Three women say that Vatican measures against their former spiritual director are not sufficient, and that his allegedly sexually abusive conduct should have merited a steeper sanction.
The women say that Fr. David Nicgorski, formerly the superior general of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, groomed them in spiritual direction while they were members of the Daughters of St. Paul, leading in one case to an alleged sexual assault.
But while the Vatican has prohibited Nicgorski from serving as a spiritual director for five years, the sisters say the decision was not enough, and the priest could eventually abuse other women.
‘His eyes would follow me’
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble met Fr. Nicgorski in 2015, five years into her life as a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, soon after her first profession of vows.
She met him on a retreat.
Initially, Sr. Theresa Aletheia was uncomfortable with Nicgorski. Something about him seemed off to her — despite his respected status among the members of her religious community.
“He’d been a spiritual director for the sisters for many years. He was very trusted, and almost revered among the sisters. They just looked up to him a lot.”
“But during that silent retreat, I just felt like there was a lot of attention on me, and his eyes would follow me wherever I went. I didn't know how to take it. I thought it was weird, but I thought at the same time, he was so well respected. That was the start of my rejecting all of my red flags.”
When she went to confession during the retreat, she said, things got a bit stranger.
“He asked me my name. And I told him my religious name, Aletheia. But he seemed to have already asked someone about my name, because he was unsurprised, like, waiting for me to finish so he could tell me something.”
“And he immediately said that he had some kind of mystical experience, where he found out that his guardian angel’s name was Aletheia.”
“And now, I see it a lot differently, but then, I thought we must have some special connection, and you know, it’s with this special priest whom everyone thinks is amazing. And so I immediately put all of that weird feeling that I had during the retreat — with him staring at me all the time — into that context.”
“So after the retreat, I asked him to become my spiritual director.”
But just weeks before she asked him, Nicgorski had gotten a new role in the Church, and had relocated to Rome.
In August 2015, Nicgorski, who was until then the American provincial of his order, had been elected major superior of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary — a religious community which had at the time almost 200 members, in 51 houses, mostly in Europe, the U.S., the Philippines, and Nigeria.
Nicgorski was at the time 58, a native of Philadelphia who was ordained a priest in 1991. He had served on retreat teams, in youth and young adult ministry, and became the U.S. provincial six years earlier, in 2009.
His 2015 election as major superior meant that he would relocate to the community’s motherhouse near the Vatican. The move left Sr. Theresa Aletheia’s superiors uncertain whether the priest would be able to serve as her director.
“But [in September] I asked him, and he very happily agreed. He was like, ‘As long as you’re ok with Skype meetings.’”
He told Sr. Theresa Aletheia that it was important they see each other’s faces —- even via Skype — during spiritual direction, she recalled.
But their first meeting, she remembered, was in person. And Sr. Theresa Aletheia told The Pillar that there were some things she still remembers as uncomfortable.
“Father Dave introduced his role as ‘matchmaker’ between me and Jesus,” she later recalled.
During the meeting, he also suggested that she envision herself talking with Jesus, and proposed that she imagine a beachfront bedroom setting for that conversation.
“He gave several settings, telling me to choose one where I would feel most comfortable praying or meeting with Jesus and told me that it would help him to figure out what kind of pray-er I am. One involved a bedroom looking out on the ocean. He described a canopy on the bed and the curtains on the windows. His examples seemed sentimental and romantic to me and made me uncomfortable.”
“I was not sure why a bed was mentioned,” she told The Pillar.
“I remember thinking, ‘That's really weird. Why is my prayer setting with Jesus in a bedroom? But okay. He must know, because he's so experienced.”
While she was uncomfortable, the sister kept meeting with Nicgorski. She noticed how available he was — despite the time difference, no scheduled meeting seemed too late for him, and he made sure to meet with her in-person every time he was in town. When she went through a vocational crisis, he made time to meet with her every week, no matter how busy he was.
“Father Dave made himself almost irreplaceable in my spiritual life,” she later recalled.
He also became involved in the practical details of her life.
“He insisted that I run things by him, even the smallest things… He asked to look over any emails or letters that I sent to superiors,” she said.
“I began to feel dependent on his direction.”
As that happened, Nicgorski began acting in a more familiar way, she said.
At some point, the priest started texting her directly to set up meetings, instead of working through his assistant. Then he started giving her small gifts. Then in June 2016, after almost a year of spiritual direction, he made a set of videos for her, of additional advice for her spiritual life.
One video struck Sr. Theresa Aletheia as strange.
