Due Diligence: Kahwajy v. Catholic Diocese of Richmond
To sum up, Carol Kahwajy was hired, and subsequently fired six months later, as principal of the St. Benedict School in the Richmond area. She alleged that (1) the superintendent and clergy in charge of the school said some pretty bad things about her while there, and (2) those things are all completely and utterly untrue. She sued for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy to ruin her employment and career. Kahwajy valued the damage to her career, reputation and peace of mind to be at $14,150,000.00 plus $350,000.00 in punitive damages.
Among the completely and utterly untrue statements that she alleged have absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever are (a) that Kawajy had been engaged in a "morally inappropriate" relationship with a priest, whom she says they say is on medication for "emotional impairment" and suicidal, (b) that she had covered for a priest's sexual abuse of elementary school students (c) that she "was using the children at St. Benedict School as pawns to get money from old people", and had been generally misappropriating and overspending money, (d) that she herself was abusive to children, and (e) that she was generally dishonest, the "queen of schmooze", and lacked integrity in the discharge of her duties. Thrown in this list of atrocities--with no clear connection to any of her legal complaints--is the story of how Kawajy reported abuse by a Father Hersh in the mid 80s, whom she claims abused 7th and 8th grade children, allowed 4th grade children to touch his private parts, was quietly reassigned to a parish in Virginia Beach, and subsequently committed suicide in 1994.
Defamation suits are problematic for a number of reasons. The essence of the legal claim is that someone said something bad and untrue about the plaintiff, and that these statements caused her economic harm. Unless the plaintiff works somewhere akin to the Nixon-era White House, proving that anyone said any specific phrase can be as hard as nailing a jellyfish to a wall. Nor are the stated opinions of others actionable, but only alleged fact. You can't sue someone for calling you an "an ass", but for calling you "an ass who steals money and abuses children." On top of that problem, the plaintiff has to state in public record all the "untrue" things said about her, and she invites a challenge in court over the truth of these very embarrassing statements (since truth is a defense to the charge of defamation). And to make things even harder for Kawajy, she encountered the inevitable First Amendment/Freedom of Speech & Religion problems of suing a church for saying that she was immoral.
Also, in my (non-defamatory!) opinion, her lawyers didn't put together her Motion for Judgment too well. First, she sues for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, which I learned as a first-year law student was not a tort in Virginia. Second is the factual unclearness; e.g. regarding the story about Father Hersh mentioned above, she mentions it occurred in 1984-85, yet "Paragraph 37c" which she cites discusses a 1983 incident. The reader could easily confuse alleged statements made about her relationship with Father Hersh (the priest who committed suicide in '94), or her relationship with Father Kauffmann, the current parish priest. Finally, the plaintiff may have had better luck pursuing a employment discrimination claim under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act and the Virginia Human Rights Act. There is a world of difference between calling an employee an "idiot" or a "bitch". The latter insults a woman for being a woman, which is arguably hostile workplace discrimination against a women, protected under the law. Claiming statutory discrimination, instead of these squishy defamation and conspiracy claims, may have kept her case alive. However, I'm not certain whether this was feasible against a church either. I'm not a litigating PI or Employment Law lawyer. Then again, court records show the author of this Motion for Judgment to be a part of an Estate Planning firm.
Another problem with defamation suits is that no one comes out looking good. Here we have a seedy look at the workings of the Catholic Parochial school system which many of us wish wasn't there: abusive teachers, molesting priests, financial malfeasance, neurotic school administration, etc. This is the case regardless of who was telling the truth about what. And regardless of what we believe to be the True Church, all of us should pray that God watches over this school system, if for no other reasons, than for the young souls who live and learn therein.
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