Woman Pursues Report on Former Mobile Priest
By Steve Myers and Kristen Campbell
February 15, 2003
Woman pursues report on former Mobile priest Susan Archibald accuses the Rev. Patrick L. Nicholson of seducing her into an exploitative sexual relationship By STEVE MYERS and KRISTEN CAMPBELL Staff Reporters A Kentucky woman is pressing forward with a lawsuit against the Air Force to compel the release of documents concerning a Catholic chaplain who was discharged from the military after she accused him of seducing her into an exploitative sexual relationship years ago. The priest, the Rev. Patrick L. Nicholson, worked in the Archdiocese of Mobile for nine years before entering the Air Force. In the summer of 1983, he met Susan Archibald, then Susan Loomans, at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., according to Archibald and her lawsuit.
At the time, he was a 37-year-old captain, ordained in his native Ireland, and she was an 18-year-old cadet from rural Wisconsin.
Archibald alleges the relationship started after she was sent to Nicholson for counseling. She told investigators they saw each other nearly every day and over eight months had sex 30 times, maybe more, until he was transferred to another military assignment.
The relationship briefly resumed in 1999, after which she reported that she had been exploited, according to Archibald's lawsuit.
"I was desperate for his attention, and I didn't want to lose that, so I would lie to cover (it) up," Archibald told an Air Force investigator in 1999, according to a transcript she provided.
Wild Chang, an attorney who contacted the Mobile Register saying he had been hired to represent Nicholson, said his client deeply regrets his past relationship with Archibald.
"It's my observation he feels that he can never pay enough for what he has done," Chang said. "But in the meantime he also expresses that he would like to have the things ended and everyone start to heal."
The Catholic Church has been embroiled in a scandal over priests who had sexually abused children, then were shuttled by bishops from parish to parish. Last April, Pope John Paul II denounced the abuse as an "appalling sin" and a crime.
Archibald's case is part of a less-publicized but perhaps more prevalent problem, according to some abuse experts: priests who abuse the trust and power of their positions with faithful, vulnerable members of their flocks. Those adult victims are usually women.
Nicholson was removed from his Air Force chaplain's duties in 2000 after Archibald reported him, and the Air Force investigated her claims, according to an Air Force Academy spokeswoman. Chang said Nicholson received an honorable discharge from the Air Force and receives a military pension.
Archibald said Friday that Chang's statement about Nicholson's discharge surprised her. She has been seeking that information from the Air Force as part of her lawsuit and said she had been led to believe Nicholson's discharge was not honorable.
Nicholson remains assigned to the Mobile archdiocese but is listed as "absent" and isn't allowed to work as a priest, said the Most Rev. Oscar H. Lipscomb, archbishop of the Mobile archdiocese. Nicholson also went through a period of rehabilitation, Lipscomb said, and "has been cleared by his doctors."
The archbishop did not say what the rehabilitation was meant to treat.
"He has not worked here in years," Lipscomb said of Nicholson. "His reputation here was magnificent....Everybody who has known him has thought the highest way of him."
Nicholson taught at McGill Institute and worked at two Mobile churches and a Prattville parish; after receiving Bishop John L. May's approval, Nicholson left to serve as a chaplain in 1978.
"Frankly, I think he is such a good priest I would have him back willingly," Lipscomb told the Register. Asked why he has not done so, he said, "because of Susan Archibald."
The Mobile Register reached Nicholson by mail at a Los Angeles area address. Nicholson recently was forced to resign from a job after co-workers saw something on television about his past, Chang said. Nicholson remains unemployed.
"He was really depressed. He said he could not understand why after so many years this thing was still hounding after him and he is still paying the price," Chang said.
Chang contested Archibald's description of the relationship as abusive, saying that if it was abusive, it wouldn't have continued.
The Air Force has cited privacy laws in fighting Archibald's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which she filed in July 2001.
Archibald, who now lives in Louisville, Ky., said she wants to know whether the Air Force's records include information about any other improper relationships Nicholson may have had with other women while in or out of the military.