“In this video, he included pictures of me that he must have looked for online. One had a diamond Photoshopped in my hands. I was bothered that he had obviously searched for images of me online and took the time to Photoshop a diamond into my hands. I felt that was inappropriate and strange,” Sr. Theresa Aletheia wrote in an affidavit later.
“I was also again really surprised that he had the time to put these videos together, but when I said something about it he said he was just practicing this skill for something for his order.”
“The ongoing thing in my mind was that I must be really special to him,” she told The Pillar.
Sr. Theresa Aletheia also recalled the priest’s frequent discussion of sexual issues.
“Almost every conversation I ever had with Father Dave had sexual overtones. It was often quite subtle, but he constantly used slight sexual entendres and insinuations in discussions,” she later recalled.
But when she had concerns, the sister said, she attributed them to her own issues. She thought they were in her mind.
“I had been raped before I entered [religious life], and I shared that with my formators, and also the fact that I was an atheist before I entered — In the culture of convent life, at least where I was, those things were considered serious handicaps. This contributed to a sense that I had entered damaged, so I would question myself all the time, and my relationship with him all the time.”
“I would sense sexual undertones in things all the time, and I would think, ‘Wow, I must be really messed up that I am thinking this way or feeling this way.’”
Believing that her discomfort was her own fault, Sr. Theresa Aletheia continued to meet with Nicgorski.
She said that things got stranger in the summer of 2016. That August, she made a retreat, with the priest as her retreat director.
“That’s when I started to be like: ‘Wait a second, something is a little off.’”’
She remembers that “the spiritual direction room was always dimly lit. Father Dave would turn off the main light and light a couple lamps. He would also buy flowers for the room and chocolate for the sisters. He would often light candles. This ambiance struck me as unusual and romantic.”
Sr. Theresa Aletheia also remembered that during the retreat, while sisters were singing in the chapel, the priest entered, and said to them something that made her “very uncomfortable.”
“The voices of virgins singing — you just cannot imagine what that does for a religious priest, a man,” he reportedly told them.
And she remembered that he began telling her sexualized stories about the prayer life of other sisters.
“Starting the retreat, he told these anecdotes that I now realize are his standard anecdotes for sisters.”
One anecdote involved a sister who, according to the priest, experienced in prayer a vision of Christ kissing her on the mouth. The priest told Sr. Theresa Aletheia that experiencing something like that would be no cause for embarrassment.
Later on the retreat, Sr. Theresa Aletheia said, Nicgorski told a story about a young woman on retreat, who had a more sexualized prayer experience.
“He said a sister talked about how Jesus kissed her ‘there,’ and he looked at me like, “You know where ‘there’ is, right?”
“And that was really weird. But I thought it must be my issue — like, that he must be saying this kind of stuff to everyone else, and nobody thinks it’s weird, so it must just be because of my own issues.”
Sr. Theresa Aletheia told The Pillar she believes the priest knew about her self-doubt, and her past trauma, and took advantage of it.
“He was always pushing the boundaries, but he would do things in front of everyone. That was another thing that made me question myself — everyone was seeing this happen.”
One of those pushed boundaries, Sr. Theresa said, was a serious violation of her bodily integrity.
At one point, she recalled, in front of other sisters, “he came up to me and pushed himself against me, and hugged me really tightly, front-to-front against him, and he kept me there for a minute, and then he released me.”
“At that point, he caressed my cheek, and he said, ‘I’ll see you later.’”
“I was so embarrassed.”
But while no sisters in her community seemed to react to that experience, Sr. Theresa Aletheia was not the only sister who thought things with Fr. Nicgorski were “weird.”
‘I attributed it to my own woundedness’
Years earlier, in 2009, Sr. Danielle Victoria Lussier had met Nicgorski on a 30-day silent retreat at the Massachusetts retreat house where he was a retreat team director.
Lussier was not yet a sister. In fact, she was then discerning religious life, she remembers, and “I was coming with a lot of questions and a lot of doubts and a lot of insecurities — but also a real confidence that the Lord was doing something [in my life].”
“But there were Swiss cheese holes in my formation … and I was naive in a lot of ways. So I thought Fr. Dave was going to help me discern my vocation.”
Sr. Danielle Victoria said her enthusiasm — and her faith — impacted the way she perceived Nicgorski.
“It took me a long time to even be able to acknowledge that there was ill intent from the beginning.“
The sister remembered how quickly the priest had sexualized her spiritual direction. He talked with her about religious sisters who imagined sharing intimate kisses with Jesus. He encouraged her to imagine in prayer the intimacy between husband and wife after sex — to have “pillow talk” with Jesus, or to imagine him laying his head in her lap, while she stroked his hair.
