Former St. Francis athletic director settles lawsuit against diocese

Kolleen “Koko” McNamee sat in her lawyer’s office Saturday and talked about the lasting scars left from her legal dispute over being fired as athletic director of St. Francis Catholic High School for girls.

Her federal lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, owner and operator of St. Francis, was resolved Nov. 19 at a settlement conference presided over by U.S. Magistrate Judge Allison Claire. One of those present was the Most Rev. Myron J. Cotta, the diocese’s auxiliary bishop.

“My goal there was to empower and educate young women through sports,” McNamee said tearfully. “That was my passion and, obviously, it was ripped away from me. There’s nothing to do now but move on and try to heal.”

She hopes to continue working with young athletes, ideally through a nonprofit that serves underprivileged children, she said.

The 41-year-old McNamee, a native of Sacramento with deep St. Francis roots, graduated from the school, as did her three sisters and an aunt. She returned and was its athletic director for 11 years. She once believed her three daughters would attend St. Francis. Now, that won’t happen, she told The Bee in a lengthy interview earlier this year.

She was forced out after losing a showdown with the school’s defiant basketball coach, according to McNamee.

“The way I got through this is exactly what I tried to teach,” McNamee said Saturday. “I wanted the young women of St. Francis to learn through athletics to face adversity with toughness and integrity.”

Attorney Jill Telfer, who represents McNamee, said at Saturday’s interview that her client “created a legacy of standing up for what’s right, no matter what the consequences. What she did will result in changes at St. Francis that will benefit the students, the faculty, the administrators and the whole St. Francis family.”

A prepared statement released by the diocese and attributed to its outside counsel, Nancy Sheehan, says the diocese and St. Francis “acknowledge that the termination of Ms. McNamee’s employment was not handled in accordance with (their) personnel policies, and regret that she was subjected to that experience. The diocese is taking steps to ensure that administrators in all diocesan schools and departments are properly trained on compliance with personnel policies, including responding to complaints of harassment or discrimination.”

The statement goes on to praise McNamee for making “significant contributions” to St. Francis. “Under her leadership, the athletic department won numerous section titles and a record four CIF Sac-Joaquin section titles in one season (Fall 2011), but more importantly she focused on doing what was in the best interest of the student athletes and providing opportunities where they learned valuable life lessons to carry with them into the future.”

None of the principals will disclose the amount, in accord with a confidentiality pact, but the diocese likely agreed to pay McNamee a lot of money. Because McNamee and the diocese are private parties, California law allows the secrecy.

The firing that triggered McNamee’s lawsuit was three years ago, but her pain began three years earlier, she said, when she started trying to rid the school of its basketball coach for what she and others perceived as unruly, demoralizing and embarrassing behavior during the team’s games.

Attempts by McNamee to quell his behavior were met by the coach’s resentment over getting directions from a woman, she said.

Her effort was undermined in 2011, when school administrators reneged on their agreement with her to let the coach go, according to McNamee. The next year, within a month of the installation of a new St. Francis president, who had been groomed for the position by the diocese, it was McNamee, not the basketball coach, who was gone. A man was hired to replace her.

But Telfer, citing the church’s promise to make the diocese a better place to work, insists McNamee has emerged not just as a victor in a lawsuit, but as a role model.

“The only way to make positive changes is to lead by example,” said Telfer on Saturday. “Koko did that for the entire Catholic community.”

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