Parish the Thought

If you liked the cover-up in the case of Bishop Anthony O'Connell, listen to Ann Nyhuis's story

Earnest and dutiful as a schoolgirl at first communion, Ann Marie Nyhuis sits in a cramped room in a Royal Palm Beach office building and leafs through a diary of her days as a lay employee of the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach. A pleasant-looking, modestly dressed woman in her late 30s, she knows the diary's story -- of sexual harassment and clerical indifference -- but wants to be certain of the dates.

When she was hired by the diocese on September 30, 1997, "it was like a dream come true," Nyhuis says. A devout Roman Catholic, she had been a parochial-school student in New York City as a child, attended Our Lady of Lourdes in Boca Raton after moving to Florida with her family in 1977, and had been an active volunteer in church affairs as an adult.

But like a lot of other Catholics these days, Nyhuis has had to reevaluate her faith. She wasn't sexually abused by clergy, as recent revelations in Boston and West Palm Beach show many others were. What Nyhuis claims is that members of the oldest of old-boy networks -- including the priest who is now acting chief of the diocese -- joined hands to drive her from her job when she complained of sexual harassment by a lay-employee supervisor.

Nyhuis says the diocese hierarchy first patronized her, then stonewalled, then turned on her and, in April 1999, fired her without cause. Now, she is suing them for civil rights violations. "It's like the church of perpetual indiscretion," Nyhuis says, a steely tone in her normally soft voice. "They look out for themselves and their own, then retire on a pension. I haven't considered myself a Catholic since [the harassment]."

Nyhuis, who has been married for 17 years, worked as a secretary in the communications section of the diocese at its offices in Palm Beach Gardens. Her chief supervisor was the director of communications, the Rev. Michael Edwards. She also reported to Tom Tracy, editor of the church's statewide weekly newspaper, The Catholic Reporter. "We all worked in adjoining offices," Nyhuis says. "It was an honor to be there, though it was also just a normal job, at first."

After about six months, however, Nyhuis claims things changed for the worse. Tracy made her work life a nightmare, she says.

Diocese spokesperson Sam Barbaro told New Times: "The diocese and the church generally have made it clear that they have no place for sexual harassment by lay employees or anyone else." Tracy, now state bureau chief for the Catholic paper, declined to discuss Nyhuis's allegations. He cited a Palm Beach County Office of Equal Opportunity finding that Nyhuis's complaint had "no grounds." The finding has no weight in court, however, and files documenting the investigation contain little evidence and no indication that anyone other than Nyhuis was interviewed.

"It was gradual," Nyhuis says in describing the alleged harassment. "It seemed like Tom was always by my side. I'd go to the copier or the computer and he'd come over, real close.... There were occasions when he'd bump into me in the hallway so hard my papers would go flying. Or he'd give me a proofreading assignment and insist on sitting side-by-side with me at the computer."

Tracy began to act possessive and controlling, Nyhuis says. "He objected to me if I closed my office door to work," she says. "Or if someone came into the room with me, he'd run in and shoo them away."

Nyhuis says Tracy also made inappropriate remarks. What started out as comments on her clothing or perfume escalated over time, she says, and became "progressively more deplorable," including questions about her use of birth control.

Weirdest of all were the photographs. Nyhuis says Tracy began taking pictures of her, both secretly and openly. "I'd be sitting at my desk and hear a shutter go off, turn around, and no one was there," she says. Other times, she'd look up and see nothing but a hand with a camera in it coming around the corner of a wall.

"It was bizarre," Nyhuis says, recalling an instance in which Tracy brought a disposable camera to work, hid it in his hands, walked up to her and -- with a "Gotcha!" -- snapped her photo.

Nyhuis says Tracy sometimes left copies of the photos on her desk. "I'd rip them up right in front of his face," she says. "I told him it was wrong, I didn't like it, and that I wanted him to stop."

Most upsetting of all was a photo Tracy took of Nyhuis at a church function with her family. "I don't know how he did it," she says. "It was up my dress, at my legs." When he showed it to her, she says she threatened Tracy by saying that her husband would visit the office. "Tom walked away laughing," she says.

Nyhuis says she felt intimidated by Tracy. "I wanted and liked my job," she says. "Tom was volatile, sometimes pounding on keyboards when I objected to him." She began attending anger management classes to cope with her situation.

Higher-ups became involved in November 1998, following a contentious job review in which Nyhuis was so upset by Tracy's comments that she had to leave the room. According to Nyhuis, the Rev. Edwards followed her out to the parking lot, where she unburdened herself regarding Tracy's behavior.

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