From the beginning, she found those things concerning. But she waived off her concern — “I attributed it to my own woundedness, because of my past history.”
She also waived off the priest’s willingness to talk with her late into the night, or his gifts of sushi or glasses of wine, which seemed to violate the penitential spirit of the retreat.
After the retreat, the priest offered to become her spiritual director. For the next three years, they met in person or via Skype — sometimes every few weeks, and sometimes not for a few months. At times, they would talk for hours, and she was often surprised how much time he made for her. She was also surprised by his familiar tone in emails, in which he told her how beautiful she looked, and joked that she might take the name “Sister Maria David of the Oblates” in religious life.
Twice, he gave her money for plane tickets so she could make retreats in Massachusetts. Once at a retreat house, he made it a point to show her where his bedroom was, in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. He took her to nice restaurants, and once, she remembers, he had her take his arm as they shared an umbrella in a sudden downpour.
Beginning at the 2009 retreat, the priest also arranged for her to get to know the Daughters of St. Paul — even setting up appointments for her to meet with some sisters, but — she was surprised to learn — without informing the province’s vocations director.
In 2013, she entered the Daughters of St. Paul with encouragement from Nicgorski.
But when she experienced difficulties in community life, she said, Nicgorski became “my frame of reference for what was happening in our community. And he undermined the authority of the sisters in leadership, and people who were overseeing me. He would say things to me from his spiritual direction with those sisters, and undermine their discernment or their prayer life.”
“And so it became that he wanted me to trust only him. That he was setting me up not to trust anyone but him about these things.”
At one point, in an email seen by The Pillar, the priest joked about having his directee’s provincial poisoned, if she wanted a “new one.”
“He would talk about how [her religious superior] had ‘daddy issues,’ and things like that, and he would just say all this while we were hanging out, and so there was all this gaslighting, where it just felt like he had a hand in every pot.”
“And he kind of made me feel like he was on my side in the issues in the community, like everyone else was doing things that were weird and dysfunctional, and that he had a desire for renewal, or for things to be different, and we were kind of on the same side — we were allies together.”
All the while, Sr. Danielle Victoria said, the priest continued to use sexualized imagery in spiritual direction.
“A lot of his language was equating a growth in prayer to basically orgasmic language.”
Sister Danielle Victoria said she knew there was something inappropriate in the priest’s habits of sexualizing her spiritual direction, of crossing boundaries, of asserting control over her decisions. But she had given him so much trust, she said, because her community trusted him.
“He had carte blanche in our community. Even during our annual silent retreats, he would walk around talking to sisters, flirting with them, and he could take any sister out,” she said — unusual in a religious community of sisters.
“During my novitiate, he could come and pick me up and take me out. If you said you were going with Father Dave, it was always ok, no matter what — with no one watching what he was actually like.”
“There should have been more protection there, or more precaution there — that’s a big lesson, I think,” she said.
Because of that trust, Sr. Danielle Victoria said, it took time — and hearing the stories of other sisters — “before I could confront the fact that he could have done any of this maliciously.”
Now, she looks back, and sees things much differently.
She told The Pillar about a prayer experience, in which, she now believes, the Blessed Mother warned her about Nicgorski.
On her 30-day retreat, while at prayer, she recalls that she saw an image of an eel attempting to get “really, really close to my face … and then while I was in this prayer, I heard Father Dave whistling down the hall, and there’s no reason why he should have been on that side of the retreat center.”
“So I got kind of this creepy feeling, and when I came out of that prayer experience, I felt very much that the Blessed Mother was protecting me from something.”
‘I trusted his judgments over mine’
A third woman, who asked The Pillar for anonymity, said that Nicgorski assaulted her, after years of grooming and manipulation in her religious community, the Daughters of St. Paul.
“At the beginning, I was very disgusted by him,” she told The Pillar, as she recalled their first meeting, in 2012.
“When I first saw Fr. Dave at the retreat house, I saw the sisters fawning all over him, and I saw how he preached — and I remember the first homily that I heard him give. [He was] talking about how Jesus spat on the ground to make mud, and Fr. Dave licked the palm of his hand, with his tongue out. And I was thinking like, ‘you don’t have to show us that you have saliva. That’s disgusting.’”
“It was disgusting. But he was loud and charismatic and laughed loudly and seemed to make everybody laugh. And he seemed freer than anybody I’d ever met,” she remembered.
“I only later learned that he’s a sociopath — that’s my judgment, not a diagnosis, just how I came to see him.”
