When she saw him through the window of an Omaha hotel lobby, her eyes welled up with tears. There he was, a man with a silhouette just like her boyfriend’s decades ago. A minute later, Kathleen Chafin hugged her son, Tom Rouse, for the first time in her life.
“It made me alive again,” Chafin recalled in an interview with The Washington Post, crying as she remembered the meeting in August 2015. “He took my hand, held it firmly, and he never let go the whole time. Just seeing him, oh my.”
Chafin had spent decades searching for a son she says she never wanted to give up for adoption. When they finally did meet, her years of despair turned into anger at the Catholic Church and one of its priests, who she alleges manipulated her and then removed her son from a hospital room 50 years ago.
Chafin has filed a federal lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, alleging on Wednesday that a Jesuit priest named Thomas Halley forced her to give her son up for adoption. She’s seeking $10 million for damages and relief.
Neither Catholic organization immediately responded to requests for comment late Monday. But when Chafin first raised concerns about the adoption in 2015, an investigation from the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus concluded that Halley operated within the law and that his actions were “born of a desire to avoid scandal and find good homes for babies of unwed mothers,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Chafin contends the investigation was fraudulent, and she never received a copy of its findings.
“The process of the investigation was full of the same lies and manipulation I have experienced all my life,” she said. “I was furious.”
Chafin’s allegations aren’t unique. She became pregnant in 1968, during a time some academics call the “Baby Scoop Era.” From post-World War II until the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision, many women were chastised and shunned for having children out of wedlock. Experts estimate more than 1.5 million unmarried women in the United States were forced to give up their babies for adoption during that period, according to Ann Fessler’s 2006 book, “The Girls Who Went Away.” Institutions such as the Catholic Church helped isolate single mothers and pressured them to sign away their children.
The epidemic crossed national boundaries. In 2018, a Canadian Senate committee released a report that estimated 95 percent of women in Canada who gave birth at maternity homes in the postwar period gave their children up for adoption. The report called on the country’s federal government to issue a formal apology for the “disturbing chapter in Canada’s history.” In the 2016 documentary “Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence,” dozens of women described feeling like they had no choice but to give their babies up for adoption. In the film, the Catholic Church in England and Wales formally apologized for their roles in adoptions.
“We apologize for the hurt caused by agencies acting in the name of the Catholic Church,” said Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, in 2016.
When Chafin was 18 and a student at Saint Louis University, a Catholic school, she fell in love with a bookish, introverted boy named Harold Miller. Seven months later, they had sex for the first time. Soon after, Chafin learned she was pregnant.
“My first thought was, ‘Well, that’s a surprise.’ My second thought was, ‘How am I going to tell Harold?’” she recalled.
He got over the shock, and they began planning a life together. But days later, she said, a school nurse demanded to know what she planned to do with the baby. The nurse told her mother, and when she returned to Omaha, her hometown, she found Halley in her parents’ living room. He sat alongside her parents and told her, she said, that she’d committed a mortal sin by getting pregnant out of wedlock.
“I have his words etched in my brain,” she said. “He made me sound like a slut, like a streetwalker, like the worst person in the world.”
Halley convinced Chafin to move in with a Catholic family during her pregnancy. Not until one of her last checkups did she learn from a nurse that she was set to surrender her baby at the moment she gave birth.
“I went ballistic,” Chafin recalled. “I called Father Halley, and he said he had a good Catholic family that could give my baby what I couldn’t. I didn’t know what that was, what I couldn’t have given him.”
On Oct. 29, 1968, Chafin woke up in the middle of the night with blood everywhere. Her host family dropped her off at the hospital, and almost at once, it seemed to her, she was lying in a cold, white room filled with stainless steel. She said she has no recollection of giving birth, which she only realized was abnormal after delivering two other children later in life.
“I don’t remember any of it,” she said. “I would hear voices get louder and softer, things would move in and out. The biggest mystery in the world to me is not remembering pushing a baby out of my body.”
Chafin remembers her arms and ankles being tied to a hospital bed. And then, Halley was at her bedside.
“I grabbed his arm, I still remember the feel of his black jacket in my hand,” she said. “I said I want to see my baby. I want to see my baby.”
He left and never came back, and Chafin later learned he took her child with him. Chafin would spend years of her life searching for her baby and battling severe depression.
Then, on April 3, 2015, Chafin received a letter at the property management firm where she works in Seattle.
“I’m the person you were looking for,” it said. She yelped. “It felt like I had licked my finger and put it into a light socket,” she said. “Every cell in my body was alert.”
Rouse, now 50, had seen an ad Chafin had placed on an adoption website and reached out. He had grown up happily in his adopted family in Omaha and now worked at a university.
Since the pair’s emotional reunion, they’ve seen each other at least once a year.
Finally back with her son, Chafin felt ready to find closure with the Catholic Church, which she hoped would acknowledge wrongdoing.
In 2015, she sent a letter to Catholic Church officials asking for an investigation into Halley, who had since died. The Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus hired an investigative firm. Its findings, after interviews with Chafin and 16 others, concluded that “Ms. Chafin was subjected to great pressure by her circumstances and her parents” and that Halley “acted from a good faith desire to alleviate that pressure by helping her find a good home for her baby,” according to a copy of the letter reviewed by The Post.
In 2017, Chafin filed a lawsuit in Nebraska state courts against the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus for engaging in “adoption conspiracy,” but the Douglas County District Court dismissed it for failing to overcome the statute of limitations, the World-Herald reported. Chafin appealed the decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court, but the judge ruled last September that her claims were “barred by the statute of limitations.”
Chafin said she has taken her case to federal court in hopes of advocating for other women who were pressured into giving up their children.
“I used to turn inward and become depressed,” she said. “But there are millions of us around the globe with lives like mine, and I will not live with the stories of those women on my shoulders.”