Asked whether his client had any other sexual relationships besides the one with Archibald, Chang said: "The words I was told he's comfortable with are not to his recollection ... that there were any other victims, if you want to use the word 'victim.'"
Lipscomb said he knew of no problems with Nicholson until Nicholson himself told him about the Archibald-related investigation, which began in 1999.
The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, an Air Force major and the author of a 1985 report that warned of an impending crisis involving clergy sexual abuse, said he believes that the church doesn't do enough to look for additional cases once they learn of specific instances of abuse.
Whenever such information comes to light, Doyle said, "I believe there also should be serious but discrete inquiries made looking for other victims. Victims will not ordinarily come out on their own. They have to be sought out."
Nicholson does not receive a salary from the Archdiocese of Mobile, Lipscomb said, but the archdiocese provides Nicholson "sustenance if he needs it."
Monsignor Joseph Jennings, who served as pastor of Mobile's St. Pius X Catholic Church from 1954 to 1977, spoke well of Nicholson, who was associate pastor at St. Pius from 1971 to 1975.
Jennings called Nicholson an "absolutely wonderful" and "first-class" person. The retired priest recalled that Nicholson was good at working with youths and people with problems. "He'd give them a lot of time," Jennings said.
After Nicholson was ordained in Ireland in 1969, he came to Mobile and served as assistant pastor of Little Flower Catholic Church, according to the Mobile archdiocese. In 1970, he joined the McGill faculty to teach religion, though it is unclear how long he was there.
After leaving St. Pius in 1975, he became pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Prattville, just north of Montgomery. He left for the Air Force three years later. The priest and the cadet From the first time Nicholson counseled Archibald midway through her freshman year, she claims, their interaction was unorthodox. She said Nicholson told her to come by his office after hours.
At one point, she said, he asked her to sit on his lap while they talked. Within a week, she said, they were having sexual contact. Within a few weeks, Archibald said, they were at his house when he took her into the bedroom and had sex with her, instructing her on what to do. She said she was a virgin.
For the next eight months, the priest and the cadet had a full-blown sexual relationship, Archibald said. "He said God sent me to him as a gift," and she was supposed to make him happy, she said.
Chang declined comment on the details of the relationship, saying only that it was "physical."
Doyle, who is now stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, learned of Archibald's case a few years ago and said he believes her account. They got to know each other after Archibald become president of The Linkup, a support group for clergy abuse victims.
Doyle said that aside from the dynamics involved in a priest-subject relationship, a difference in rank such as that between Archibald and Nicholson would have further shifted power away from the student, making her less than a willing partner.
Nicholson was transferred at the end of Archibald's freshman year, after which they exchanged love letters and took occasional trips together, she said. Archibald provided the Register with copies of letters she said were written by Nicholson; Chang said those letters show Nicholson had a genuine emotional attachment to Archibald.
"At some point he realized that it was inappropriate," Chang said of Nicholson and his relationship with Archibald. "He tried to terminate or stay away from it. He tried to avoid her physically, but emotionally he couldn't control it. That's why he kept writing letters to her."
Archibald told an Air Force investigator that she and Nicholson talked about the future during her sophomore year's Thanksgiving break.
"When we were on that trip in San Isabel, we were talking about that, and he said he would marry me if he could marry me, but he couldn't," Archibald told the Air Force investigator, according to the transcript.
"He actually performed his own little ceremony and married me there. He told me that in the eyes of God, we are married now."
Archibald said the relationship ended at the start of her junior year at the academy. Around then, she said, she endured a deep depression. She said she divulged her relationship with the priest to a military counselor, who, she said, told her that the relationship was abusive.
The counselor, she said, assured her that Nicholson would never return to the academy. She said she viewed this as a personal commitment and doesn't know if the counselor told anyone else about what she'd said. Archibald said the counselor told her she should report Nicholson to the authorities, but she said she didn't want to.
