Washington Post

Husband and Wife -- And the Father

A Man Whose Wife Married Their Priest Sues the Arlington Diocese for Millions

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 25, 2002; Page F01
Washington Post

Jim and Nancy Lambert
Jim and Nancy Lambert before she fell in love with the priest who counseled her.
(Family Photo)

Streaming through the amber-tinted windows of All Saints Church in Manassas, the sun bathes the simple stone altar in a serene, golden glow. On Sundays, the pews are filled with families, and there is little evidence of the trauma that once shook the Washington area's largest Roman Catholic parish.

Traces of that upheaval lie instead in what's missing from the church. Or more correctly, who's missing.

The Rev. James A. Verrecchia, once regarded by his fellow priests as the "golden boy" of the Arlington Diocese, no longer serves as the All Saints pastor. Nancy Lambert, a nurse and mother of four whose religious beliefs seemed to deepen as she entered her late thirties, can no longer be found in her regular pew. And her husband, Jim, a gourmet food salesman, isn't around anymore to help out at parish fund-raising suppers.

When the trio abruptly stopped coming to All Saints in early 2000, parishioners were never told why. Verrecchia, church officials said, was taking an open-ended "leave of absence." Some who worked at the church or lived near the Lamberts suspected the reason. Others found out on the parish grapevine, and were angry and dispirited by what they heard: Their beloved priest had left his vocation after 17 years to marry Nancy Lambert, who was pregnant with their child.

Not surprisingly, given the intimate nature of the scandal, diocesan officials have preferred to keep as many details about events at All Saints, including their own response to them, hidden in a shroud of secrecy. But to Jim Lambert, the church did not play a neutral role in the dissolution of his family -- its secrecy, he contends, cost him not only his wife but legal custody of his children.

In June, Lambert filed a $5 million lawsuit against the diocese and its bishop, the Rev. Paul S. Loverde, alleging that they withheld from him information confirming the relationship between Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert -- including a cache of e-mail correspondence between the two that "revealed clearly . . . a romantic affair."

"[B]y their silence," the lawsuit in the Arlington County courthouse alleges, the defendants "deceived plaintiff as to their knowledge of the adulterous relationship." Church officials did it in part, the complaint states, "to preserve the employment of Father Verrecchia."

The result was not simply "severe emotional distress," according to Lambert. By withholding what they knew about the relationship between the priest and his now-former wife, Lambert said, they deprived him of crucial evidence he could have used in his fight for custody of his children. A judge instead gave full custody to Nancy Lambert, who had taken the children to Atlanta, where they now live with her and her new husband and the son they had together.

In their response, lawyers for the Arlington diocese denied Lambert's contentions. They also asked the court to dismiss his lawsuit on several grounds, arguing that the court has no jurisdiction over internal church matters, including the disciplining of clergy, and that the statute of limitations has run out on any claims Lambert alleges he has against the diocese. A hearing is set for the matter on Thursday.

The relationship between Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert involved no criminal behavior -- it was a consensual one between two adults who are now married. But for some parishioners, the handling of events at All Saints typified both the official secrecy and the slowness to deal with problem priests that many Catholics have come to regard as major reasons for the church's ongoing child sex abuse scandal.

"They saw all the indications that this guy needed help, and they still kept him in his position of power," Lambert said of Verrecchia, who remained pastor of All Saints for 15 months after Lambert first complained of his behavior to the diocese. "They refused to deal with it. They could have saved my marriage."

Bright Career Takes a Detour

Handsome, intelligent and convivial, Jim Verrecchia was so talented and popular that everyone considered him destined for big things in the church. Gifted at the piano and in conversation, he often acted as emcee at large meetings convened by the bishop. He wrote columns for the diocesan newspaper and was chaplain at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington. He'd hungered to be a priest since childhood, and one of his prized possessions was a family video showing him at age 10 pretending to be a priest saying Mass. In 1993, at the age of 36 and only a decade after his ordination, Verrecchia was named pastor of All Saints and its 18,000 parishioners.

Though most pastors quickly find their schedules jampacked, Verrecchia took on the added task of acting as spiritual director for members of the parish who wanted intensive religious study. Intense and inner-directed, these sessions are meant to promote long-term spiritual growth, in contrast to the more common pastoral counseling designed to quickly resolve immediate moral or family problems of parishioners.