The woman remembered meeting with Nicgorksi during a retreat he directed.
“I had a prayer experience that was quite confusing to me, because I was not really accustomed to praying with my imagination, [in the style of the retreat]. So when I shared my experience with him, he put his hand on his chin and looked up at the sky — it looked very mystical — and he said he knew what it meant. And I didn’t even know what it meant. And he said I should come to the shrine and talk to him. And that’s how it all started.”
She wasn’t sure about him, but she did believe he had the spiritual insights she was looking for. And she wondered if she had pegged him wrong, because of how revered he seemed to be among the Daughters of St. Paul.
Despite her initial misgivings, the woman began to see Nicgorski for spiritual direction.
She said from the beginning, he had a habit of sexualizing their conversations.
“He would always speak in such subtleties,” she said, “and he would use words that are very much mainstream spirituality — ‘intimacy’ or ‘affection.’ But he would say things like ‘Jesus loves to get physical.’”
The woman said she would push back, suggesting that his ideas sounded like sins against chastity.
“But he was so smart, he could run circles around anybody.”
“He would quote Scripture, or doctors of the Church that were known to be mystics — and he would make the case that this was a truer reading of St. Teresa of Avila. He would say that she actually had a ‘psychosexual’ relationship with Jesus,” she remembered.
The priest’s arguments made her doubt her qualms.
“I was a young sister. A temporary professed sister, and when I first met him, and I was having a very difficult time in community,” she recalled.
Over time, the priest “led [her prayer] into the sexual realm,” she recalled, despite her ongoing objections. “He said he knew better, and that some things only advanced people know and experience in prayer.”
“The implication of it all was I would be unfaithful to Jesus’s desires if I did not follow this spiritual director’s lead,” she said. “This was all extremely gradual and subtle.”
He remained her spiritual director. And over time, she came to trust him.
Eventually, she said, “I trusted his judgments over mine.”
Despite his 2015 move to Rome, he helped her with assignments in the convent, with catechesis, and administrative work, and, when she had a crisis of vocation, “he helped me stay in the congregation.”
“I was having such a hard time in my assignment, and he gave me a perspective that I thought helped me.”
“But really, he was disempowering me — helping me to trust him more, and to trust both the community and myself less. It got to the point where he told me that every time I emailed my superior, or someone in authority, I should pass those emails through him.”
“He wanted me to call him before I spoke to anyone in the diocese where I was doing ministry. He was in Rome, but no matter what time, he would get back to me — it was like he didn’t need to sleep.”
“I think he was just very masterful at manipulation,” she reflected.
‘I felt paralyzed’
In August 2017, after the priest had been her spiritual director for five years, the woman made an eight-day silent Ignatian retreat, with him as her director.
As it began, she thought about how much he had done to help her persevere through challenges in religious life.
“And I remember just feeling so indebted to him, so grateful he had saved my vocation. He had saved my life.”
But one day shortly after the retreat, the priest asked her to join him on an outing.
Nicgorski had Mass scheduled at a hospital, “and he said that we could spend some time together afterwards. And I was glad because he had just come from Rome, and I was happy to be able to see him more.”
“I brought my prayer books and my Bible, because I thought we were going to have spiritual conversations, and I brought a notebook, because I thought that I would be able to take notes when he was talking.”
It was the feast of St. Jane Frances De Chantel — August 12.
“And during Mass at the hospital, Father gave this homily that likened Jean Frances de Chantel and Francis de Sales, their relationship, to Francis and Clare. Because Clare’s feast was just the day before that. And he said that they had a sexual relationship.”
“And it was very uncomfortable.”
“After the Mass, he exposed the Blessed Sacrament, and everyone in the room knelt, while there were a few lay people praying the rosary, but he got really restless, and he said we needed to leave.”
“From there, it was crazy how much he had everything planned, and how urgent it was — he couldn’t even stay through the rosary, which was just 15 minutes, right?”
The woman said Nicgorski had planned a kind of picnic, packed lunches and brought blankets upon which to sit.
But during that picnic lunch, she said, he began making sexual advances toward her.
Those sexual advances, she alleged, became assault — he began touching her sexually, in personal areas, without her consent.
The priest groped her, she remembered, and placed his hands on her private areas.
She said she “kept moving away from him, and I was telling him to stop, but I felt paralyzed.”
Despite that, she said, the priest continued to touch her body.
“He was whispering from the Song of Songs in my ear,” she alleged. “And I was like, ‘I can’t believe he is doing this.’ I actually couldn’t believe it.”