In the summer of 1999, Archibald was at the end of a teaching stint at the Air Force Academy. She said she was taken aback when a friend told her that "Father Pat," who had left the military for a period of years, had returned. Archibald was now 34, a captain in the Air Force Reserves and had been married two years. Nicholson was a lieutenant colonel.
Archibald said she visited Nicholson one night, and the relationship picked up again, though their time together was punctuated by uneasiness and talk of their past. She said Nicholson told her he had left the Air Force for a time, then re-entered in 1996.
Chang said the rekindling of the relationship is evidence that there was mutual affection.
In the fall of 1999, Archibald saw Nicholson again for what she described as a chaotic weekend. She said that at his house she discovered letters in which a woman described sexual encounters she had with Nicholson. By Archibald's reckoning, the other woman had visited Nicholson just days after Archibald saw him earlier that year.
Archibald said she confronted Nicholson, but he denied anything was going on with another woman. She left the house that weekend, she said, and soon after told her husband about what happened. Out of the military An attorney for Archibald later contacted the Air Force Academy, which said it would investigate the matter, according to Archibald. But six months after that, she said, Nicholson was still around students, still celebrating Mass. She went to the Denver Post with her story in April 2000.
Nicholson was discharged from the Air Force that summer. In a July 2000 letter to Archibald's lawyer, Richard A. Peterson of the Judge Advocate General wrote that Nicholson's actions while Archibald was a cadet were deemed the most serious of her accusations, but prosecution for that was barred by the statute of limitations. Peterson wrote that the 1999 incidents were "voluntary and private in nature," and did not warrant judicial action.
Archibald said she does not know for certain what military punishment, if any, Nicholson received. After her public records request was denied by the Air Force, she filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. The suit outlines her claims against Nicholson.
The Air Force has argued that even confirming or denying the existence of the records Archibald seeks would violate Nicholson's privacy rights. The Air Force has since filed an index of documents with the court, but only for the judge's review. A settlement conference is scheduled for March.
Archibald said she resigned from the Air Force Reserves in the fall of 2000 because she was unhappy with how Nicholson's case was handled. She said that interfered with her ability to work as a recruiter for the academy. Church response The privacy restrictions cited by the Air Force apparently have kept the Catholic Church in the dark about what happened to Nicholson.
When Nicholson was in the military, he was under the direct supervision of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, which recommends priests to be military chaplains. In a letter to Archibald's lawyer, Tom Connelly, vice chancellor of that archdiocese, wrote that the Air Force never informed it of the allegations against Nicholson.
Likewise, Lipscomb said, he learned of what happened mostly from Nicholson himself, who told him about the military investigation. In response, Lipscomb said, he recommended Nicholson enter rehabilitation.
"He made mistakes," said Lipscomb, who had given Nicholson permission to serve as a military chaplain in the'90s. "To the best of his ability and our ability we have tried to rectify those mistakes."
Nicholson spent time at the St. John Vianney Center, a treatment center in Downingtown, Pa., Chang confirmed. Run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the center offers religious men and women treatment for a variety of psychological disorders, including "boundary violations" or violations of the professional boundaries.
Chang also said Nicholson tried to deal with the problem himself after he left the Air Force in 1988 by entering a monastery and spending some time in Ireland.
Chang said that if it would help Archibald move forward with her life, Nicholson may be willing to meet with her personally and apologize so that they could "transcend and transform" their relationship.
Archibald said she would have to think about that offer. "For all victims of abuse, it is important to hear an apology, a sincere apology, from your abuser, or perhaps even the church," she said. "In my case, I would hope for an apology not only from Nicholson, but also from the Air Force and the church." PHOTO Archibald says she was an 18-year-old Air Force Academy cadet when she met the Rev. Patrick L. Nicholson. Photo courtesy Susan Archibald Susan Archibald said this photo shows her with the Rev. Patrick L. Nicholson near Boston in 1984. Archibald claims she was seduced into a relationship with Nicholson while she was a cadet at the Air Force Academy and he was a chaplain. Before entering the Air Force in 1978, Nicholson was a priest in Mobile. He remains assigned to the Archdiocese of Mobile, though he now lives in California.
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