Tennessean [Nashville TN]
September 29, 2021
By Liam Adams
Civil complaint filed as criminal proceedings continue
An unnamed plaintiff is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville and a Murfreesboro parish for failing to act on reports of alleged abuse during a three-year period by the former religious education director.
A Baltimore-based law firm and a local attorney filed the suit Monday in Davidson County circuit court on behalf of the plaintiff about alleged abuse by Michael Lewis at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church.
Lewis, 42, is facing 14 felony charges, including statutory rape and sexual battery, after a grand jury indicted him in June 2020. A trial on those charges is scheduled for February 2022.
St. Rose parishioners and staff reported problematic behavior by Lewis to church leadership and former Nashville Bishop David Choby, yet the diocese did not launch an investigation, notify law enforcement or remove Lewis, Monday’s lawsuit alleges.
“The diocese concealed Lewis’s abuse, sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment of plaintiff and others,” the 40-page complaint says.
Diocese spokesperson Rick Musacchio in an email Wednesday said, “It is not appropriate for us to respond to questions about this lawsuit until our attorneys have an opportunity to review the complaint.
“As the legal process unfolds, we anticipate more information will be forthcoming,” he said.
Lewis allegedly sexually assaulted the plaintiff starting in 2014 when she was 13, the lawsuit states. He also exchanged text messages with her and was seen hugging and touching the plaintiff at the church, the lawsuit states.
Parishioners expressed concern to church leadership about Lewis’s public behavior with the child, leading to a meeting between Lewis and the parish’s “safe environment coordinator” who was tasked with preventing child sexual abuse. The coordinator told Lewis he could not be alone with a child, instructions that Lewis allegedly did not follow, the lawsuit states.
A parish employee then found records of text messages and photos between Lewis and the teen on Lewis’s diocese-issued cell phone, the suit states. The employee reported the texts to St. Rose’s pastor at the time, Father Mark Sappenfield, who did not mandate an investigation, according to the lawsuit.
More reports about Lewis’s behavior with the child were made to church and diocese leadership, including a letter sent to Choby’s office in 2016 from a parishioner who is a clinical psychologist, according to the lawsuit.
“It is my sincere belief that the behavior I am seeing from Mr. Lewis … is similar to the grooming behavior associated with many child sexual abuse perpetrators,” the parishioner wrote, according to the lawsuit.
The psychologist asked the bishop to investigate. In response, the complaint alleges, the diocese gave Lewis a letter to sign instructing him to follow diocesan policies. After signing the letter, Lewis resigned, the complaint states.
Musacchio added in his email, “We encourage everyone who suspects that abuse is taking place to report it to civil authorities, and we pray for everyone involved in this matter.”
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @liamsadams.