A Tennessee woman is speaking out after she alleges a Catholic priest and parish staff denied her work due to the color of her skin. However, the church and the Catholic Diocese of Memphis deny any wrongdoing, pushing the blame on the priest’s “kinda racist” dog for turning her away, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
LaShundra Allen, a housekeeper who is employed by Master Building Service Contractors, was sent to the Catholic Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, Tenn. to clean the church, school and Reverend Jacek Kowal’s rectory on May 3. She was accompanied by her co-worker, Emily Weaver, who was was quitting to move to Connecticut and was introducing Allen as her replacement.
Before Allen could get to work, however, the church staff stopped Allen from entering the rectory, saying that Father Jacek’s dog, a German shepherd named Ceaser, was racist.
“They said ‘I’m sorry we’re not trying to be rude but the dog doesn’t like black people... and that he was in fact racist,’” Allen wrote in a statement, provided to Yahoo Lifestyle, that she sent to the Bishop of the Diocese of Memphis, David P. Talley, following the incident.
The parish staff members allegedly were worried the dog would bite Allen, a stranger with “darker skin,” explains a statement released by the Diocese of Memphis on Friday.
“I didn't even know what to say. They were acting like I was just supposed to be OK with it. Joking around with it, and I'm just like, ‘That's not OK. You just told me you didn't want me in your house because I'm colored skinned,'" Allen told Memphis news station FOX13.
Weaver said she was shocked at their description of Caesar’s aggressive disposition having interacted with the dog for months; she described the German Shepard as a “gentle giant.”
“I have watched Father with Caesar and he is a very well-trained dog. I never once saw any sign of aggression from Caesar,” Weaver tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “He would sit by the door and wait for me when he heard my car pull up.”
Despite Weaver’s offers to put the dog in a cage so Allen could clean the home, Father Jacek allegedly “insisted that he didn’t want [Allen] there” to his parish staff members, Allen wrote in her letter to the diocese.
“I felt very disrespected as a black woman. He made me feel so low because of my skin color,” Allen wrote in a statement to the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, immediately following the incident. “This was supposed to be my first day and it was one of the most degrading days of my life.”
Weaver adds that while she wasn’t surprised, she was angry that her co-worker had been treated this way at a place of worship. “A church is where you are supposed to feel accepted, no matter your situation, race, or past,” Weaver says.
Distraught at being denied work due to the color of her skin, Allen immediately called her employer Nick Signaigo to tell him what happened. “She reached out to me and was very emotional. She was like, ‘Nick, I can’t believe this happened,’” Signaigo tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that Allen had worked for him for three years and was always a “dependable person.”
“It completely shocked me that a priest would say something like that. I immediately knew we had to do something. Racial discrimination should not be stood for.”
After hearing similar accounts from both Weaver and Allen, Signaigo had his employees write statements recounting what happened, and sent them to Talley the day after the incident. He hoped the bishop would take action against the priest and his staff.
However, when their statements were not addressed by Talley or Father Jacek months later, Allen knew she could not remain silent about the discrimination she faced when the priest oversaw a school and church with parishioners of color. Weaver and Allen retained an attorney who wrote a racial discrimination complaint to the Diocese of Memphis in July on their behalf, seeking a "settlement and compromise."
“Statements that the ‘dog’ is a ‘racist’ strongly implies that perhaps the dog is not allowed to interact with anyone of color, or that the dog is allowed to act aggressively towards anyone of color,” reads a letter obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle that was sent to the attorney representing the Diocese of Memphis. “That no one allowed Ms. Weaver to introduce Ms. Allen to the dog or even crate the dog most strongly suggests that≈ and his staff did not want an African American woman cleaning his home.”
The letter suggested a reinvestigation of the incident, appropriate disciplinary action for Father Jacek and others involved in the incident, or compensatory damages.
“This could be anything from training — including training the do — or have training for the priest on what is known as implicit bias. If the priest doesn’t know why saying your dog is a racist could be considered discrimination or problematic, something needs to be addressed,” Allen’s attorney, Maureen Holland, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The diocese launched an investigation into the allegations at Weaver and Allen’s request, and later concluded that there was no racial discrimination as the parish staff members were trying to “prevent the cleaning company employees from being injured.”
“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,” reads a statement released publicly by the Diocese of Memphis on Friday, adding they were concerned that Caesar would try to bite the women if they tried to crate him. When the parish member said Father Jacek’s dog was “kinda racist,” the statement chalked it up to simply being a “highly unfortunate” choice of words.
“Fr.’s response would have been the same with respect to any new employee or visitor unknown by the dog, regardless of race or ethnicity,” the statement concludes.
“The cleaning company employees interpreted this incident as a pretext by Fr. [Jacek], motivated by a desire not to have an African American housekeeper. This is simply not true.”
The Diocese of Memphis and the Catholic Church of Incarnation have not immediately responded to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment. Holland tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the while the diocese released a public statement, the organization and its attorney have not directly responded or contacted Holland or her clients about the complaint.
Allen, Weaver and Signagio have been upset with Talley’s handling of the incident and are angered that no disciplinary action has been taken.
“I disagree that the dog is ‘racist.’ I believe the owner of the dog is racist,” Weaver says of the diocese’s blaming the [Father Jacek]’s dog for the incident. “A dog acts on impulses that are either trained or never sought to fix.”
“No dog is racist — it’s a learned behavior,” Signaigo tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that he expected the bishop to take the allegations of racial discrimination seriously, especially since Talley sits on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee against racism. “But his inaction, what does that say his stance on the whole thing? It’s pathetic.”
Signagio previously sent his children to the Catholic Church of Incarnation’s school and had been a parishioner of the church for years. However, after the incident, he says he and his family no longer attend the church.
Allen did not immediately reply to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment, but she told FOX 13 she is calling for Father Jacek to step down from his position at the church. Allen and Weaver are also considering taking further legal action.
"I really feel like they need to know it's not right. It's not OK for them to do that to people of color," Allen told FOX13. "You're supposed to be godly. God doesn't see color.”
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