A former pastoral associate at two western Minnesota Catholic churches has sued her priest-supervisor and the St Cloud Diocese, accusing the priest of sexual harassment and the diocese of failing to respond to repeated reports of misconduct.
The lawsuit, filed by Theodosia Orlando, alleges that the Rev. Joseph Backowski subjected her to "ongoing, unwelcome and offensive verbal and physical harassment and abuse" during her five months working with him. It says the diocese fired her in January because of her complaints.
The complaint says Backowski attempted to manipulate Orlando into a sexual relationship through verbal come-ons and with written messages saying he could "dust the rust off your beauty." He wrote that he prayed he wouldn't "become a wolf to consume you like meat," according to the complaint, which was filed last week in Stearns County District Court.
The St. Cloud diocese has not filed a response in court. But in a statement on Friday, it said Backowski was placed on administrative leave in early January because of "personal health concerns" and has been participating in an evaluation and treatment program. He is expected to finish treatment within the month, and the diocesan review board will examine the case.
"Bishop [Donald] Kettler offers his support and prayers for everyone affected by this situation," the statement said. Backowski could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The St. Cloud Diocese announced last year it would declare bankruptcy as it faced more than 70 claims of clergy sex abuse against children, including many older cases. The latest suit is different in that it involves a female professional church employee who reported the problem to her superiors, casting a shadow on the diocese's handling of current cases.
"How many times do they [diocese officials] have to be sued for sexual harassment to take it seriously?" asked Minneapolis attorney Lori Peterson, who is representing Orlando. "They're already facing bankruptcy because of problems like this. Here we have a staff person with serious issues, and she's treated like a pariah."
Orlando, 32, began working in late August as a pastoral associate at St. Mary of the Presentation Church in Breckenridge and St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Kent. Her name and phone number appear under Backowski's on church bulletins, indicating the responsibilities of her position.
Backowski, 36, was ordained in 2012 and served as pastor of both churches. He had previously served churches in St. Cloud and Waite Park.
According to the complaint, Backowski began calling Orlando "my virgin," made remarks about her "beauty," touched her on her breasts and made repeated remarks with sexual innuendo. He also told her he struggled with an addiction to pornography and viewed it on the office computer.
The complaint says that Orlando first reported the misconduct to a Dominican priest in October. By January, it says, she had asked repeatedly to meet with Vicar General Robert Rolfes. Orlando finally met with Rolfes that month, bringing letters she said were written by Backowski as proof of the harassment. "He [Rolfes] was reluctant to read them and read only one," the complaint said. "His only response was to criticize the handwriting."
After Backowski was sent to treatment, members of the congregations were told it was because of a medical condition, the complaint says. They were not informed of the sexual harassment complaints.
The lawsuit charges the defendants with public nuisance, negligent supervision and retention, defamation, assault, sex discrimination and sex harassment, and retaliation.
The diocese did not respond on Friday to Orlando's allegations that she was fired in retaliation for her complaints.
"The diocese isn't commenting on the merits of the suit while the matter works its way through the legal process," said Joe Towalski, diocese spokesman.