A second woman has come forward to accuse the Rev. Patrick L. Nicholson, who once served in Catholic churches in Mobile and Montgomery, of sexual misconduct. His new accuser says Nicholson tried to molest her when she was a teenage girl, advances she says contributed to problems later in her life.
Nicholson was discharged from his position as an Air Force chaplain in 2000 after he was accused by a former Air Force Academy cadet of luring her into a sexual relationship.
He is on leave from the church and not allowed to function as a priest. Although still under the authority of local church officials, he now lives in Southern California, according to his last known address.
Unlike the cadet, who was a college freshman when she and Nicholson first had a sexual relationship, Nicholson’s new accuser said she was 15 years old, fresh out of junior high, when Nicholson repeatedly tried to molest her.
A crisis in the Catholic Church over clergy sex abuse has come to a head in the last few years, with most of the allegations concerning male victims.
Kathleen Karlsen said Nicholson’s advances fractured her relationship with the church, led her to avoid relationships with men and pushed her into years of therapy and soul searching.
Karlsen approached the Mobile Register with her allegations and agreed to have her name used in this story.
Now 41 and living in Bozeman, Mont., Karlsen said she thought she was Nicholson’s only victim until recently, when she found articles about Nicholson and the cadet, Susan Archibald of Louisville, Ky.
Archibald has been pursuing a lawsuit to make the Air Force reveal documents about its investigation into Nicholson.
Since then, Karlsen has spoken with a Mobile lawyer and Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr., whose office is investigating local cases of clergy sex abuse. In both cases, she said, she has been told that civil or criminal action is unlikely because of the amount of time that has passed.
She also said she recently sent letters to local church officials, including Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb.
Nicholson responded to a letter from the Register by having his Los Angeles-area lawyer, Wild Chang, contact the newspaper. Chang said his client remembered Karlsen (then using her maiden name). Nicholson remembers one incident of physical contact with Karlsen, but said he never intended anything inappropriate, according to Chang.
When Chang was asked earlier this year if Nicholson had improper sexual relationships with anyone besides Archibald, Chang responded: “The words I was told he’s comfortable with are not to his recollection …”
Karlsen said in a telephone interview from Montana: “I bet my life there are more besides Sue and I.”
Karlsen said she met Nicholson in 1976, shortly after moving to Prattville, just northwest of Montgomery. Her father, an Air Force colonel, had been assigned to the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base. She was 14.
Karlsen said her parents were strong Catholics, and wherever they moved, they always became involved with the local church. In Prattville, the church was St. Joseph, where Nicholson was assigned from 1976 through 1978, according to the Official Catholic Directory.
In Mobile, Nicholson served at Little Flower in 1970 and St. Pius X from 1971 through 1975.
The charismatic Irish priest quickly became a part of the family, Karlsen said. He played tennis with her and her siblings, invited them over to watch television and ate dinner at her house, she said.
Her family moved again within a year; shortly thereafter, Nicholson invited her to visit him at the end of the summer, she said. She jumped at the idea, she said, because she was homesick and faced the prospect of starting high school alone.
On the second or third night there, she said, she and Nicholson were watching TV when he started forcefully kissing her and touching her breasts. She said she pulled away and ran to the bathroom after he grabbed her hand and directed it to his groin.
When she came out of the bathroom, the priest started again, Karlsen said. She said she pulled away and went to the house of the family she was staying with.
For the next 10 days or so, Karlsen said, “it was just hell. He was just relentless. And he knew I was distraught. I would sob in front of him. As soon as I would stop, he would be after me again. He would try to kiss me, try to fondle me.”
Chang said Nicholson told him about Karlsen visiting on a vacation, but he said his client just once raised his hand and touched Karlsen “in the shoulder area” while she was on a bed. “But it was not intended for sexual or improper purposes,” Chang said.
According to Chang’s account, Karlsen ran away and the priest could tell she was upset. Chang said Karlsen’s account was a “drastic difference” and that he would discuss with his client the accusation by Karlsen that Nicholson repeatedly came on to her.
Karlsen said Nicholson never spoke to her about what happened, except to tell her not to disclose anything to her father. She said she didn’t tell him or her mother for several years.
She said the effect of the unwanted kisses and groping rippled through her life for years, including her reluctance to date in high school and two men who tried to take advantage of her sexually in the course of counseling.
She later found refuge in a spiritual community, where she lived an ascetic life. She remained there for several years, she said, distancing herself from men in the community.
“I know that Kathleen had a hard time for a long time,” Patricia Hinnebusch, Karlsen’s mother, said from New Mexico in a telephone interview.
Hinnebusch said she had consoled herself over the years by believing that the story her daughter described was a one-time indiscretion by Nicholson.
“It’s a nightmare come back to haunt me now,” Hinnebusch said. “It shouldn’t happen to anyone else. And the nightmarish part for me is that I thought it would never happen again.”
The Very Rev. Michael L. Farmer, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Mobile, said he didn’t know of Karlsen’s statements. Under the church’s new sexual abuse policy, Farmer said, the accusation will be investigated.
If the accusation is substantiated, Farmer said, Nicholson could be put on leave permanently, with no hope of being reinstated to public ministry.
Karlsen and Hinnebusch said they would like to see Nicholson defrocked. Farmer said that is always possible, but some church officials around the country have questioned whether that is wise.
If a priest is laicized, he said, the church would have no authority over him, though he acknowledged that there isn’t now a formal system of oversight in place for priests who are on leave for sexual misconduct.
“In some situations you have better control over them if they remain priests,” he said.