“But at that point, I felt paralyzed because I trusted him more than I trusted myself. That was part of the equation he set up. So of course, I was thinking, ‘He’s the leader. He’s the leader. He’s been the sole leader’.”
“I was paralyzed, and all I could do was pray. And I was praying to the founder of his community, and the founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, and naming all the saints that I possibly could.”
“He tried to make a joke. He said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I made you move away from me.’ And he said ‘Come back, I’ll stop, I’ll stop.’ And then he got closer again.”
“But when I named the Blessed Mother, I don’t know how I did it, but I had this surge of energy, and I don’t know how I did it, but I got up. And I said to him, ‘You need to take me home.’”
“And I said that the sisters were probably wondering where I was. I knew that they weren’t wondering where I was — I was with him — and I had all these thoughts racing through my head. That no one was going to believe me. That I barely believed what was happening. So who was going to believe me?”
“He tried then to kiss my forehead, and stroke my hair … But when I told him that sisters were wondering where I was, he said, ‘ok,’ and then he got so quiet. I was terrified of how quiet he got.”
The priest got in the car. But “he looked like a completely different person.”
“And he wouldn’t start the car. And I was just praying, ‘Lord, please help him start the car,’” she told The Pillar. She was still afraid, she recalled, feeling nearly paralyzed, and afraid for her safety.
“And he said: ‘I really wanted to steal a kiss from you back there.’”
“I told him I knew that, and he asked me to give him a kiss there, and he pointed to his cheek, and I did. I kissed him on his cheek, and then he started the car.”
“But on the way home, he put his hand on my leg, and I didn’t want him touching my leg, so I put my hand underneath his hand, so that he wouldn’t touch my leg,” she said.
“I was trying to assuage him. I just wanted to get home.”
“And at a certain point, he told me ‘This is not what I was planning. I was hoping that you and I would wake up together in a hotel’… and I was quiet. And he laughed, and said, ‘Well, let’s go to a Motel 6 right now.’”
“And I said ‘No.’”
When they got to the convent, “I was afraid he would be angry from all of this. But I looked over at him, and he just had a vacant stare on his face. He was looking straightforward. I realized on the car ride home that I did not know this person. And that was absolutely terrifying to me.”
The next few days were difficult for the woman. She said she found herself “praying and crying,” and trying to make sense of what had happened.
“I basically spent the day between the small chapel and the second floor, and just doing laundry. And I cried my head off, and was so confused, and I was so desperate, because everything in me had just died. He had been my frame of reference for spirituality, and for religious life.”
The woman said that she experienced panic attacks that day, and thoughts about self-harm.
“And I realized that I just needed help,” she remembered.
“And so I reached out to my superior, and I told her I needed help.”
She started therapy, and, as she began showing signs of depression, and post-traumatic stress, she began taking psychiatric medication.
Eventually, her superiors asked her to write an account of what had happened.
‘Everyone was shocked’
But according to the woman, the Daughters of St. Paul didn’t immediately suspend their relationship with the priest.
In fact, Sr. Theresa Aletheia told The Pillar that she was permitted by superiors to see Nicgorski for spiritual direction, just days after the other woman reported to her superiors that she had been assaulted.
And while she was soon informed that something had happened, she said, it was initially framed as something much more innocent — that the priest had “fallen in love with a sister, and leaned in for a kiss,” Sr. Theresa Aletheia recalled.
That didn’t sit right with Sr. Theresa Aletheia — and she decided to speak up about it.
"Some may think that my previous rape made me susceptible to Fr. Dave. I am not entirely convinced that is true,” she told The Pillar.
“What I do know is that, perhaps because of my previous trauma, I had identified red flags all along in my relationship with him. Unfortunately, I trusted the judgment of my community over my own judgment. I was simply unable to trust myself and my own instincts. After I heard what Fr. Dave had done though, I put all those red flags in the proper context and I informed my superiors that I did not believe Fr. Dave's behavior was isolated. I told them I believed it was ‘predatory’ and ‘grooming.’”
Some time in September 2017, according to the women, the Daughters of St. Paul announced to their sisters that Nicgorski had been “credibly accused” of misconduct.
“I remember the day when the provincial superior got onto the microphone and said that there were credible allegations against Fr. David Nicgorski, and that Mother General had been made aware. And from that moment on, no sister was to have contact with him — and if he steps foot on any of our properties, you are to contact the local superior immediately,” the woman who was allegedly assaulted told The Pillar.
