Suit Alleges Nun Abused Girl in 1970s;
Woman, Now 38 and in Australia, Sues Sisters' Order, Archdiocese
By Gregory Hall
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
August 1, 2003
A woman has sued the Archdiocese of Louisville and a community of Dominican sisters based in St. Catharine, Ky., alleging that one of the sisters sexually abused her nearly 30 years ago.
An attorney for [Redacted], who once lived in Louisville and now lives in Australia, filed suit yesterday in Jefferson Circuit Court.
Of the 256 abuse cases that have been filed against the archdiocese since April 2002, [Redacted]'s is the first to accuse a religious sister of abuse and the first to name a community of sisters as a defendant.
The lawsuit alleges that Sister Mary Helen Thieneman, a counselor at St. Margaret Mary School in Louisville, sexually abused [Redacted], a fourth-grader, in the 1974-75 academic year.
The complaint says Thieneman would take [Redacted] out of class and into a rectory or convent room over several weeks for counseling, although she had no personal or family problems requiring that.
Thieneman would then express her love for the girl and told her they would have secrets, the lawsuit says. Thieneman would suggest to the girl that she was being abused by her father in her sleep, the lawsuit says.
The nun said that she had been abused in her childhood and at some point began masturbating the child - that abuse spanned several months, the complaint claims.
Thieneman could not be reached yesterday. But Sister Joye Gros, president of the community, said Thieneman "strongly denies" the alleged abuse.
Under a policy of the order, a sister accused of sexual abuse would be placed on administrative leave until an investigation is conducted. Gros said Thieneman has not been suspended because she has not seen the lawsuit.
"We take it seriously, but we do a thorough investigation," she said.
The lawsuit says [Redacted]'s parents did not become aware of the counseling sessions until spring 1975.
When they asked about it, the complaint says, Thieneman took the girl out of class and said she would not counsel her again because she couldn't trust the girl.
The sister also asked what the girl had told her parents, the complaint says.
[Redacted] did not tell her parents that she had been abused until 1983 or 1984, when she was 19 and the family lived in California. A psychological evaluation of [Redacted] from that time by Patrick Callahan of Yorba Linda, Calif., said, "I tend to believe that the events of [Redacted]'s alleged molestation really happened."
The complaint says that [Redacted]'s father, [Redacted], went to the Dominicans' superior in January 1984, and that the superior told him that they had found no complaints of child abuse by Thieneman. She declined to do anything further, the lawsuit says.
In 1992 [Redacted] met with Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly to discuss his daughter's abuse and concerns that Thieneman could be molesting other children, the complaint states.
Kelly's written response is attached as an exhibit in the lawsuit. Kelly wrote that he spoke with the head of the Dominican order at that time and that Thieneman was assigned to a hospital in Morehead, Ky.
"This would be a very controlled environment and Sister is under the kind of supervision which would offer the security you would wish," Kelly wrote.
Later in the letter, Kelly wrote, "I very much regret the pain you and your daughter have suffered. Please be assured of my continued prayerful interest."
Thieneman "has not been working with children of her own choice since then," Gros said.
Thieneman has most recently been volunteering as a chaplain at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Gros said.
The lawsuit claims that Thieneman's alleged conduct would constitute a felony and that the archdiocese and Dominican order sisters failed to report the abuse to authorities, as required by state law.
Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer of the archdiocese, said that no duty to report existed for the archdiocese because [Redacted] was an adult by the time her father spoke to Kelly.
The archdiocese also believed the matter had been resolved years before, and that [Redacted]'s father simply came to Kelly with further questions.
[Redacted], now 38, has lived in Australia for more than six years. She and her husband have a son, her attorney Michael McMahon said.
She was unaware of the prior lawsuits alleging a cover-up of sexual abuse by church officials until hearing of the proposed $25.7 million settlement to most of the cases filed.
Although [Redacted]'s complaint is the first to accuse a sister in the archdiocese of Louisville, McMahon said he is aware of other lawsuits or settlements in St. Louis, Rhode Island and Boston concerning alleged abuse by sisters.
The complaint says [Redacted] believes evidence will show the Dominican sisters had received complaints about abuse by Thieneman both before and after her.
"Pedophilia is not a one-time thing," McMahon said in an interview.
Gros, however, said, "I am sure that there are no others."
She said she did no t know whether police or prosecutors were notified of the abuse allegation in the past. She said she became aware of it about a year ago when she became president of the order.
Gros said an investigation at the time the allegation was brought concluded that Thieneman is "not a risk."
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