Inside the documents: How archbishops protected accused priest

Documents released today trace how Archbishop John Nienstedt's predecessors, Harry Flynn and John Roach, protected the Rev. Ken LaVan after he was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls and adults.

The first reference in the documents to allegations against LaVan occurs in 1985.

In a memo to Roach in August that year, then-Auxiliary Bishop Robert Carlson said a married woman claimed that LaVan had a sexual relationship with her. She said that when she tried to end it, LaVan kept calling her and "frequently went up and down in front of their house," and "asked the children questions about where their mother was." The husband learned of the relationship and told LaVan "to leave their family alone."

Carlson wrote, "The next Sunday Father LaVan preached a sermon on those who would not forgive."

The woman claimed that LaVan threatened to burn down her house and kill her husband. LaVan denied making the threats.

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Carlson wrote, "This type of talk and Ken LaVan's anger towards [redacted] has scared them and at one point they were considering involving the police so that they could receive protection."

Carlson advised Roach to keep the matter quiet. "If we don't want this to build into a real problem it is my recommendation that we accept Father LaVan's resignation from the parish, find a suitable cover story and get him into a in-patient treatment program..." he wrote in a memo. "I hope that we can get Father LaVan out of the parish as soon as possible so that this thing does not blow up."

In response, Roach sent LaVan to treatment at a Catholic-run facility in New Mexico, according to the documents.

The following year, a psychiatrist who evaluated the priest said he "seems to be denying of the seriousness of his previous activities and thus would appear somewhat treacherous or dangerous to me if he could find someone who would be vulnerable."

Carlson told Roach, "Given the liability it involves and the fact that this report puts on notice, I think we will have to treat this as a rather serious case." Five months later, Roach appointed LaVan to serve as pastor of St. Richard's Catholic Church in Richfield.

In 1988, the archdiocese received the first reports of child sexual abuse by LaVan, according to the documents.

The Rev. Michael O'Connell, who served at the chancery, met with a woman who claimed to have been raped by LaVan when she was a teenager. The woman, whose name was redacted from the documents, told Carlson that the rape left her with physical injuries that later required her to have a hysterectomy.

O'Connell was alarmed.

"Archbishop, it would seem to me, judging what we have been finding out over the past 1.5 years about personality and behavioral disorders similar to Father LaVan's, that we are dealing with a potentially very dangerous situation," O'Connell wrote in a memo to Roach on May 24, 1988.

By September 1988, the archdiocese was aware of two allegations of child sexual abuse by LaVan, according to a memo by O'Connell.

One woman said the abuse took place when she was 16, and that LaVan took her to a rectory basement and raped her. "I have no doubt that she will take every action on her behalf to ensure that Father LaVan does not perpetrate this sort of behavior against anyone else," O'Connell wrote.

Another woman said LaVan abused her as a child at St. Michael Catholic Church in St. Paul.

The Rev. Kevin McDonough, who served as chancellor at the time, interviewed LaVan. McDonough claimed under oath this year that he couldn't recall whether he knew about the allegations of child sexual abuse.

In an Oct. 5, 1988, memo to O'Connell, McDonough described his meeting with LaVan, adding, "This is a summary of the notes which I took, which are in rather scribbled form. Once I have completed the summary I am intending to destroy the notes. They only record various things which Father LaVan said."

McDonough wrote that LaVan "admitted that he had kissed [redacted] in the basement of the rectory at St. Raphael's. He labeled that kissing improper."

McDonough said LaVan initially denied abusing another girl but then described how he visited her in a convent when she was lonely and kissed her. LaVan said, "My intent was to comfort them."

Roach then sent LaVan to Minneapolis-based therapist Gary Schoener, who evaluated several other abusive priests.

In a report in December 1988, Schoener said the latest allegations appeared credible. He noted that LaVan had recently been accused of inappropriate sexual contact with adults.

He wrote that "it is conceivable that he has 'graduated' to older women. Sexual contact with teenagers sometimes reflects a greater sense of safety or comfort with them than an actual sexual preference. This has been referred to as 'situational pedophilia.'"

Schoener continued, "It is my belief that Father LaVan is currently minimizing these episodes due to either conscious deception or some psychological process of repression and denial. The alternative — that these stories are fabrications — seems extraordinarily unlikely."

The archdiocese settled both cases quietly, and LaVan remained in ministry. He went back to a clergy treatment center several times for workshops and check-ins.

In April 1993, Roach congratulated LaVan for his progress in treatment. "God knows yours has been a long and tortuous journey, but you have done it with faith and with patience and clearly, to me, with a lot of prayer. I am just delighted for you and really very proud of you."

Allegations kept coming in. McDonough met with a woman in 1994 who said LaVan had "sexually exploited" her when he served as her parish priest. It's illegal in Minnesota for priests to have sexual contact with anyone under their pastoral care.

McDonough told Roach that the woman was particularly vulnerable because she had suffered a brain injury, had been raped once before, and was receiving psychiatric treatment. He said the woman's claims appeared credible — and he wondered whether LaVan could face criminal charges.

In a Feb. 14, 1994, memo to Roach, McDonough wrote, "Arguably, at least, LaVan's sexual contact with her would constitute sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult. It is possible that LaVan may still be subject to criminal prosecution under the provisions of the law protecting vulnerable adults from sexual contact by care givers."

McDonough recommended that Roach consider asking LaVan to retire, and that he ask LaVan to pay the woman's therapy costs. "I know that these are strong steps, but I find the exploitation of a mentally ill person to be so disgusting that I think it should be addressed strongly."

However, McDonough reconsidered his recommendation after he confronted LaVan with the accusation. LaVan denied it. "He remembered her as a sexually unattractive person," McDonough wrote in a March 8, 1994, memo to Roach. "He also said that he was aware of her vulnerability because of mental illness and therefore tried to be careful about keeping some distance between him and her."

McDonough continued, "I was impressed by the evident relief with which LaVan received this particular allegation."

McDonough wrote to clinicians at St. Luke Institute, a clergy treatment facility in Maryland, to ask them to evaluate the claim. He recounted that LaVan "showed a great deal of relief in the confrontation meeting when I told him the name of his accuser. He said that he had spent the night before (I had called him the previous day to set up the meeting) trying to inventory the women with whom he might have been inappropriate. He said that he could not imagine being sexual with her under any conditions."

St. Luke Institute reviewed the case, but told the archdiocese that it couldn't reach a conclusion about whether LaVan had sex with the woman.

The archdiocese considered asking LaVan to take a polygraph test, but the archdiocese's lawyer, Andrew Eisenzimmer, advised against it after considering "the implications involved in the event of a future lawsuit," according to a memo from an archdiocesan official who met with Eisenzimmer in 1994.

In 1995, a clergy review board examined LaVan's case. "There is a definite feeling among several members that he is like a speeder on the freeway who will speed if he can get away with it but will slow down if he sees a police car," according to a memo. The review board recommended that LaVan remain in ministry, provided that he serve alongside another priest who could supervise him and that he avoid ministering to women "one-on-one."

Flynn replaced Roach as archbishop in 1995. When the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in Boston in 2002, Flynn emerged as a national leader and helped write the church's landmark document on abuse, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The new policy pledged "zero tolerance" for abusive priests.

Behind the scenes, however, Flynn chose not to follow it.

In a Jan. 17, 2006 memo, Flynn said he didn't want to review LaVan's case to determine whether the Charter applied.

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