By Kirk Petersen
A former longtime dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City has been disciplined for “sexual abuse and sexual exploitation” committed more than three decades ago when he was a priest in Connecticut, according to an announcement July 17 by the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.
The Very Rev. James A. Kowalski, 68, served as dean of the world’s largest Gothic cathedral from 2002 to 2017. The alleged abuse occurred in 1984, when he was rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Hartford, and involved a young woman with whom he previously had a pastoral relationship from his employment at another Connecticut church.
The nature of the discipline was not disclosed, but Bishop of Connecticut Ian T. Douglas said Kowalski was not suspended or “deposed,” the term the Church uses for what used to be known as defrocking. Because there was no change to Kowalski’s canonical status, Douglas said it was not necessary to disclose the terms of an agreement between a priest and his bishop.
The “statement of offenses” released by the Connecticut diocese said that “in or about October 1984” Kowalski visited the young woman, whose name and identifying information were redacted, in the city where she was a freshman undergraduate.
While there, “Rev. Kowalski engaged in acts of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation with [redacted] and against her will including but not limited to; asking [redacted] to lie with him on his hotel bed, embracing [redacted], and kissing her in a sexually explicit manner.”
A message left on Kowalski’s home voicemail in Vermont, where he is retired, was not returned.
Douglas said no criminal charges were ever filed in the 1984 incident. He said he had been in regular contact with the complainant, and while her approval was not canonically required, he would not have offered the accord if she opposed it.
“I pray that this disciplinary process will bring healing, restoration, and wholeness to all affected,” Douglas said in the written announcement. He told TLC that the accord was intended to “ensure ongoing safety for any possible vulnerable populations, and then healing and wholeness.”
Douglas said he had proposed the same accord with Kowalski very early in the disciplinary process, but Kowalski did not agree until the matter was referred to a hearing panel, which is essentially an ecclesiastical court. Under Title IV of the Canons of The Episcopal Church, the disciplinary process is intended to remain confidential, up until the point it is sent to a hearing panel.
The hearing panel then begins to collect statements and information from the parties and schedules a hearing — essentially a trial — which is open to the public. The accord was reached before all of that could happen, and the matter is now closed. If Kowalski had accepted the accord before the referral to the hearing panel, the charges would not have been disclosed.
When Kowalski retired after 15 years as dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, he said he and the church had “worked together to stabilize the Cathedral financially, embarked on a multi-million dollar restoration of this magnificent structure, and established an important strategic planning process.”
Construction on the cathedral began in 1892 and has not been completed, although the existing parts of the building have been in active use since 1911.
In a 2013 video on the cathedral’s YouTube page in conjunction with an event supporting an end to violence against women, Kowalski said it is important that people speak up about such violence. “Don’t tell me you love somebody, and either act in a violent manner toward them, or allow others to be violent,” he said.