Former St. Luke’s Parish rector accused of misconduct
A former rector of St. Luke’s Parish in Darien has been accused of sexual misconduct with a female Newtown parishioner.
The alleged event was reported to have happened the mid-1980s, before the rector began at St. Luke’s, and to have involved a woman under the age of 21 who was an undergraduate college student at the time.
The rector, the Very Reverend Jim Kowalski, has entered into an “accord” with the state’s episcopal leadership. He said this week that the allegations were “deeply upsetting.”
A state Episcopal church document titled Church Attorney Statement of Offenses alleges that Kowalski “In or about October 1984 engaged in acts of sexual abuse and exploitation” with the woman “against her will” while visiting her at her college.
The behavior the church alleges includes asking her to lie on his hotel room bed with him, embracing her and kissing her in an explicit manner.
St. Luke’s leaders notified the parish last week in an email blast and addressed it in the church’s service last weekend.
“The Wardens, Clergy, and Vestry were recently informed by Bishop Ian T. Douglas that the Very Reverend Jim Kowalski, who served as Rector of Saint Luke’s Parish from 1993 to 2001, engaged in sexual misconduct and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy prior to his time at Saint Luke’s, and is being disciplined under the Canons of the Episcopal Church of the United States,” the email read.
The vestry of St. Luke’s, including the Rev. Ryan Fleenor, Senior Warden Mark Campbell, and Junior Warden Sally Houlihan, said they had “no indication that any misconduct occurred involving members of our parish or while the Very Rev. Kowalski served at Saint Luke’s.”
“Nor do we have any reason to believe that applicable laws were broken. Nevertheless, we understand the profound impact this news will have on our community — particularly on those long-time parishioners who know him, his wife ... and their children,” they said.
Bishop Douglas is holding a Zoom call with St. Luke’s Parish members on Tuesday, July 28 at 6:30 p.m. to address the issue and answer any questions. For more information on how to register, call the parish office at 203-655-1456.
Kowalski met the woman when she was a parishioner at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, when she was in sixth or seventh grade, according to the Church Attorney Statement of Offenses. At the time, Kowalski was newly ordained.
The alleged incident didn’t happen until several years later, when she was in college, according to the document.
The acts, according to the church documents, violate two sections of Title IV, Canon IV of the Episcopal church, sexual misconduct and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.
The leadership of the state Episcopal church also released a full outline of the allegations and resulting disciplinary measures on its website at https://www.episcopalct.org/news/title-iv-clergy-disciplinary-matter-the-very-rev-james-a-kowalski/.
According to the page, an “accord” has been reached with Kowalski. An accord, according to the bylaws of the Episcopal church, means “a written resolution, which is negotiated and agreed, among the parties, resulting from an agreement for discipline” resulting from either an agreement, conciliation or a conference panel.
Douglas in an interview said the disciplinary process allows for the possibility of a clergy person to be suspended or deposed (withdrawn from the clergy), but he said that will not be the case with Kowaski.
“In this case, the agreement as to discipline (the accord) has not exercised these options but rather have put in place other actions to bring healing to those who have been hurt and safety to those who might be at risk,” Douglas said
Kowalski in an interview said “the claims that have been put forth, about an incident alleged to have happened more than 30 years ago, are deeply upsetting to me and my family.”
“At this time, however, after much reflection and in consultation with my wife, I have decided to enter into an Accord with the Church. This was an extremely difficult decision, but I believe that going through a contested hearing process would have provided neither healing nor resolution,” Kowalski said in an email.
“As a result, and although there are aspects of an Accord that I do not agree with, I believe it is in the best interest of me, my family and the Church,” he said. Due to the confidentiality aspects of the Accord agreement, Kowalksi declined to comment further.
Response at St. Luke’s
The Rev. Ryan Fleenor started at St. Luke’s this month as its new rector, replacing long-time rector David Anderson.
On Sunday, Fleenor addressed the charges and resolution in his sermon. Fleenor said that during his first sermon two weeks ago, he told the parish he was “so excited” to be there, and remains so.
“I know this week has been really hard for us as a parish. The letter you received from the vestry on Wednesday must have been a complete shock,” he said.
“So many of us know, respect, love and value the ministry that Jim Kowalski had here as your rector, and then in New York as the dean of the great cathedral church, St. John the Divine,” Fleenor said.
He added that the public acknowledgment of his behavior is important.
“It is important not to sweep things under the rug. Telling the truth is an important part of healing for those who have been hurt. And it is an important way we as a parish remain committed to be a place that is safe for all people,” Fleenor said.
Fleenor said that it is important to tell the truth, “even when it is hard,” but said that doesn’t mean that “we can’t also acknowledge and give thanks to God for the many ways Jim sought to serve God and people faithfully. Both things can be true.”
Fleenor also urged parishioners to sign up for the Zoom with Bishop Douglas.
He added that he wanted the parish to know “that we are here for you.”
On Monday, Fleenor said the parish was “was very sorry to learn about the clergy disciplinary matter involving Jim Kowalski.”
“Jim was rector of Saint Luke’s from 1993 to 2001 and the information released by Bishop Ian Douglas and the Episcopal Church in Connecticut about sexual misconduct with a woman under his pastoral care early in his career more than thirty years ago is upsetting, especially for those who knew Jim well during his time at Saint Luke’s,” Fleenor said.
He added there’s no indication any misconduct occurred while Kowalksi served in Darien.
“We informed the parish about the diocesan findings, in case there was someone impacted in our parish, and parishioners seem to be appreciative of Saint Luke’s efforts to be transparent,” Fleenor said.
“Saint Luke’s remains committed to providing a safe and welcoming space for all people, and we are praying for all involved that they would know healing, reconciliation, and peace,” he said.
Following his position at St. Luke’s in Darien, Kowalski took the prestigious position of dean at New York City’s St. John the Divine, shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
The church’s website announced his decision to step down as of June 2017, after serving for 16 years. In a letter announcing his decision, he wrote “When I was first elected as Dean in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11 and just a month before the terrible fire that struck the Cathedral, there was much to do.”
“Since then, we have 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 to take the Cathedral community into the future. But, while much has been accomplished, there is more to be done, and this is an ideal time for the Bishop to bring in a Dean who will build on this foundation,” he wrote.
Kowalski served as a contributor to HuffPost.com while serving as dean of the New York City Church. His last column, published on HuffPost.com in 2014, was called “Struggles.”
“Rather, it is exactly the capacity to understand — to stand under — the fact that we will make mistakes and people will get hurt. It is ennobling to see one of us give our all to a mission, including the struggle that follows the consequences that come in the aftermath. We are strengthened in our capacity to overcome adversity and to encourage others when we stand up for that,” he wrote.
St. Luke’s Parish was founded in 1856 and is one of the most active and largest of Darien’s congregations.
Spread over seven acres, the campus includes the church, a chapel, an education and meeting hall building, the Anderson Youth and Community Center, an administrative building, the Person-to-Person headquarters, two clergy residences and the rectory. St. Luke’s hosts the community worship on Good Friday and during non-COVID times hosts a weekly community supper.