In early 1998, Verrecchia became Nancy Lambert's spiritual director when another priest left the parish. Energetic and independent, she was 39, an operating room nurse at Prince William Hospital who had been raised Catholic and whose father and brother were deacons.

Nancy and Jim Lambert had been married for 16 years and lived in a two-story white house with green shutters in Great Oak, a Manassas subdivision of wide, treeless streets. Six years older than his wife, Jim had been raised a Methodist and converted to Catholicism after he and Nancy had children. All four of the kids went to the parish school.

By the summer of 1998, Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert were taking frequent afternoon strolls during her spiritual direction, sometimes in Great Oak or along the road where the church is located. They'd talk of many things and sometimes, with rosary beads dangling from their fingers, they'd pray. To anyone who saw them, these walks looked innocent enough.

The e-mails that were later given to church authorities and to Lambert, however, suggest that the relationship was becoming more complicated. Both Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert declined to be interviewed for this article. But the e-mails, copies of which were provided to The Washington Post, seem to reflect an increasingly powerful mutual attraction and an understanding that they should keep this new dimension of their relationship a secret from Jim Lambert. They discussed when Jim would not be home so they could talk on the phone. And they sent coded messages on their beepers: 6477 meant "miss you" and 5683 "love," as spelled out on a phone pad.

The e-mails also suggest guilt and confusion on both Verrecchia's and Nancy Lambert's part about what they should do. But by summer's end they had both reached the same conclusion: God had meant them for each other.

Hot Tubs and E-Mails

Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert went increasingly public with their affection. She gazed so adoringly at him playing the piano at a Lambert family gathering that one relative who was present later described her as "gaga" over the priest. At a party in early September, Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert and another couple -- all in bathing suits -- sat in a backyard hot tub laughing and drinking wine.

A month later, some parishioners were embarrassed to see their pastor slow-dancing and holding hands with Nancy at a Knights of Columbus benefit. And one church bulletin carried this message: "On October 16, the candles will burn for Fr. Verrecchia's birthday, requested by Nancy Lambert." It got to the point that a neighborhood child asked his mother about Nancy. "Is she," he wanted to know, "Mrs. Verrecchia?"

Jim watched all this with growing alarm. "She'd spend three hours on the computer every night," he recalled. "She'd go on long walks. She'd go to 6:30 a.m. Mass. I'd say, 'What's going on?' She'd say, "Nothing, it's a very spiritual relationship.' "

The hot tub incident was particularly galling. "They were acting like two teenagers in love," he recalled. "It was almost as if they were mocking me."

Lambert said he twice asked Verrecchia "to define" the relationship, but "I never got straight answers." Instead of the reassurance Lambert had sought, Verrecchia's response only increased his fears about his marriage's future: Nancy's spiritual journey, the priest said, was going to turn her husband's life "upside down."

With their relationship deteriorating, the Lamberts tried marital counseling. At one session in the fall of 1998, Nancy handed her husband a letter. "I have been struggling for so many years to love you, Jim, but I don't have the depth of love that . . . this marriage should have," she wrote, attributing this realization to "the deepening of my prayer and spiritual relationship with God." But she was ready to stay in the marriage "for the sake of the kids," she added. "None of this," she wrote, "has anything to do with your goodness, your providing for the family, your fathering, or even your very worth as a person."

With his verbal pleas to Verrecchia seemingly unheeded, Lambert wrote the priest two letters, the second one on Oct. 1, 1998. Citing "the impending break-up of my 16 year marriage," Lambert wrote that "Your part in this tragedy is simple -- you would not end my wife's infatuation with you . . . It will take me many, many years to shake the vision of you and Nancy drinking wine together in the hot tub after all the tension, emotional turmoil and conversations with you about how much this hurt me, and how it was affecting our marriage."

Complaining that his wife, whom he loved "deeply and passionately," was now barely speaking to him, Lambert asked Verrecchia, "This is spiritual enlightenment? This is following GOD'S will? What I will never understand is how a person can be moving closer to GOD and at the exact same time be moving farther away from their husband. . . . I'm losing everything and my pain is almost unbearable. . . . I want you to do the right thing and end your association with not only Nancy, but myself and the children as well."

Verrecchia replied in a letter that he'd "worked and prayed with your wife for many months now" about the marriage "to hopefully save it by reconciliation with you." The Lord, Verrecchia added, "does not ask his priests to counsel people into breaking up marriages and families . . . your marriage was fragile . . . from as far back as the eve of the wedding and . . . in need of prayer and sacrifice long before I entered the picture."

