Parish the Thought

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

Nyhuis says Edwards promised to speak to Tracy. "They went off for a long lunch together," she says. "They did a lot of that." But when she saw Edwards again, he soft-pedaled the issue. "He told me he was offended I didn't come to him sooner," Nyhuis says. "He spoke of 'Mr. Tracy's stress.'"

Nyhuis spoke to Edwards again on January 27, 1999, asking for a transfer to a different department. After a few days, however, the communications director said that was not possible.

Nyhuis says that Tracy learned of her complaints and that his treatment of her worsened. She says he misinformed her of meeting times, interfered with her work assignments, and refused her comp time, even for doctors' visits.

Nyhuis took her complaint another step up the ladder March 6. She wrote a letter of complaint to Vicar Francis Lechiara. Meeting with him on the 15th, Nyhuis again requested a transfer.

"[Lechiara] told me the diocese had spoken to its lawyers," Nyhuis says. "I told him I was glad of that." Lechiara seemed piqued by her story of Tracy's picture-taking, she says, but nothing further happened until March 22, when Lechiara told her, "Don't worry. You haven't been forgotten."

What that meant became clear a month later, on April 23, when the ax fell. At a meeting in Edwards's office, Nyhuis was told that an organizational restructuring was underway, that her position was being eliminated, that no transfer was available, and that she was being offered three months' severance pay. Edwards tried to soften the blow, Nyhuis says. "He told me he was being transferred. He said there'd be no one there to protect me from Tom."

Nyhuis asked to speak to Bishop Anthony O'Connell but was refused. "His secretary said it wasn't a pastoral issue," Nyhuis says. The highest-ranking prelate to hear her out was Vicar General Seamus Murtagh, now interim director of the diocese following O'Connell's resignation over child abuse charges.

At that point, Nyhuis says, all she wanted was a letter of recommendation and the negatives of Tracy's allegedly indecent photos of her. (Pictures in the county's file are hardly lurid, showing her kneeling, fully clothed, skirt just a few inches above her knees.) Neither was provided. "He said he couldn't help me since he was 'only in an advisory position.'" Nyhuis says. "He stammered and squirmed and kept urging me to take the severance money." Nyhuis says Murtagh refused the letter of recommendation and referred to her as a "disgruntled employee."

The severance package that Nyhuis eventually received -- hand-delivered to her home April 28 -- required that Nyhuis sign a general release in exchange for swearing off any possibility of legal action related to her firing. She refused.

Like any other employer in Florida, the diocese is subject to the state's Civil Rights Act of 1992, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. The act also prohibits retaliation for employee complaints about unequal treatment. In October 1999, in accordance with that act, Nyhuis filed discrimination charges against the diocese with the Florida Commission on Human Relations. Though the county investigated, the FCHR took no action within 180 days, which allows Nyhuis to file charges in both state and federal court. Her lawyer, West Palm Beach employment discrimination attorney Gordon Leech, says he intends to pursue the matter in both venues.

Diocese spokesperson Barbaro said it is church policy not to comment on pending litigation. Diocese attorney Brooks Ricca says it is the church's position that no sexual harassment took place. But Ricca also said the perception was hard to dispel "when you have these [child abuse] allegations against the larger body of the church."

Ann Marie Nyhuis says she still has faith. "I know my spirituality," she says. "I've found that. But I'm not in a hurry to join another church. I've been burned."

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