OMAHA, Neb. (CN) – In a lawsuit against the Jesuit order and Catholic church, a woman who gave her child up for adoption decades ago claims the church ran a “for-profit adoption conspiracy scheme” that forced hundreds of unwed mothers to give up their infants.
In a strongly worded statement, the Jesuit order denied the allegations in Kathleen Chafin’s lawsuit.
“These allegations are false and it can prove that these allegations are false,” the Jesuit order said. “The Province did not ‘conspire’ with anyone and it did not ‘profit’ from the adoption of any infants, Ms. Chafin’s included. Indeed, many of the allegations in the complaint are known to be untrue and can be shown to be untrue.”
Chafin sued the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuit order) and the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha on April 4 in Douglas County Court.
The Jesuit order was founded in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola, and approved as an apostolic order in 1540 by Pope Paul III. Its members take vows of chastity and poverty and, later, obedience.
Over the centuries they became perhaps the most learned of the Catholic orders, and spearheaded efforts at conversion. Today the order operates in 112 nations, on every continent but Antarctica.
Chafin says in her lawsuit that she was a freshman at St. Louis University in 1968 when she became pregnant. After taking a pregnancy test at the student health center, a nurse visited her in her dorm room to see if she was going to keep the baby and whether her parents had been notified.
Chafin says she regarded this as “an intrusive and insensitive visit and asked the nurse to leave.” The school contacted her mother within one day to inform her, according to the complaint.
Upon returning to her home in Omaha over spring break, Chafin says she was contacted by the parish priest of Christ the King Church, at which point “the defendants’ adoption conspiracy began.”
Chafin adds in the 7-page lawsuit that she and her boyfriend planned to get married and finish college in married housing, but “the defendants intervened” by sending another priest to her home. She says the priest berated her and told her that:
“a. She had brought shame to her family;
“b. Her giving birth out of wedlock was equal to murder;
“c. She had damned her soul;
“d. She was doomed to spend eternity in hell.”
She claims the priest, “acting as an agent for the defendants, abused his position of authority over Chafin in furtherance of the defendants’ adoption conspiracy.”
Chafin names both priests in the complaint, but not as defendants.
The Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus said in its Wednesday statement that it was not aware the lawsuit had been filed until Courthouse News asked for comment. It described the second priest as “a long-deceased Jesuit priest.”
Paragraph four of the order’s five-paragraph statement says: “The Province acknowledges that Ms. Chafin made contact with Province representatives in 2015 to raise concerns about the adoption of her infant child nearly a half-century earlier in the late 1960s. The Province consulted with Ms. Chafin and offered to provide her access to therapy at its expense. It commissioned at its own expense an independent investigation of Ms. Chafin’s assertions, which led to the conclusion that Ms. Chafin consented to the adoption of her infant and that the child’s adoption was completed in accordance with Nebraska law. The Province offered to provide, and did provide, Ms. Chafin with a summary of findings derived from that investigation. In all feasible ways, the Province has listened to Ms. Chafin’s complaints, investigated her allegations, and responded to her concerns.”
Chafin tells a different story in her lawsuit. She says the now-deceased priest forced her into a church home for unwed pregnant women where she “was forced into indentured servitude, cleaning, cooking and babysitting for members of the defendants’ organizations. That the end-game in this conspiracy was to provide babies for compliant couples in good standing with the defendants’ organizations under a for-profit adoption conspiracy scheme.”
The lawsuit continues, with alarming allegations: “That Chafin arranged for her grandmother to rescue her from this nightmare, but before that could happen, Chafin was drugged and tied to the birthing bed. That the baby was taken from Chafin at birth by members of the defendants’ organizations before she could hold him.
“That after Chafin gave birth, and the baby was kidnapped, she was abandoned by the defendants.”
Chafin says that in the decades that followed she made numerous attempts to locate her son and suffered from emotional distress.
As is the case with many mothers and children in similar situations, the advent of adoption message boards and services like Ancestry.com have made it far easier to track down lost children. After 48 years of separation, Chafin received a letter from her son, Tom, who still lived in Omaha and had seen a notice she’d posted on Adoption.com. Chafin reconnected with Tom and has even reunited with her college boyfriend, Tom’s father, a disabled Vietnam veteran who now lives outside Tulsa.
Chafin seeks $3 million pain and suffering. She is represented by Benjamin Maxell with Govier, Katskee, Suing & Maxell in Omaha.
The Jesuits concluded their statement by saying: “The appropriate forum to resolve the allegations found in Ms. Chafin’s complaint is the District Court for Douglas County, Nebraska. The Province there can assert and demonstrate that Ms. Chafin’s allegations are unfounded and untrue.”
Chafin’s complaint recounts a time known as the “Baby Scoop Era,” which occurred from the end of World War II until the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973, and touched the lives of millions of people. According to the Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative, a loosening of sexual mores in post-war America combined with the notion that illegitimacy was “defined in terms of psychological deficits on the part of the mother” created a wide-spread phenomenon in which unwed mothers were compelled to give up their children for adoption.
Whether by force or because of social stigma, it’s estimated that up to 4 million mothers in the United States alone gave their children up for adoption during the era, with 2 million occurring in the 1960s, according to the Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon.
Such adoptions were also common worldwide. The Catholic Church of England and Wales has apologized for harm it caused young unmarried women, as has Australia’s Roman Catholic Church. In 2014, Philomena Lee received an audience with Pope Francis to ask that Ireland’s adoption records be made open in order to facilitate reunions between separated family members there.
While the lack of a paper trail makes such allegations difficult to prove in a legal sense, the amount of anecdotal evidence is striking. From an Oscar-nominated film about Philomena Lee’s experience, to stories like an Atlanta woman’s quest to find her children, to Ann Fessler’s 2006 book “The Girls Who Went Away” and the 2012 documentary “A Girl Like Her,” the oral history of hundreds of young women who were caught up in the era has been well documented.
Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, executive director of Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative and Origins International, has been working for decades to bring light to the issue and reconnect natural mothers with their children. Wilson-Buterbaugh is herself an “exiled mother” and spent 30 years tracking down her daughter, only to be separated again three years later when her daughter died from ALS.
“What these people did to us was criminal,” Wilson-Buterbaugh said in a telephone interview this week.
She has made it her life’s work to compile research on the subject and help other affected mothers pursue acknowledgement of what was done to them. Later this month, she will publish the book “The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption, and Forced Surrender,” the culmination of her 20 years of research.
“I wanted to find out what these people thought about us. I needed to know what they said about me,” she said, referring to her own experience as a pregnant teenager in a maternity home outside Washington. “They can’t say these mothers did this voluntarily, because we didn’t.”