The Catholic Diocese of Memphis has dismissed claims of racism against one of their priests as “unfounded” after two local house cleaners alleged he used his dog to keep a black woman from doing her job.
“After a thorough investigation, we are certain that the claims of racial bias and discrimination are unfounded, and that Fr. Kowal did nothing wrong,” Bishop of Memphis in Tennessee, The Most Reverend David P. Talley said in a statement Friday.
The cleaners alleged that the priest, the Rev. Jacek Kowal, who leads the Catholic Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, and owns a dog that becomes agitated by African Americans and people with darker skin, prevented one of them who is black from doing a cleaning job in the church’s rectory.
According to a letter previously sent by attorney Maureen Holland, her clients, Emily Weaver, who is white, and LaShundra Allen, who is black, are employees of Master Building Service Contractors, which also does house cleaning for Kowal.
On Friday May 3, Weaver, who normally cleans Kowal’s home, took Allen to the rectory to train as her replacement. It was then that the women were allegedly told by the pastor’s secretary, "I’m sorry, we are not trying to be rude, but the dog doesn’t like black people” and further noted that “Fr. Jacek’s dog is kinda racist.”
In his statement on Friday however, Talley explained that the dogs discomfort with dark skinned people stems from being threatened years ago by “a person who happened to be African American.” Warning the cleaner about the dog, he said, was simply a protective measure.
“At the time the cleaning company employees came to the office, the parish staff knew that Fr. Kowal’s dog was in the rectory outside of his crate. They were aware that the dog was very protective of his home, and there was a risk that the dog would bite a stranger entering the rectory without his owner present,” Talley said.
“The staff were aware that years ago the dog had been threatened by a person who happened to be African American, causing the dog to be somewhat more agitated initially around strangers with darker skin, until the dog gets to know them,” the statement noted.
“Although the parish staff member’s choice of words was highly unfortunate and imprecise—they were not motivated by racial animus. Rather, the concern by all involved was the safety of these women, one of whom was a stranger to the dog, and they knew that attempting to crate the dog would be dangerous when its owner was not present,” the statement added.
Weaver previously told The Commercial Appeal that she has interacted with the dog named Ceaser often in her time cleaning the rectory and had never had a problem. She also noted that she has experience dealing with dogs.
"(Ceaser's) a gentle giant. I've never seen him be aggressive toward anybody," Weaver said.
She argued that if the dog is aggressive toward black people it must be trained behavior.
"If the dog would have genuinely harmed her (black colleague), I think that's a poor reflection on him," Weaver said.
Talley insisted, however, that the allegation is far from the truth.
“Their concern was to prevent the cleaning company employees from being injured. And the parish staff were aware that in 2017 Fr. Kowal had been bitten on the hand by the dog while trying to crate him in an agitated state. The cleaning company employees interpreted this incident as a pretext by Fr. Kowal, motivated by a desire not to have an African American housekeeper. This is simply not true,” Talley added noting that Kowal previously had a black housekeeper for five years at his previous job.
“I find these particular allegations of racial discrimination to be unfounded. As bishop, I wish to emphasize that all human persons are created in the image of the one God and enjoy an equal dignity. Therefore, all forms of racial discrimination are sinful and wrong. What occurred at Incarnation, however, simply was not a case of racial discrimination,” Talley said.
Nick Signaigo, who owns Master Building Service Contractors with his father stopped cleaning Kowal's home after the incident, the Commercial Appeal said. Signaigo also stopped attending the church and pulled his children from the school, he said.
“I love my faith, I love the Catholic faith and at no point do I want to put a bad light on anything or Incarnation Church, but this issue of the priest talking down to our employees is just incredible that somebody would actually say something like this to an African American lady,” Signaigo said.
Animal expert Brian Bailey of Taming the Wild in Bartlett told Local Memphis however that dogs aren’t racist.
“There are no racist dogs,” Bailey told the outlet. “There just aren’t. There are none. They don’t understand that. They don’t have the cognitive recognition to understand the issues that we have as human beings in which we can judge by a color as far as the character of the human. Color for them only allows them to see you better than if you’re whitewashed up against a different type background.”
He further explained that dogs only attack if they sense danger but can be trained to overcome fear towards anyone.