AUSTIN (KXAN) — Assaulted and held captive in the confessional. For devout members of the Catholic Church, it’s something that is difficult to imagine. Isolated, scared and terrified. These are only a few of the ways one woman says she felt when she alleges an assault took place at St. Thomas More in Northwest Austin, located at 10205 N. Farm to Market Road 620.
“The confessional is a sacred space to Catholics where we experience God’s love and His mercy,” the woman explained. “All of that was taken away from me.”
She continued, “You’re already in a vulnerable position when you are in the confessional. As a predator, he took advantage of that vulnerability.”
The woman says within the last five years, Father Isidore Ndagizimana, known as “Father Izzy,” touched her inappropriately during confession and then wouldn’t let her leave.
Terrified and uncertain of what she should do, the woman never called police to report what happened. She told herself she didn’t have to — she says leadership at the parish and the Diocese of Austin assured her they were taking care of the priest and this issue. After all, she says this wasn’t the first complaint they’d received regarding Father Izzy. She trusted the diocese and the church.
“We fully expected to have their full support of us and when that didn’t happen, it was alarming to all of us,” she said.
The woman says when she complained, she was told there was nothing that could be done to correct the problem because confessions are “confidential” — secret.
“Confessions are protected under the seal. They could not ask [Ndagizimana] what happened because of the seal. I understand that my words are protected, but his actions are not. If a priest could do whatever he wanted in confession, why would anybody go? No,” she said adamantly, “Abuse is never OK. Abuse is never protected under some seal.”
The woman no longer attends confession. She believes the church doesn’t do anything to guarantee her safety there.
This woman is one of two who spoke with KXAN under conditions of anonymity. They are just two of the six women who have filed a civil lawsuit against the local priest, bishop and the Austin Diocese, saying they were sexually abused. The lawsuit alleges that the diocese failed to protect the adult female parishioners from Father Ndagizimana.
The Diocese of Austin is denying the allegations laid out in the suit. Father Izzy has not been charged with any crimes related to the allegations mentioned in the civil lawsuit.
Continuous complaints & repeated protection of the priest
Although another woman involved in the suit did not say her encounters ever rose to assault, she said she endured the priest’s sexual abuse and harassment for about three years.
“There were multiple instances where he would touch inappropriately. He would hug and rub my back and lower back inappropriately. There were many instances of groping,” she explained. “It is never OK for someone to touch you inappropriately, and when that comes from a supposed man of God, you really begin to question everything.”
The suit also alleges Ndagizimana would also show up to women’s homes uninvited and when their husbands weren’t home.
“I thought I am alone in this. I’m the only person that this has happened to. I will keep quiet,” she said.
As soon as the women say they found out they weren’t the only ones dealing with Father Izzy’s alleged sexual advances and inappropriate behavior, they say they felt empowered to protect whoever else they could. So, the women said they looked for a church policy that was specific to adult women being harassed by clergy but found nothing.
The Austin diocese uses a program called “Ethics in Ministry,” or EIM, as a reporting system. Everyone who works or volunteers for the church go through training to spot sexual abuse. It also outlines the steps for reporting abuse, but it only specifies abuse that involves children or vulnerable adults, meaning the elderly or people who are mentally handicapped.
The women in this case felt it created a loophole for the church when it came to responding to their claims, adding that the current sexual abuse and harassment policies are insufficient. Because they are adults, the diocese said the risk wasn’t “imminent,” according to the lawsuit.
“We were told that because we were not minors, there was nothing that they could do about it,” they said. “You feel like you are not worthy of being protected.”
After the women say they reported Father Izzy repeatedly and no substantive action was taken, one of the women contacted Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s office last summer. DiNardo, of Galveston-Houston, reports directly to the pope.
That woman says she knew her complaints were not being taken seriously when she received an email that told her if she could round up a few more women that this had happened to, it may make a greater impact.
“For there to be no interest in justice or resolution, it’s baffling. It’s just baffling,” she explained.
Even after their complaints, Father Izzy remained at the Northwest Austin parish. The women say he continued to attend mass and they continued to receive communion from him.
“It felt like we were being put in our place,” one woman explained.