“There were probably 50 sisters in the refectory. Everyone was shocked. And I had sat close to the door so that I could exit. And I remember that one sister at my table turned to another sister, and said that [Nicgorski] is such a good man, and that it is unfortunate that priests are persecuted, and that kind of thing.”
“That was how a lot of sisters reacted. That was in the air. So I tried never to put myself in the situation of hearing those things, but it was in the air.”
Sr. Danielle Victoria remembered the same — that the Daughters of St. Paul seemed unprepared to deal with the allegations of misconduct against a beloved priest and spiritual director.
“There was a lot of victim-blaming going on,” and “it seemed like there was fear of these things getting around, or of people perceiving that this was somehow caused by the community. It seemed that the community had to protect its good name,” she remembered.
“There were some sisters who were angry that this had been brought to light, because he was so important to them. Because he was their spiritual director, and he was obviously sacred to them.”
‘A respectable defense’
But the allegations did come to light. And in the autumn of 2017, the Daughters of St. Paul approached the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, with testimony from Sr. Theresa Aletheia and the other woman, raising concerns about Nicgorski’s behavior, and reportedly suggesting that the Oblates cover the costs of therapy for sisters who needed it.
The Daughters of St. Paul also reportedly told the order that Nicgorski was no longer welcome to offer spiritual direction for its sisters, according to Sr. Theresa Aletheia.
A few months later, in January 2018, the order contacted the Archdiocese of Boston, and raised concern to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life, expressing that Nicgorski had behaved inappropriately with Sr. Theresa Aletheia and the other woman.
The concern included affidavits from both women, detailing their experiences.
For reasons that are unclear, the dicastery did not respond to the sisters until January 2020, two years after they contacted the Vatican.
In a letter dated January 20, 2020, Archbishop Jose Carballo, the dicastery’s secretary, told the sisters that the Vatican had examined the claims against Nicgorski.
The sisters’ reports “are clear, essential and schematic in the exposition of the facts, and those narrated facts are characterized by significant likelihood,” he wrote.
But Carballo said there was little he could do about their allegations.
The archbishop noted that Nicgorski had made a “respectable defense” of himself, “characterized by a credibility similar to that which characterizes your … reports.”
“Although there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of what you have stated, at the same time it must be considered that there is a total lack of witnesses and/or circumstances which, even indirectly, confirm or contribute to confirm your statements, and thereby do not attribute objective certainty to your accusations.”
“Therefore, in consideration only of your statements, you will well understand why it is not possible to reach a certain reconstruction of what happened, nor to a clear and equally certain definition of the eventual responsibilities of Fr. Nicgorski.”
In other words, the Vatican told the sisters that the matter was a “he said - she said,” and its hands were tied.
“It is significantly impossible to reach a decision in this case,” Carballo wrote.
“If in the future, there is additional evidence of such a nature as to help resolve the serious uncertainty caused by the conflicting versions of the facts, and thus create the essential conditions for a decision to be reached, the matter will be considered again.”
‘These things have patterns’
For the woman who was allegedly assaulted, the Vatican’s decision was deeply demoralizing.
“It was devastating, because I had hoped that they, with their wisdom, would have an expertise, where they could look at my completely honest recounting of what happened, and be able to diagnose it, and understand it — because these things have patterns, which I had already begun reading about in books.”
“I wasn’t exactly surprised when the letter came back, I had braced myself for the day — I figured that the culture that had been represented by my own sisters was the culture of the wider Church.”
“But, still, I felt shattered over and over again. The incident with Father Dave was already shattering — I felt like it took my moral framework, and my sense of how to trust myself or anyone else.”
“But the shattering that happens because of the Church, that’s worse. Because they should know better. That’s their job.”
After they got that decision, the Daughters of St. Paul consulted with some canon lawyers about what to do next, the sisters recalled.
Other sisters had come forward with their stories, and the order presented their allegations to Rome again, this time with more accounts of Nicgorski’s conduct.
It is not clear how the case was handled in the Vatican, or what dicastery took the lead on pursuing the case.
While the spiritual direction had involved concerning comments in the confessional — potentially a major crime in canon law, handled by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith — it is not clear whether the canonical crime of “solicitation” in the confessional was formally investigated, or whether other canonical crimes were considered.
The women say they were not contacted by the Vatican while the allegations were considered.
But according to emails obtained by The Pillar, the Daughters of St. Paul were informed by Carballo in May 2023 that the Holy See had prohibited Nicgorski “from carrying out the ministry of spiritual direction for five years.”
In an email to sisters who had raised concerns, Sr. Donald Lynch, American provincial for the Daughters of St. Paul, said that she and the order’s major superior had been told by the Vatican that “Fr. Nicgorski had acted in an inappropriate way but that there was no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.”
