Parish the Thought | News | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Parish the Thought

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.

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."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Ellman

Latest Stories