kmiec, the top Catholic leader in Nashville at the time and now bishop emeritus for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo in New York, met with Lisle, then forced Rudisill to retire after he admitted to the allegations against him.
The July 12, 1994, meeting took place in a room at Our Lady of Peace hospital, where Lisle worked as a nurse.
"Bishop Kmiec recalls driving 175 miles to meet personally with (the woman making the complaint) as soon as she was willing to meet with him," Kathy Spangler, spokeswoman for the Buffalo diocese, said in a statement.
The bishop brought along the Rev. Patrick Connor, then a vicar general and a now retired priest. Lisle brought along supporters, including her friend Elayne Roose, to witness the exchange. Roose remembers being at the meeting but not what was said.
"It’d really been hard for her for a long time,” Roose said. “She just asked me to be with her.”
In that meeting, Kmiec explained that Rudisill had admitted the week before to sexually abusing Lisle. Kmiec said he was starting the diocesan process to remove him from ministry, according to Lisle.
The next month Lisle traveled to Nashville to confront Rudisill.
In a meeting in the rectory at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Lisle sat on one side of a table with a supporter as she read a letter she had written in therapy to Rudisill. He sat on the other side. Connor sat next to him.
"You had no right to sexually abuse me. You had no right to lay your guilt on me,” the letter said. “You had no right to make me feel I was a part of what you did to me. You had no right!"
The bishop "recalls removing the priest from ministry, forbidding him from practicing as a priest, and notifying the Diocese of Memphis (where the priest was then living) of the sanctions he had imposed," Spangler said.
The Nashville diocese also followed the state’s mandatory reporting law and notified state child welfare officials, Musacchio said.
In the years after his meeting with Lisle, Kmiec would go on to face public scrutiny over the diocese’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against a different priest.
Edward McKeown in 1999 pleaded guilty to abusing a 12-year-old boy in his neighborhood over a three-year period.
McKeown left the priesthood before Kmiec became Nashville’s bishop in 1992, but a lawsuit by two of his victims alleged the priest was allowed to teach youth classes, hear children’s confessions and participate in sleepovers with children. In December, McKeown died in prison of natural causes while serving a 25-year sentence.
Retirement as means of removal
Meanwhile, Rudisill was allowed to retire with benefits.
In the mid-1990s, retirement was an expeditious way to remove Rudisill from active ministry, Musacchio said.
Today, the Catholic Church has an explicit process in place for those accused of sexually abusing children and a zero-tolerance policy for such cases, he said. Those changes came in the wake of the explosive clergy sex abuse scandal that unfolded in 2002 in the Archdiocese of Boston and beyond.
Rudisill, who served in parishes across the state, was in poor health at the time.
The diocese lists Rudisill’s retirement date as Feb. 10, 1995 — nearly seven months after Kmiec’s meeting with Lisle. He died nearly a dozen years later at 79.
Musacchio could not explain the gap between the meeting and Rudisill's retirement or whether Rudisill had access to children during that time.
"The report that came forward in the ‘90s is the only allegation of abuse we have, even an inkling, in regards to Rudisill," Musacchio said.
Victim wants to help others come forward
In 2018, the diocese alerted law enforcement before releasing the names of priests accused of abuse, but it did not notify Lisle or other victims.
Musacchio said that, in the past, some victims have asked not to be contacted.
After her initial shock, Lisle said she was glad the diocese had named Rudisill.
Now, she is sharing her story publicly for the first time as encouragement for other victims.
"It’s going to help somebody to come forward and be able to speak what happened to them," Lisle said.
Lisle is a retired nurse living in Kentucky. She is married to a former priest. She is a still a Christian today, but now attends a Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville.
Her Catholic faith remained a major part of her life up until the meetings with the Nashville diocese in 1994.
"I decided that I couldn’t be a part of a church that didn’t care about their own people," Lisle said. "And I left."