Woman claims Omaha priest forced her to give up baby for adoption

Katleen Chafin was told by her priest that "giving birth out of wedlock was equal to murder," according to her lawsuit.

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By David K. Li

Kathleen Chafin was a student at Saint Louis University in 1968 when she and her boyfriend found out she was pregnant.

They planned to have the child, get married and move to the college's housing for couplesall before her priest in Omaha intervened and forced her to give up their newborn up for adoption, according to a federal lawsuit.

The priest, the Rev. Thomas A. Halley, allegedly came to Chafin's Omaha home over spring break and berated her. According to the lawsuit, Halley said, "Chafin had brought shame to her family; Chafin giving birth out of wedlock was equal to murder; Chafin had damned her soul; and Chafin was doomed to spend eternity in hell."

From center, Kathleen Chafin who is accusing the Catholic Church of forcing her to give up her baby in 1968.Courtesy Kathleen Chafin

Now a property manager in Seattle, Chafin says she "was forced, under duress, by Father Halley" to live in "indentured servitude cleaning, cooking and babysitting for members of the defendants' organization."

And when the child was born, he was taken away, she says.

Chafin said she still remembers how her arms and legs were tied down to the labor bed, so was never able to hug her newborn.

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"I cannot shake the same nightmare that I get one or two times a year," Chafin told NBC News on Tuesday. "It’s where I’m reaching for that white bundle and I’m tied down. It’s reliving that moment my hands jerk against the strap."

Chafin's $10 million federal claim, filed last week in Omaha, says Halley is now dead but that he was a representative of both the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, which are both named as defendants in the suit.

Neither the archdiocese nor the society could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Chafin became inspired, in part, to find her baby by a critically acclaimed 2013 movie, "Philomena," that featured Judi Dench playing real-life mom Philomena Lee and her search for the son she lost to a forced adoption in Ireland in 1951.

The movie chronicled the "lifelong pain" endured by young mothers like Lee and Chafin, the lawsuit said.

Chafin met her birth son in 2015, after he answered an online ad. They have kept in touch ever since. She had six other children in addition to that first son.

The long-lost son, Tom Rouse, was adopted out to an Omaha family that Halley had known. Chafin said Rouse had a happy childhood and she gets along with his adopted parents — though they sidestep any conversation about the church because they're still very loyal Catholics.

While Chafin said she's suffered greatly from the incident, she says her college boyfriend, Harold Miller, was also a victim.

“We broke up over the fact I was too damn depressed to function," she said. "His grades plummeted."

Miller was eventually drafted and served as a medic in the Vietnam War, where he was hit in the head with shrapnel that caused permanent brain injuries. Miller, who lives in a assisted living home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, never married or had kids, according to Chafin.

She insisted both of their lives were harmed by the near-half-century-long loss of their baby boy.

“You literally destroyed a family and destroyed people," Chafin said of Halley and those who allegedly helped him take away her son.