By Meagan Flynn / The Washington Post
The home of a Catholic priest was the last place LaShundra Allen ever would have expected to be denied work because of her skin color, she said.
Allen, who is black, arrived with her white co-worker the morning of May 3 for what was supposed to be her first day cleaning the Rev. Jacek Kowal’s rectory at the Catholic Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, Tennessee. The co-worker from the cleaning company who accompanied her, Emily Weaver, was quitting and came along to introduce Allen as her replacement.
But the women wouldn’t get far. The secretary stopped them, Allen told The Washington Post, and said she would have to go ask Kowal if the new arrangement was OK.
The secretary soon informed them it was actually not OK — because of the priest’s “racist” dog.
“I’m sorry,” Kowal’s secretary said, according to a complaint sent to the Catholic Diocese of Memphis last month. “We are not trying to be rude, but the dog doesn’t like black people.”
Allen said she “didn’t really even have words,” baffled at what she just heard. She was ultimately turned away, and the experience haunted her so much that she felt she could not stay silent. “They came at me like it was supposed to be a joke,” she said, “but it was not funny. There was nothing funny about it.” Allen and Weaver sent a racial discrimination complaint to the Diocese of Memphis on July 3, seeking a “settlement and compromise.”
But on Friday, the Diocese of Memphis said in a statement that it completed its investigation and found that what happened at the priest’s rectory “simply was not a case of racial discrimination” and that Kowal “did nothing wrong.” The investigation came in response to the complaint, which was first reported by the Commercial Appeal newspaper last week.
In the church’s version of events, the secretary’s words were, “Father Jacek’s dog is kinda racist” — although in the eyes of the diocese, the statement did not stem from any racial discrimination. The priest and church staff were strictly concerned that the dog, a German shepherd named Ceaser, could attack Allen or both women, based in part on a past incident the dog had with an African-American person, according to the letter from Bishop David Talley.
“Although the parish staff member’s choice of words was highly unfortunate and imprecise — they were not motivated by racial animus,” Talley wrote. “Rather, the concern by all involved was the safety of these women, one of whom was a stranger to the dog, and they knew that attempting to crate the dog would be dangerous when its owner was not present.”
Allen’s attorney, Maureen Holland, said she was disappointed in the bishop’s finding. Allen said she feared the diocese was not taking her complaint seriously, especially because the church did not respond for weeks to her letter. Blaming a dog for racism, she said, appeared to mask underlying discrimination. And she felt both discipline and training for the priest and staff should have been required, “because he needs to know that it’s not OK to say something like that to people.”
“I took it to be that he was using [the dog] as an excuse,” Allen said. “Dogs can’t see color. Dogs can only be taught who to be around and who not to be around.”
According to the diocese’s letter, Weaver said she would be happy to put Ceaser in his crate if the secretary was concerned the dog would become aggressive in Allen’s presence. Weaver never had any problems with the dog previously, according to her and Allen’s complaint. But Kowal insisted putting the dog in the crate would be too dangerous without his supervision, “as he was concerned that they would be at risk of being bitten,” Talley wrote. Talley said Kowal would have had the same fear regardless of any new visitor’s skin color, because the dog does not like strangers.
Still, skin color was also part of the discussion.
“The staff were aware that years ago the dog had been threatened by a person who happened to be African American, causing the dog to be somewhat more agitated initially around strangers with darker skin, until the dog gets to know them,” Talley wrote. “The replacement employee who was planning to enter the rectory was an African-American person the dog had never met.”
Talley said the employees’ interpretation that Kowal was “motivated by a desire not to have an African-American housekeeper” was “simply not true.” He had previously employed an African-American housekeeper for five years during his last assignment, Talley noted.
Nick Signaigo, the owner of the cleaning company, Master Building Service Contractors, said Allen and Weaver each called him, “hysterical,” in May to tell him what happened. The women’s accounts synced up, he said, and he felt like he needed to take immediate action. “I had to take care of my employees,” said Signaigo, a parishioner at Kowal’s church whose children attended Catholic school there.
He immediately severed the contract to clean Kowal’s rectory, although he retained contracts to clean the church and school. He also pulled his children out of the school, saying he felt as if the diocese was ignoring his employees.
“I’m Catholic, I’m a part of the diocese — that’s where I attended church, and I expect something like that to be handled professionally, quickly, and handled immediately,” he told The Post. “But it was not … For this to happen to my employees upsets me highly.”
Kowal did not respond to requests for comment from The Post, but in a statement to the Commercial Appeal last week, he echoed Talley’s explanation, mentioning the dog’s “bad experience” with an African-American person. “Since that time, Ceaser has been aggressive with strangers until he gets to know them. And this is especially true for strangers that happen to be African American,” Kowal wrote to the newspaper. He strongly disagreed that the incident could be described as racist.
“As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I wholeheartedly believe all forms of discrimination based upon race or ethnicity are sinful and wrong,” he wrote. “As a pastor, I have ministered to, employed and worked with numerous African Americans. Their claim that I didn’t want an African American to clean my rectory is simply not true.”
An attorney for the diocese declined further comment.
Allen’s attorney, Holland, said that the diocese has not contacted her clients directly about their complaint.