Sean Breen, the civil attorney for the six women involved in the lawsuit, says there was a five-month period of time between reporting to the bishops and when Father Izzy was removed from the parish. In the meantime, the suit alleges Izzy was left to confront and abuse the women there.
Furthermore, the lawsuit claims the Diocese of Austin knew about Father Izzy’s behavior before 2012 when he arrived at St. Thomas More. The suit alleges the diocese received similar complaints about the priest while he served in at least four other previous parishes in the Austin area, including St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, Holy Cross Catholic Church, St. Ann Catholic Church and St. Mary’s Parish.
“All of the suffering that we have endured could have been prevented if the diocese had taken care of this,” one of the woman explained, frustrated. “There should be zero tolerance for this behavior — period.”
And, after St. Thomas More, Father Izzy reportedly was moved again to Brenham, Texas, where he served as an associate pastor.
New developments, motions in the civil case
In December, the Diocese of Austin filed a response to the lawsuit, legally denying the claims. Then, on Jan. 15, it filed to dismiss it altogether, arguing that the women’s efforts to change policies violates its Constitutional right as a religious organization.
The church basically said that such policies are not for a civil court to decide because they are the “inner workings” of a religious entity and the court does not have such authority.
To that, Breen argues the church is not above the law.
“There is no Constitutional right to abuse or to employ abusers… and that applies to the [Catholic] Church,” he said. “We think they absolutely are accountable, and we intend to hold them accountable.”
The next step? Breen says they’ll file another response in court. After that, a hearing will take place where a judge will ultimately decide whether or not the Diocese of Austin is above the law and if they have to answer to the allegations in the lawsuit in a civil courtroom.
Most recently, we’re told that the bishops have filed a motion to have the anonymity of the women removed — a measure their attorneys believe was made in an effort to intimidate and scare them out of the suit.
Father Izzy’s current status in the Catholic Church
KXAN reached out to the Diocese of Austin to learn the current status of Father Izzy and whether he was still working with women in the church in any capacity, and if so, asked where he was located.
We were initially told that he has been removed from active ministry, which means he is still a priest but he is not allowed to do anything in public as a priest.
When we asked whether the diocese could provide Izzy’s history with the church in regards to his placements as a priest and/or a church employee, according to date and location, we were referred to the diocese’s legal counsel about this case. We were told that he was traveling and was expected to return in early February.
A Trial of Faith
Both women tell KXAN News they, along with their families, are still active members of their church communities. However, they do admit their testimonies have been shaken by this experience.
“I feel like there’s a war or a conflict inside of me because there’s a part of me that loves my faith and loves everything about it — the traditions, the smells, the pure beauty of it. Then there’s another part of me that wonders how I can continue being there when I know, without a doubt, that none of us are protected,” one woman explained.
When prompted about the future of potential reform in the Catholic Church concerning how they handle sexual abuse, another of the women said, “We continue to pray that reform will happen – that the pope will be a good leader and know the necessary changes that need to happen. Do I think it will happen quickly? No.”
They said it hasn’t been easy to come forward against the church they love so much but say they cannot stand by without holding it to a higher standard to ensure everyone’s protection.
“I don’t understand why they will not make the necessary changes to their policies to include every person, and that’s what this lawsuit is about. We want them to change their policy. We don’t want to change our faith,” one explained.
“We can no longer pretend that this isn’t happening. That this isn’t a greater, systemic issue in our church. We have to stand up. We have to get serious about punishing and removing these priests.”
She added, “I will never give up on my faith. I will never give up on my church.”
When asked why the women were coming forward, one responded, “It’s not just about the six of us. There’s a greater issue at hand and the fact of the matter is we represent every woman. We represent every person. We represent every child. We don’t want the focus to be on who we are because we want the focus to be on the greater issue of abuse and coverup and what’s being done to protect each and every person in the Church.”
The women say they chose to be anonymous to protect their families — their children — and themselves.
In November, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the delay of any votes on proposed new steps to address clergy sex abuse — at least for several months — until after a global meeting on the topic would be held next month in the Vatican.
Cardinal DiNardo expressed disappointment but told the U.S. bishops, “I remain hopeful that this additional consultation will ultimately improve our response to the crisis we face.”