Air Force Probes Ex-Cadet's Allegation of Sex Abuse by Priest
By Michael Lafleur
May 8, 2000
A Tucson woman, 35, says she didn't realize for years that the relationship with a Catholic chaplain was abusive.
An Air Force Academy Catholic priest is awaiting the final disposition of an investigation into allegations he had improper sexual relations with a former cadet 16 years ago.
The cadet is a University of Arizona graduate student.
The investigation of the Rev. Pat Nicholson, a lieutenant colonel and cadet chaplain, began Nov. 8.
It was launched after U.S. Air Force Reserve Maj. Susan Archibald turned over 54 love letters Nicholson allegedly wrote to her between 1984 and 1986.
Archibald, now 35, took a hiatus from her graduate studies in the UA hydrology department after the investigation began.
She said she did so out of a sense of duty.
"What really prompted me to step forward is to stop this from ever happening again," she said. "The Air Force Academy is a place that means a great deal to me, and I just couldn't live with the thought of this happening to another cadet."
Repeated attempts to reach Nicholson by phone at his academy home were unsuccessful.
Calls placed to the senior staff chaplain's office at the academy went unreturned.
Archibald's attorney, Louisville, Ky.-based Robert Cusick, said there may be other victims, although no other cadets have come forward.
The incidents with Archibald allegedly took place between 1984 and 1986 and again in June 1999.
The investigation ended April 19, and Neil Talbott , the Air Force Academy's chief of media relations, said the case's outcome should be determined in two to three months.
Talbott said although Nicholson remains stationed at the academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo., he is no longer performing his duties as a chaplain and has been relieved of any contact with cadets.
Citing the Privacy Act, Talbott said he couldn't provide additional information about the investigation.
"We have to protect the privacy rights of an individual by law," he said, adding that Archibald's allegations were acted on immediately.
"As she let us know there was a problem, we began an investigation on it," he said. "We do take this kind of stuff seriously and that's why we took the action that we did."
Cusick said he'd like to see Nicholson court-martialed.
The former Navy judge advocate, however, said he has received some indication Nicholson would receive what is called a general officer's non-judicial punishment, which is used for minor offenses.
Archibald said she told officials she started her relationship with Nicholson in spring 1984 after she went to him for counseling. He was 38 and she was an 18-year-old freshman cadet, she said.
She said the relationship took on an improper sexual nature almost immediately - within a week they had had intercourse.
As the relationship continued, they would spend weekends together at Nicholson's home at the academy, and she would sneak out of her dorm room at night to meet him, having intercourse with him on numerous occasions, Archibald said.
Nicholson, now 54, gained the complete trust of her parents, devout Catholics; he even came home with her for Christmas in 1984, Archibald said.
"It was the perfect disguise," she said. "He had the complete trust of everyone. Even when he would spend time alone with me, people would have no idea that he would be doing anything sexual with me."
Archibald said it was only later that she realized she was being abused and taken advantage of. She had been sheltered and was somewhat naive, she said.
Nicholson's position as both a priest and a senior officer gave him a great deal of influence over her, she said.
She said she was flattered by the fact he would consider risking his career for her.
"When I was a young woman and drawn into this relationship, I believed it was a genuine relationship, but after realizing it was a case of abuse, I also realized that I didn't have a choice in the situation," Archibald said.
"The exalted position that a priest held in my life and the fact that he was 20 years older than me and a senior officer, he was in a position where there was an imbalance of power," she said.
"So even though I did consent, I didn't really have the ability to withhold consent."
Nicholson left the academy at the end of Archibald's freshman summer, she said. But the relationship went on until the middle of her junior year, in 1986, through weekend and holiday visits and overnight stays in hotel rooms.
While she said she wasn't sure what was going through his mind at that time, he indicated to her he was having doubts about remaining a priest or in the Air Force.
Nicholson went to study theology at Boston College for a year after they separated and then worked as a chaplain at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama until 1988, when he abruptly quit the Air Force, Archibald said. He returned to the Air Force in 1996 and was reassigned to the academy in 1999.
Now a major in the Air Force reserves, Archibald served on the academy's faculty from 1993 to 1998, teaching geology when Nicholson was away from the academy. She serves as the academy's admissions liaison officer for the Tucson area .
Archibald said the realization her relationship with Nicholson was in fact unhealthful has had a devastating effect on her faith in God, her trust in others and her self-respect.
"I felt I couldn't make commitments even as I got married myself," she said.
Archibald married her husband, Ian, a former A-10 pilot stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and now a commercial airline pilot, in Wisconsin in 1997.
Archibald said she didn't see Nicholson again until last summer , when he told her that he had continued to work as a priest in their time apart.
Last summer, she was selling her home near the academy when Archibald heard Nicholson had returned. It was then she decided to confront him, during which time he told her what he'd been doing since their last contact - a Christmas card in 1989.
During the confrontation, she found herself in sexual relations with him again.
"It was almost better to live with the fairy tale that he was good to me and that he cared for me," Archibald said. "It's the problem of having to admit that the reality of what was a major portion of your life was something ugly and not something happy.
"I wanted a happy ending."
Archibald said she prompted the investigation after coming to terms with what happened to her.
"The problem is that it takes a long time to actually realize that you have been abused," she said. "I still wanted to believe that this person was a good, devoted priest."
Archibald said she was fortunate to have the love letters to back up her story.
"It was lucky that I had those (letters) because without that they (investigators) would have had to rely on my word, and there's a lot of people that believe this priest, that he's a great person and he could never do this," she said.
"I had to pretty much prove that it happened."
But even with love letters in hand, Archibald felt investigators weren't doing enough to prevent Nicholson from taking advantage of other cadets.
Despite Talbott's statement to the contrary, Nicholson continued to celebrate Mass at the academy until March, even though investigators received the letters in November, Archibald said.
"As far as I know, he was allowed to continue counseling cadets," she said.
"The investigation has been a complete secret," Archibald said. "No cadets would have any idea that he had done anything wrong or was being investigated."
As a result, Archibald began talking to the press, prompting a series of articles that ran in the Denver Post last week.
"I feel ... if this were solved quietly and this priest was dismissed from the academy without anyone ever knowing about it, that wouldn't stop this from happening again."
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