When she saw him through the window of an Omaha hotel lobby, her eyes welled up with tears. There he was, a man with a silhouette just like her boyfriend’s decades ago. A minute later, Kathleen Chafin hugged her son, Tom Rouse, for the first time in her life.
“It made me alive again,” Chafin recalled in an interview, crying as she remembered the meeting in August 2015. “He took my hand, held it firmly, and he never let go the whole time. Just seeing him, oh my.”
Chafin had spent decades searching for a son she says she never wanted to give up for adoption. When they finally did meet, her years of despair turned into anger at the Catholic Church and one of its priests, who she alleges manipulated her and then removed her son from a hospital room 50 years ago.
Chafin has filed a federal lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, alleging that a Jesuit priest named Thomas Halley forced her to give her son up for adoption. She’s seeking $10 million for damages and relief.
Neither Catholic organization immediately responded to requests for comment. But when Chafin first raised concerns about the adoption in 2015, an investigation from the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus concluded that Halley operated within the law and that his actions were “born of a desire to avoid scandal and find good homes for babies of unwed mothers,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Chafin contends the investigation was fraudulent, and she never received a copy of its findings. “The process of the investigation was full of the same lies and manipulation I have experienced all my life,” she said. “I was furious.”
Her allegations aren’t unique. She became pregnant in 1968. From post-World War II until the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision, many women were chastised and shunned for having children out of wedlock. Experts estimate more than 1.5 million unmarried women in the U.S. were forced to give up their babies during that period, according to Ann Fessler’s 2006 book, “The Girls Who Went Away.” Institutions such as the Catholic Church helped isolate single mothers and pressured them to sign away their children.
The epidemic crossed national boundaries. In 2018, a Canadian Senate committee released a report that estimated 95% of women in Canada who gave birth at maternity homes in the postwar period gave their children up for adoption. The report called on the country’s federal government to issue a formal apology for the “disturbing chapter in Canada’s history.” In the 2016 documentary “Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence,” dozens of women described feeling like they had no choice but to give their babies up for adoption. In the film, the Catholic Church in England and Wales formally apologized.
“We apologize for the hurt caused by agencies acting in the name of the Catholic Church,” said Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, in 2016.
Chafin said she has taken her case to federal court in hopes of advocating for other women who were pressured into giving up their children.
“I used to turn inward and become depressed,” she said. “But there are millions of us around the globe with lives like mine, and I will not live with the stories of those women on my shoulders.”