As for "Nancy's infatuation with me," Verrecchia wrote, "I must tell you that it is not unusual for such things to occur in spiritual direction and/or counseling. Nancy and I discussed that aspect of our relationship many times. That is exactly why we always chose to keep our association in public with very few meetings in my office."

In closing, Verrecchia said he and Nancy would "discontinue seeing each other" to give the Lamberts "optimum opportunity" for reconciliation.

He also recommended that Lambert attend daily Mass and increase his devotion to the Virgin Mary.

By mid-October a distraught Lambert sought help from a Maryland priest who was a friend of his family. The priest immediately set up a meeting for Lambert with the diocesan chancellor, the Rev. Robert J. Rippy, who was running the diocese in the interim between the death of Arlington Bishop John Keating in March 1998 and the arrival of Loverde in March 1999.

While two other diocesan officials took notes, Lambert complained to Rippy that Verrecchia was spending too much time with his wife. He showed them his correspondence with the priest and mentioned the hot-tub incident. At one point, he took out pictures of his children and began crying. "They asked me if they were having sex," Lambert recalled. "I said, 'No, I don't think so.' " Still, "they knew I thought he was destroying my marriage."

Three weeks later, Rippy wrote to Lambert's attorney, saying the diocese had "confirmed" that Verrecchia had stopped counseling Nancy but that it was "not conducting" an investigation of their relationship. Rippy seemed to see the Lamberts' marriage as more of a problem than Verrecchia's behavior. "Recognizing from Mr. Lambert's statements that his current marital difficulties with his wife may be an extension and/or result of several serious problems they have been suppressing and/or failing to acknowledge for many years," Rippy wrote, "we pray that [they] truly find Our Lord's healing grace and understanding in their lives."

In an interview, Bishop Loverde defended Rippy's handling of the matter saying that Verrecchia "was made aware of the concerns of Mr. Lambert and was asked to be more prudent and that really translates to lessen the contact." Verrecchia was not placed on leave or ordered to undergo any type of psychological counseling, Loverde added, because "there was no complaint of a sexual relationship taking place." And no one was assigned to ensure that Verrecchia complied with Rippy's instructions because, Loverde explained, "the presumption initially" is that "you trust everyone."

But the contacts continued. In November 1998, Verrecchia sent Nancy Lambert flowers for "Operating Room Nurses Week" and saw her at a party at the home of one of her friends. And dissension grew in the Lambert household. After one heated exchange, she called Prince William County police. Having determined that there'd been a verbal altercation with no weapons or alcohol involved, the officers left the Lambert home, according to a police report of the incident.

In e-mails to Verrecchia and a friend, Nancy Lambert expressed surprise at her husband's distress and what she said were his accusations of infidelity. In a letter to his wife, Lambert tried to explain his feelings.

"I reacted the way 99% of all husbands and fathers would have also reacted under the same circumstances," he wrote. "I was being replaced by another man. What made this infinitely more harmful and emotional was that the 'other man' was our pastor!"

But he had not given up hope. "I already know GOD will see us through this," he wrote. "When you're ready to open your heart back up, I'll be there."

At the end of 1998, Nancy asked for a trial separation. After initially refusing, Jim reluctantly moved out of their house. In January 1999, the couple drew up a joint child custody arrangement, a support schedule and a division of property that gave Jim, among other things, half the family photographs and half the "Kids' Artworks."

'Break All Contact'

Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert continued to see each other -- he attended her 40th birthday party in February. Jim Lambert still had hopes of saving the marriage, but in late June 1999 he discovered that his eldest daughter had gone to see "Les Miserables" with her mother and Verrecchia. Outraged, he fired off an angry letter to Loverde in early August 1999 threatening to sue the diocese.

According to Lambert, the bishop called him, promised to look into the situation and proposed a meeting. But first Loverde asked Lambert to sign a legal document so the two men could "talk freely," Lambert said. He refused and the two did not meet.

What Lambert did not know was that Loverde already had on his desk a package of materials that raised red flags about the Verrecchia-Nancy Lambert relationship. The package of about 300 pages included copies of the e-mail correspondence between the two spanning 18 months. It had been delivered to Loverde by a priest.

