Nashville Diocese Paid $65K Settlement to Priest's Alleged Abuse Victim

A Tennessee woman, who was a child when she was allegedly raped by her Murfreesboro Sunday school teacher over a period several years, is suing the Catholic Diocese of Nashville and Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church alleging that they knowingly failed to stop the abuse. 

Michael D. Lewis, 42, was indicted in June 2020 and faces 10 counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and four counts of sexual battery by an authority figure. Though he was not a priest, Lewis served as the director of religious education at Saint Rose of Lima until 2016, where he oversaw youth Sunday school classes. 

Last year, diocese spokesperson Rick Musacchio told The Tennessean, "We have had no reports, and we have not been contacted by any investigators."

But the woman's lawsuit, filed under the name Jane Doe, alleges that "for years, parents and parish employees expressed their concerns, regarding what they witnessed of Lewis’s inappropriate physical conduct with Plaintiff, to the Bishop of the Diocese, other diocesan officials, and the pastor of St. Rose."

The lawsuit also alleges that the diocese "understood Lewis had previously been accused of sexual misconduct at his prior posting, and concealed this misconduct by moving Lewis to St. Rose."

Before the sexual abuse started in the spring of 2014, the lawsuit claims, Lewis started grooming the then-13-year-old girl, befriending her mother — whom he helped obtain a marriage annulment — and serving as the girl's confirmation sponsor. His assaults were allegedly "perpetrated on countless occasions from 2014 through 2017" and took place in numerous locations at the parish, as well as at his home and on a trip to Alabama paid for by the diocese. The lawsuit claims that Lewis gave the young girl alcohol. 

The complaint also details instances indicating that employees of the diocese knew or should have known the abuse was occurring. 

In 2013 or 2014, according to the suit, the church's "Safe Environment Coordinator ... held a meeting with Lewis, where she reiterated the Safe Environment policy that an adult should never be alone with a minor child." In another instance, "a parish employee examined records pertaining to Lewis’s cell phone, which was issued to him by the Diocese" and "found that Lewis had called and exchanged numerous text messages with Plaintiff, including pictures." The complaint says this led to a single conversation between a priest, Lewis, Lewis' wife and Lewis' mother. 

Later, the suit says, further complaints led to another meeting involving the Safe Environment Coordinator and Lewis. In 2016, a female staffer wrote a letter to parish leadership accusing Lewis of harassment and verbal abuse. That same year, a licensed clinical psychologist who was also parishioner of Saint Rose wrote a letter to Bishop David Choby, the late former bishop of the Diocese of Nashville, expressing concern that Lewis was grooming the young girl. 

"It is my sincere belief that the behavior I am seeing from Mr. Lewis, as regards [Plaintiff], is similar to the grooming behaviors associated with many child sexual abuse perpetrators," the woman wrote in her letter. 

The diocese's response, according to the complaint, was to send Lewis a letter "instructing him to follow diocesan safe environment policies and follow professional standards set forth in the Diocese’s code of conduct." Lewis refused to sign the letter and then resigned, although the complaint says he continued to work at the parish for six more weeks.

Toward the end of the complaint, it notes: "Neither the Diocese nor parish leadership has ever reached out to Plaintiff or her family to learn what she knew about Lewis, warn her about Lewis, ensure her safety, or offer her help."

The diocese acknowledged the lawsuit in an emailed statement. 

"It is not appropriate for us to respond to questions about this lawsuit until our attorneys have an opportunity to review the complaint," Musacchio writes. "As the legal process unfolds, we anticipate more information will be forthcoming."

"We encourage everyone who suspects that abuse is taking place to report it to civil authorities, and we pray for everyone involved in this matter."

The woman who filed the suit, now a 21-year-old college student, is seeking a jury trial and damages.