The order’s leaders questioned that conclusion, the email said.
“We question if a 5 year prohibition is truly sufficient to prevent others from experiencing similar harm and suffering,” Lynch wrote, adding that the order had asked the Holy See to reconsider its decision.
It is not clear whether the Vatican has responded to that request.
In a December email to The Pillar, Lynch said that she could not comment on the situation, “out of care and respect for the privacy of the Sisters for whom we brought the case concerning Fr. Nicgorski.”
Because the alleged assault took place in the Archdiocese of Boston, and the OMV’s provincial headquarters is located there, The Pillar asked the archdiocese about Nicgorski’s status.
A spokesman told The Pillar that the priest has not had faculties for ministry in the archdiocese since 2017, when the archdiocese was involved in reporting to the Vatican allegations against the priest.
“Upon being made aware of the matters involving Fr. Nicgorski, the archdiocese informed the appropriate dicastery within the Vatican,” Terry Donilon of the Boston archdiocese told The Pillar.
But it is not clear whether Nicgorski is exercising priestly ministry in other parts of the Church.
The Oblates of the Virgin Mary did not announce when Nicgorski’s faculties were suspended in Boston, and the priest continued in his term as the Oblates of the Virgin’s Mary general superior, until it ended in July 2022 — years after his faculties were suspended in the Archdiocese of Boston.
The Oblates of the Virgin Mary declined to disclose to The Pillar what the priest has done since his term as superior — the order’s Father General — ended, or to explain how the Vatican’s prohibition on spiritual direction is being monitored by the community, if at all.
The order’s motherhouse in Rome referred questions about Nicgorski to the U.S. province of the Oblates; the provincial office has not responded to emails from The Pillar.
Nicgorski himself has not responded to emails from The Pillar.
The Oblates of the Virgin Mary are well-known for their work as spiritual directors and writers. But Nicgorski is not the only member of the order to face serious sexual misconduct charges in recent years.
Last year, Fr. William Brown, OMV, was removed from ministry, amid allegations that he sexually abused a minor decades ago.
A second case bears familiarity to Nicgorski’s conduct.
In 2010, Minnesota Catholic Gina Barthel alleged that her spiritual director, a priest member of the Order, began grooming her when she was a novice in a different religious community — and that he eventually sexually abused her — after sexualizing their spiritual direction for years.
The priest, Fr. Jim Montanaro, was laicized in 2010, while Nicgorski was the order’s provincial superior.
Neither the Vatican press office nor the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life have responded to questions from The Pillar.
‘Father of a beloved daughter’
The sisters say that the Vatican’s decision regarding Nicgorski was not a just outcome.
“If they think that the proper response to sexual assault of someone in a sacred relationship with obvious power dynamics — to just ban him from spiritual direction for five years — it's laughable how unjust that is,” Sr. Theresa Aletheia told The Pillar.
The woman who alleged that Nicgorski assaulted her agreed.
“I think that prelates in the Church would do much better at finding just answers to these situations if they could imagine themselves being the father of a beloved daughter or a beloved son — maybe their only child — and they’ve poured all their love into this person, and tried to raise them with good values, and prepare them for making a good impact on the world, becoming holy, living happy and whole lives — and then meeting somebody who pretends, on so many levels, to be holy, and then actually preys upon these beloved daughters or sons.”
“I think that the Church would do better at connecting to a primal instinct — that this person is dangerous. Let’s say that out loud. Can we, just for a second, be human beings, and say that a person like that should not be allowed to walk around in clerics, because he is dangerous? I think the Church should start there,” she told The Pillar.
“I believe that bishops, and anybody involved in these decisions, will be judged. And, look, I’ll be judged too. But I don’t want to stand next to them when they’re being judged, because God is going to be very angry,” she said.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” the woman added. “Minimally, he should be laicized. His name should be in some kind of directory, where you get to know the names of people that are dangerous.”
“His being a spiritual director — ever — is an offense against God.”
‘A moral injury’
Sister Theresa Aletheia and Sister Danielle Victoria are now founding members of the Sisters of the Little Way of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, a small, Oregon-based ecclesial “private association,” aiming to be established as a religious institute, which has as part of its charism a “mission of reparation for the sins of the Church’s members.”
For Sr. Theresa Aletheia, the experience of being hurt in the Church, and disappointed by an institutional response, has helped to crystalize her vocation — especially her community’s call to focus on ministry to those who have been wounded by the Church.