The Rev. James R. Haley, then 43, had been ordained in the Arlington Diocese in 1987. In the spring of 1999, while working under Verrecchia at All Saints, Haley was offered a pastorship by Loverde. It was something Haley dearly wanted and believed he deserved, but the offer was later rescinded, according to Haley, because Verrecchia raised doubts about Haley's fitness to be a pastor with the bishop.

Angered, Haley began to scan the parish office's computers for evidence to support his suspicions that Verrecchia was having an inappropriate relationship with Nancy. He found the e-mail correspondence and on June 22, 1999, personally delivered copies of it to Loverde to support his contention that Verrecchia also was unfit to be pastor.

Instead of summoning Verrecchia immediately, however, the diocese, according to Loverde, launched what would become a three-month investigation into the priest's relationship with Nancy Lambert. In the midst of its inquiry, Nancy wrote to the diocese, complaining that Haley had questioned a neighbor about her relationship with Verrecchia. She demanded an apology.

"I am in the midst of a rather contentious separation and my husband made similar allegations this past fall in the hopes of gaining custody of our minor children," Lambert wrote. She'd "always had a high regard for the priesthood," she added, but Haley's action had "shattered my trust" because it "branded me with a scarlet A."

Chancellor Rippy wrote back, assuring her that Haley had not been acting on the diocese's behalf. But he noted that "several parishioners began to question" her relationship with Verrecchia "as early as August 1998 in light of several circumstances, including a situation which reportedly occurred during a party," an apparent allusion to the hot-tub incident.

"We were hoping you could help by talking to us about these various matters, but understand that you were instructed by your legal counsel to not discuss the issue," he continued. "Since other parishioners have reportedly on their own perceived the interaction between Father Verrecchia and you," he concluded, "we do not know what can be done, as you say, to repair the damage to your reputation."

Loverde finally acted in mid-October 1999, having decided that "in a superabundance of caution . . . I must be even more firm than I had been before or than Fr. Rippy had been." Summoning Verrecchia, he gave him a "very clear and multifaceted" letter indicating that he "must break all contact, in any shape or form" with Nancy Lambert, the bishop said. The letter contained other directives to Verrecchia that Loverde declined to specify.

Verrecchia was not removed as pastor "because there were no allegations of sexual misconduct" and "I felt that I really didn't have enough to remove him," Loverde explained. He noted that church law requires "sufficient credible evidence" of wrongdoing to dismiss a pastor.

As for the e-mails, the diocesan investigation looked into "the procurement, authenticity, veracity and probative value" of the e-mails, according to Loverde. In the end, he said, the diocese reached an "inconclusive understanding" about them.

"We really could not definitely judge whether they all were accurate, whether none were accurate, whether some were accurate," he added. "I don't know whether these were recording the truth or not. . . . I'm always left with a certain question about those e-mails, about whether they were authentic and true."

Although he could have authenticated the e-mails by simply asking Verrecchia if he had written them, Loverde said he thought that was inappropriate "because of the respect we had for each of the parties," meaning the Lamberts, Verrecchia and "the priest who brought me those."

Having formally reprimanded Verrecchia, the diocese now sought to head off any legal action by Jim Lambert. Through their lawyers, diocesan officials asked Lambert to write them a letter covering the following points: That he'd been represented by counsel; that he'd had a difficult time over the breakup of his marriage and believes his wife's relationship with Verrecchia contributed to the problem; that he thanked the diocese for its efforts in investigating the situation and was satisfied with what it had done.

Lambert refused.

New Lives

In early February 2000, a little over a year after the Lamberts had separated, Prince William County Circuit Judge Richard B. Potter signed their final divorce decree. It incorporated their 1999 property and custody agreements.

A few weeks later, Verrecchia asked Loverde for a leave of absence. The bishop said he offered his priest "several options to consider" instead. But a few days later, Verrecchia returned and asked "to be no longer practicing as a priest," Loverde said. As a result, he added, Verrecchia "was relieved of his priestly faculties and given a leave of absence."

Verrecchia apparently knew he was to become a father. Nancy Lambert was pregnant.

On March 7, All Saints parishioners were informed through a statement read at Mass that they had a new pastor and that Verrecchia had been given "a leave of absence from his priestly ministry" in order to have "some free and uninterrupted time for reflection, discernment and prayer."

Verrecchia and Nancy Lambert were married in a civil ceremony April 22 and immediately moved with the Lambert children to the Atlanta area, where Nancy's family lives. Verrecchia got a job as parish administrator at an Episcopal church.

