[Episcopal News Service] A woman is suing the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, saying one of its priests sexually assaulted her and others in New York in the 1970s and the diocese knowingly allowed him to serve as a priest there anyway. However, two other dioceses that have licensed the priest in question say their background checks never turned up any allegations of sexual misconduct.
The Rev. Paul Kowalewski, 71, is retired but had been serving as an occasional supply priest at the Church of St. Paul in the Desert in Palm Springs, California, and his ministry has been suspended, the Rt. Rev. Susan Brown Snook, bishop of San Diego, told Episcopal News Service. Though the church is in the Diocese of San Diego, Kowalewski is canonically resident in the Diocese of Los Angeles and served as rector of a large Los Angeles parish from 2005 to 2013.
Patricia Harner, the plaintiff, says Kowalewski sexually assaulted her in 1971, when she was a 19-year-old parishioner at St. Amelia Catholic Church in Tonawanda, New York, and he was a seminarian preparing to be ordained in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
In response to questions from ENS, the Diocese of Central New York – the first Episcopal diocese in which Kowalewski served as a priest – said there is no record that indicates the diocese knew of any sexual abuse allegations against him when he was received or during his tenure there. The diocese conducted a background check on Kowalewski in 1990, which turned up no indication of sexual misconduct, according to its records.
Brown Snook said her diocese also did a “thorough background check before licensing him to do occasional supply work, which did not turn up these allegations,” and the diocese had no knowledge of the allegations before the lawsuit was filed.
Harner’s law firm, Jeff Anderson & Associates, is also representing another woman who says Kowalewski molested her when she was 16 and a member of the same parish, The Buffalo News reported. The firm plans to file a separate suit on her behalf in New York, according to that report.
Kowalewski served as a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo from 1973 to 1977, and during that time, he was sent to a church treatment facility in Canada “in response to his abuse of children,” the lawsuit says. In the late 1970s and ’80s, he earned a Ph.D. in communications and taught at several universities before returning to ministry in the United Methodist Church in 1985, according to The Buffalo News. He then entered the discernment process for the Episcopal priesthood in the Diocese of Central New York and was received in 1990. He was a candidate for bishop of the Diocese of Western New York in 1998.
The lawsuit, filed on July 22, claims the Diocese of Los Angeles knew of multiple accusations of sexual assault (including child sexual abuse) against Kowalewski, failed to report him to police, and presented him “as a priest in good standing who is safe to the public, safe to children, and safe to parishioners.” It also claims the diocese lied to parishioners, saying he had not been accused of sexual misconduct.
The lawsuit does not mention any allegations of misconduct during Kowalewski’s time in California.
“The Diocese of Los Angeles views each and every allegation of sexual misconduct with the utmost seriousness,” the Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor, bishop of Los Angeles, said in a statement in response to the lawsuit. “The Rev. Paul Kowalewski is not currently serving in our diocese. Nevertheless, once we have had the opportunity to review the details of this matter, we will take whatever appropriate steps we can to make sure that a fair and just outcome is achieved for all parties.”
Brown Snook also released a statement in response to the suit.
“We regret deeply the misconduct of any clergy person in any church,” she said in the statement. “We will cooperate fully with the investigation that will be conducted by the Diocese of Los Angeles and any other authorities. Clergy have a sacred position of trust. We take seriously all complaints, and research them thoroughly.”
Harner, the plaintiff, told The Desert Sun that she had not told anyone that Kowalewski assaulted her until two years ago, and that she is suing “to alert the community of the danger this man poses.”
“I thought he was out of the priesthood and any kind of ministry at all. And when I found out he wasn’t, I couldn’t let another person bear what I had gone through for so long,” she said.
Brown Snook said her diocese is “deeply shocked and saddened by any allegations of sexual abuse,” and has written a letter to the parishioners of St. Paul’s explaining the situation.
“Everyone who has been affected by this sad and shocking situation is in my prayers, and I hope for a just resolution to the lawsuit,” she said.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.