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Suit: Nashville diocese failed to protect minor from abuse

September 29, 2021 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A lawsuit accuses the Catholic Diocese of Nashville of failing to protect a minor child from sexual abuse by an employee at a Murfreesboro church.

The suit filed on Monday in Circuit Court in Nashville claims the diocese received multiple warnings from parishioners and employees at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church that Michael Lewis had an inappropriate relationship with the plaintiff, who filed the lawsuit under the pseudonym of Jane Doe. Doe says the abuse began in 2014 when she was 13 years old and continued until 2017, when her family cut off contact with Lewis for what the lawsuit says was his “controlling behavior.”

Several months before that, a parishioner who was also a licensed clinical psychologist had written to then-Bishop David Choby expressing concerns about the relationship between Lewis, then the church’s director of religious education, and the girl.

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In response, Lewis was given a letter from the diocesean attorney “instructing him to follow diocesan safe environment policies and follow professional standards set forth in the Diocese’s code of conduct,” according to the lawsuit. Lewis refused to sign and resigned his positioin instead, the lawsuit states.

The diocese issued a statement on the lawsuit, saying it would in inappropriate to respond before the diocese’s attorneys had a chance to review it.

“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,” it states.

The suit claims that the letter from the psychologist was just one of many warnings the diocese had about Lewis’ behavior. For example, in 2014 a parish employee examined Lewis’ diocese-issued cell phone and found he exchanged numerous text messages and pictures with the girl, according to the lawsuit. “These exchanges were often lengthy and some occurred late at night,” it added.

In response, according to the lawsuit, the parish priest met with Lewis, his wife, and his mother. They told the priest that Lewis “loved the plaintiff and wanted to help her, and that she was like family,” the lawsuit states. No further action was taken.

Twice, Lewis met with a coordinator for the diocese’s Safe Environment Program, which is supposed to help protect children from abuse, according to the suit. It said the coordinator warned Lewis that he was not allowed to be alone with the girl.

“Lewis responded by saying he would do what he wanted and he loved Plaintiff like a daughter,” according to the lawsuit. No further action was taken, the suit states.

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The girl did not fully understand that she had been abused by Lewis until 2019, according to the lawsuit. She filed a police report accusing Lewis of rape and sexual assault in January 2020. He was indicted in June on 10 counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and four counts of sexual battery by an authority figure, all felony counts, The Tennessean has reported. Trial is scheduled for next February.

Lewis’ attorney did not immediately respond to an email sent late on Wednesday.

It was not until September 2020 that a former parish employee informed Doe of the many letters of concern for her welfare the parish had received.

The lawsuit claims Doe experienced anxiety and panic attacks and has ongoing emotional problems stemming from the abuse she suffered. It seeks a jury trial and damages of an unspecified amount.