Leading Voice for Abuse Victims Says She Was Molested While at the Air Force Academy
July 15, 2003
Louisville — Susan Archibald says she lost her faith in the Roman Catholic Church and her career in the Air Force as a result of being molested by a priest who was a military chaplain.
Still, she's proud to have turned the tragedy, and her unfortunate place in the sex abuse scandals plaguing both institutions, into a way to help other survivors.
"It makes it so it's not about what happened to me anymore," said Archibald, president of The Linkup, a national group based in Louisville that supports clerical abuse victims and claims more than 3,000 members.
Archibald, who has a filed a lawsuit against the Air Force, moved to Louisville last year after she was asked to lead the organization. She became permanent president following the March 2002 death of the group's longtime president, the Rev. Tom Economus.
Since then, Archibald has been a leading victims' advocate, recently helping more than 200 survivors win a $25.7 million settlement from the Archdiocese of Louisville. She's converted her home into Linkup's headquarters, picketed a cathedral, petitioned for Louisville Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly to resign and lobbied Congress to change the statue of limitations in child sexual abuse cases.
"As far as the survivor movement goes, I'm not a hero. Working with Linkup has aided in my recovery," Archibald, 38, said in a recent interview.
Archibald's case against the Air Force includes a claim that she was sexually abused by the Rev. Patrick Nicholson, a priest and officer while she was a cadet at the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., according to court documents.
"As a female officer, I saw firsthand what happens to a woman when they rock the boat," said Archibald, who has been interviewed by officials investigating the Air Force Academy. "When you report a rape or sexual misconduct, you've labeled yourself as not being a team player. It usually means your career is going to end in the military."
Archibald, a Wisconsin native, began her freshman year at the academy in 1983. "The military is highly disciplined and it's stressful. It was a real tough time and my grades started to fall," she said.
A Catholic, Archibald sought counseling from Nicholson during her freshman and sophomore years.
"He blurred the line real slowly. He started scheduling our sessions after hours, he would shut the curtains and then he would start caressing me," Archibald said.
Archibald reported Nicholson to the academy in 1999 - 12 years after she graduated, and a year before resigning from the Air Force, documents show. Nicholson, who was then a lieutenant colonel, was removed from his position in April 2000, after The Denver Post published an article about Archibald.
Lt. Greg Hignite, a public affairs officer for the academy, said Archibald's claims were investigated, but details of the case could not be released.
"The academy took appropriate administrative action, and Father Nicholson is now neither on active duty nor on the retired rolls," Hignite said in a telephone interview.
Nicholson, 57, was last known to have lived in Lakewood, Calif. Messages left by The Associated Press at a listing for Nicholson were not returned.
Nicholson last worked for the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., said the Rev. Michael Farmer, chancellor for the archdiocese. Nicholson has been on administrative leave since 2001 and is not working in public ministry, said Farmer, who would not say why Nicholson was placed on leave.
Archibald has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against the secretary of the Air Force, demanding the results of the Nicholson investigation based on the Freedom of Information Act.
While focused on her case, Archibald says her most important obligation is to Linkup, which she will head for another three years. She joined the group shortly after leaving the Air Force - a time when she "had a lot of time" on her hands and wanted to reach out to other victims.
Archibald, whose husband is a commercial pilot, noted that more than 100 of the 243 victims in the Louisville settlement are using Linkup as a recovery tool.
"I was scared when I first started working with Linkup," said Mike Turner, whose lawsuit against the Louisville Archdiocese prompted hundreds of other plaintiffs to come forward. "But Sue showed me that it gave us structure to fight. And this is the only group that stayed with us throughout this ordeal."
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