“A moral injury like this — like what this priest did to sisters — can shatter your foundational beliefs, and even your relationship with God, she added.
“It really plunges people into a lot of darkness, and it immediately goes straight to that most important relationship, relationship with God, and creates a lot of doubt and despair and darkness around that relationship.”
In her view, the sister said, the “moral injury” of being harmed by a priest, “is a big thing for people who leave the Church. You hear it all the time.”
Sr. Theresa Aletheia told The Pillar that she believes her experience has encouraged her to work for reform in the Church — and especially its attention to victims of abuse.
"What God does, because he is God, is bring good from all evil. From our suffering, God called us to this mission. The Church needs reform and I believe that those who have experienced abuse have the most to teach us about how to move forward," she told The Pillar.
“My experience with Fr. Dave, and the way the Church has dealt with it, has opened my eyes to a lot of patterns in the institutional church … I think in a lot of ways, there is minimization of behavior that is inappropriate and abusive. And when people speak out about it, they are seen as the problem rather than the problem itself.”
“I actually think that these patterns are present in a lot of religious orders and a lot of institutions in the Church,” she added.
For her part, Sr. Danielle Victoria said she’s still sorting through the damage Nicgorski did to her spiritual life.
“There were things that I took on — as something that I did or something that I caused. Things like how he sexualized my prayer life. And so now I’m having to sort through all these things that shaped my spiritual life, and my understanding of Jesus in prayer. And as I do that, I realize those are not things that I introduced.”
The sister said she hopes that Nicgorski will not be able to continue offering spiritual direction, even after five years — and that the Holy See will take more seriously the allegation of abuse in the internal forum.
She also said that the situation has lessons for religious communities, and for the whole Church.
“There is a way that we can celebritize people, and that’s dangerous. And then we don’t always listen to victims, or we dismiss their testimony, or their credibility, by not acknowledging that they are intelligent, capable people — well, that creates this perfect storm, and it means we don’t look at people as extraordinarily dangerous, because they’re so charismatic, and because they’re willing to risk it all — they’re willing to wait a long time to get what they want.”
“It’s ok to have proper boundaries — to protect against the fact that anybody can be a bad actor, and anybody can be abused. We want to feel like we can control our safety and security, sometimes, but that’s just a lie of the modern moment.”
“I think we don’t realize the ways in which modernism has become a part of the Church’s infrastructure. It can come in traditional forms, traditional clothing, but it’s very modern to hold this idea that we can be sanitized from sin — and that prevents us from confronting the real truth, of sin, and evil.”
“When you’ve been wounded, it gives you eyes to see and ears to hear, where the danger is. And when you choose to remain in the Church, you realize it’s sometimes a dangerous place, but you choose to be there, and Christ is there.”
“The real danger is to walk around like it’s not a dangerous place ... as if, as human beings we don’t always have the power to build up and destroy. We do. Everybody does,” she added.
Still, Sr. Danielle Victoria, said, “I just have this sense of the Father fighting for me, in all of this.”
“At this moment, the Lord is teaching us what is essential to him and his Church. I think he is priming us for renewal, if we’re willing to listen to the prophets of this moment.”
‘God is there with us’
The woman who alleged the assault told The Pillar that she’s still looking for healing.
“The only word for it all is this: shattering. My worldview shattered, my understanding of myself shattered, my understanding of the Church shattered. And for about two years, I couldn’t even read the Bible. All I had was my rosary,” she remembered.
“I had these intrusive thoughts, that I know were illogical, but I could do nothing about it. And so I would hold the rosary and just pray fast Hail Marys, like the children of Fatima.”
“What I discovered in all of this is that when we hit ground zero, or the devastation of having all of the framework of life be decimated, and then when we discover that actually God is there — not in some kind of fluffy way, not in a platitudinous way like a pious platitude — but when we discover that God is there with us, I think we discover how fierce his love is, and that's God's humility. That's the Blessed Mother's humility.”
“The Blessed Mother was so present to me that she was willing to be hidden. She sustained me and she heard my prayers — desperate prayers, where I would be praying and sobbing … those prayers of desperation just trying to survive.”
“God is more real to me now…. Fr. Dave was so smart, he could quote Scripture, and quote the saints … But God is bigger than he was. He’s more faithful.”
“And even if a sociopathic man waits for five years to prey upon somebody …God's patience is greater and more tenacious. That's why the Church is going to endure it. It's not because seriously misguided and evil people are in charge of things … But it's the people in the pews, the ones who feel like they're hanging on by the tips of their fingernails, but those are the people who are holy.”
“That's what I believe.”