Former School Principal Suing Catholic Diocese for Defamation

By Justin Bergman
Daily Press [Richmond VA]
July 9, 2003

RICHMOND, Va. -- A former school principal is seeking $14.5 million in a lawsuit alleging that officials and members of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond slandered her by saying she covered up for a priest who was accused of molesting children.

The lawsuit against the diocese and four individuals was refiled in Richmond Circuit Court in April by Carole Kahwajy, who was fired as head of the St. Benedict School in Richmond last year. Kahwajy had first filed the lawsuit in the fall, then withdrew it.

Kahwajy, also a former assistant superintendent of schools for the diocese, alleges in the lawsuit that Bishop Walter F. Sullivan's personal secretary, the Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo; the diocese's superintendent of schools, A. Dianne Bialkowski; and two parish members spread lies to ruin her reputation and cause her to lose her job.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants allegedly said that Kahwajy covered for the Rev. John Hesch after the priest was accused of sexually abusing a seventh grader and an eighth grader at a Richmond Catholic school in the early 1980s.

Kahwajy maintains in the lawsuit that she reported the allegations to Sullivan and other diocesan officials, who chose not to order Hesch into treatment. Hesch later was transferred to parishes in Virginia Beach and Big Stone Gap before committing suicide in 1994.

In addition, Kahwajy alleges the defendants said she "engaged in covert sexual abuse of male students at St. Benedict" and had a "morally inappropriate" relationship with the Rev. James Kauffmann, pastor of the St. Benedict Roman Catholic parish in Richmond.

Kahwajy said in the lawsuit that all of the statements made against her are false. She referred questions to her attorney, Graham T. Jennings Jr., who did not return calls seeking comment.

William F. Etherington, attorney for the diocese, said he didn't believe the case would move forward. He said Kahwajy withdrew the lawsuit last year after the diocese filed a motion to dismiss based on the separation of church and state clause in the First Amendment.

"The courts are not going to be involved in interpreting religious teaching and religious beliefs," Etherington said. "They will enforce what a church tribunal has done. But if a minister sues his church, because of the inherently religious relationship that exists between the two, it's something the courts are just not going to be involved with."

He said the diocese has not yet been served with the case. If it is served, he will file the same motion to dismiss.

"It's not much of a case," Etherington said. "It's someone who lost their job and is upset by it."

Apuzzo said Kahwajy cannot prove the statements allegedly made against her contributed to her losing her job. He said he was baffled by the mention of sexual abuse cover-ups in the lawsuit.

"In any of the information brought to the diocese regarding her employment at St. Benedict, nothing about her participation in any matters of sexual abuse of minors was mentioned or considered," he said.

Apuzzo said Kahwajy would have been required by law to report instances of sexual abuse at the school--not just to diocesan officials, but also to police. There was no mention of anyone reporting to law enforcement officials in the lawsuit.

Apuzzo would not comment on the reasons why Kahwajy was fired in January 2002, saying it was a personnel matter.


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