Less than a month later, Jim Lambert went to Atlanta for his youngest daughter's first Communion. When the newly married Verrecchias and one of Lambert's children carried the offertory gifts to the altar during Mass, "I died," Lambert recalled. "I sat in church for an hour and thought about all this, and I decided I got to fight this."

Ten days later, on May 25, 2000, Lambert filed a petition in Prince William County Circuit Court to overturn the joint-custody agreement, asking for sole custody of his children. His complaint alleged that Nancy Lambert had "pursued an intimate personal relationship with the parties' former parish pastor and Catholic priest, James A. Verrecchia, conducted initially, in part, under the guise of 'spiritual direction.' "

This relationship, Lambert's petition continued, had "substantially clouded" her judgment, indicated by the fact that it "was carried out in a manner to cause the nature of their relationship to become common knowledge among the priests, parish staff [and] parishioners." Her "judgment in her parental role has become seriously compromised" and she had violated "the moral standards that the parties had undertaken to impart to their children," it added, mentioning "what is apparently a pregnancy out-of-wedlock caused by her sexual indiscretions."

In her response filed in court, Nancy Lambert denied consulting Verrecchia for spiritual direction and said the fact that he was a Catholic priest "is irrelevant to these proceedings."

In a deposition conducted by telephone, she said Jim Lambert had told her "he wanted me to suffer" and sometimes called her at 3 a.m. "Mr. Lambert is not rational when it comes to me," she said. "He is . . . emotionally abusive . . . it's close to stalking."

Asked if Lambert had accused her of having an affair with Verrecchia, she replied: "Oh sure. . . . It was a recurring theme of his."

Lambert subpoenaed three priests for any documents they had relating to Verrecchia's relationship with his former wife. One of the priests was Haley, who delivered Verrecchia's e-mail correspondence with Nancy Lambert to the court. On his own initiative, Judge Potter placed the correspondence under seal.

Two days of hearings were held in August 2000, with a lawyer for the diocese observing from the gallery. Under Virginia law, petitions to alter custody arrangements must show a material change in circumstances that would warrant adjustment. In a crucial blow to Jim Lambert's case, Potter refused to hear evidence on any issue "that the parties were aware of at the time of the final [divorce] decree" in February 2000.

For Potter, that included the Verrecchia-Nancy Lambert relationship.

When Lambert "presented the uncontested final decree of divorce he knew [Nancy] was having an affair of some sorts with" Verrecchia and "must have known that their relationship was either going to get stronger or weaker," Potter said. Jim Lambert also was aware, Potter noted, that Nancy would likely relocate to Georgia at some point.

"While it is easy to throw the first stone and condemn her for conceiving a child out of wedlock . . . no matter who the father was or what he did for a living . . . her pregnancy is a reality. It alone is not enough to allow this court to remove the children from her custody," Potter said. Jim Lambert did not know that the two would marry, "but I don't hear anyone condemning her for that act . . . for which it seems to me she is to be commended and not condemned."

In his final ruling, Potter astonished both sides by giving sole custody of the Lambert children to Nancy -- even though she had not asked for it. He explained that his decision was not meant to punish Jim but was based on pragmatic reasons. "Joint legal custody is a nice term and it is a nice relationship," Potter told the court. "It works well when the parties are . . . [geographically] close and when the parties communicate well. . . . It does not work when the parties are states apart, and it does not work when the parties do not communicate well."

Potter gave Lambert extensive visitation rights, ordered the couple to share the children's transportation costs and reduced Lambert's child support from $1,686 to $1,590 a month.

A few days later, a crushed Lambert was rushed to Fairfax Hospital with a heart attack.

The Verrecchias' child, a boy, was born in October.

Frustrated with parenting from a distance, Lambert quit his job and moved to Atlanta to be closer to his children. He remains confused and bitter. And he is furious with a church that he believes was negligent by failing to swiftly discipline Verrecchia when complaints about his behavior first arose.

It was not until a year after Verrecchia left All Saints that the diocese made clear to the parish that he was not coming back.

Verrecchia "was a very cherished and beloved priest. Many still speak of the good he did and the lives he touched," the new parish administrator, the Rev. Robert C. Cilinski, wrote in the church bulletin in early 2001. "In the midst of confusion, sorrow, concern and hurt . . . You did not fold. You stood firm in your faith . . . I will always remember how you handled the difficult times."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company