Four sisters recount lives haunted by clergy abuse

The Meyers sisters Kate, Miriam, Barbara and Nancy
The Meyers sisters, at Kate Meyers' home in St. Paul on April 17, 2014. From left to right: Kate Meyers, 64, Miriam Rothstein, 68, Barbara Richter, 77, and Nancy Meyers, 67.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

Nancy Meyers remembers the fear in the priest's eyes when he spotted her.

It was a Sunday morning in 1990, and Nancy, then 42, and her sister Kate had just arrived at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lino Lakes to confront the man Nancy says had sexually abused her as a child.

The Rev. Kenneth LaVan was greeting parishioners at the back of the church.

"Can I help you?" a parishioner asked.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"Oh, no," Kate Meyers said. "We're here to see Father LaVan, it's just a quick thing. He knows us. We're old friends."

When the sisters got to the front of the line, the priest looked nervous. Kate asked if they could talk privately, and LaVan took them around the corner to a small room. They had just a few minutes before the next Mass.

With the door closed, the sisters confronted LaVan. They were alarmed to find out he was still in a parish, and had wanted to catch him off guard to see what he would say. Nancy said she wanted to understand why LaVan had abused her.

"Leave me alone," LaVan said. "I don't have to talk to you."

The confrontation between LaVan and the Meyers sisters wasn't over, and it didn't end well. LaVan continued serving as a priest in the Twin Cities for the next 23 years — even after Catholic bishops pledged "zero tolerance" for priests accused of sexually abusing children.

LaVan has denied abusing anyone and refused to talk about the confrontation. "I can't comment because it's been all taken care of over 30 years ago," he said.

Internal church documents show LaVan had told a therapist in the 1980s that he hugged and kissed Nancy when she was a child and that he tried to kiss her when she was a young adult living in a convent. Two other women have accused LaVan of sexually abusing them as children. Archbishop John Nienstedt removed LaVan from ministry last December. In February, he added LaVan to a list of priests with "substantiated claims" of child sex abuse.

Similar clashes between victims and abusers have played out in parishes across the Twin Cities. For decades, the archdiocese's practice of allowing priests accused of sexually abusing children to stay in parishes put families like the Meyerses in an uncomfortable position. These priests remained in prominent positions in local communities, and families felt a duty to try to prevent further abuse.

Unlike many people accused of sexually assaulting children, most priests are not criminally prosecuted, even when they've confessed, and therefore do not have to register as sex offenders. Church officials rarely reported alleged sex crimes to police, and by the time police learned of them, it was often too late to file charges.

Without a criminal investigation or prison sentence, it can be hard for victims to move forward. The past looms. Everything seems unresolved.

For the Meyerses and many other families, there is no straight path toward healing. New information and old memories lead to unexpected detours and sharp turns. News coverage can help close old wounds, but it can also open them.

Earlier this year, the four sisters — Kate Meyers, Nancy Meyers, Miriam Rothstein and Barbara Richter — gathered at Kate's home in St. Paul to explain how talking to each other and confronting LaVan directly had helped them deal with the trauma.

The sisters are now in their 60s and 70s. More than 40 years have passed since the time Nancy Meyers says LaVan first abused her.

In the interview, the sisters were protective of Nancy, checking in with her to see if she was OK and offering to provide details that might be too painful for her to explain.

"We're still putting pieces together," said Barbara, the oldest.

The sisters said it's hard to explain how trauma has woven its way through their lives. They had a tough time growing up. Nancy said she was also abused as a child by a neighbor and a family member. Both parents drank a lot.

"We were not a little close group of four sisters," Kate recalled.

Barbara, who is 14 years older than her youngest sister, Kate, moved out of the house when she turned 18.

Nancy's sisters said they feel awful that they didn't realize she was being abused and weren't able to protect her.

Barbara cried as she tried to explain. "It's the rippling effect of all this," she said, "and the helpless feeling that I wasn't there to prevent this in some way."

"Do you love me?"

The Meyers sisters say they met LaVan in the late 1950s, when he served as assistant pastor of St. Michael's parish in West St. Paul.

Their parents invited him over for lunch, and LaVan joined the family on summer vacations at a rented cabin. LaVan would toss the girls into the water and then swim toward them, laughing, the sisters recalled. Everyone looked like they were having fun. It was "the kind of stuff that sometimes you'd take as normal, if it was a really nice uncle," Kate said, "but he wasn't."

LaVan would offer Kate rides home from school, she said. Most of the time she declined, because she wanted to walk with her friends. A few times, she relented.

"I'd get in the car with him, and then he'd ask me to move next to him," Kate said. "And then he put his hand on my thigh and he said, 'Do you love me?'"

She would say yes, she recalled: "What do you say to a priest when you're 8 years old?"

Dan and Barbara Richter with Rev. Kenneth Lavan.
Barbara Richter with her husband Dan Richter (left) and the Rev. Kenneth LaVan (right) at her wedding at St. Michael Catholic Church in West St. Paul, Minn. on Dec. 27, 1958. Barbara, the oldest sister in the Meyers family, said her younger sister Nancy told her about three decades later that LaVan had sexually abused her as a child. Nancy Meyers said she recalls the abuse began within months of the wedding.
Courtesy Barbara Richter

When Barbara, the oldest sister, got married in 1958, LaVan performed the ceremony, "which is just disgusting to me, the more I think about it," Barbara said.

Nancy said she remembers that LaVan began abusing her shortly after Barbara's wedding, when she was about 12. LaVan kissed and groped her, she said, and the abuse continued off and on for several years.

Growing up, Nancy thought of herself as a "pretty tough little kid," she said. But when she looks at her childhood photos now, she sees a vulnerable little girl.

She coped with the abuse, she said, by detaching herself from what was happening. She would seem to step outside of her body. She didn't learn until decades later that the sense of floating outside of herself to cope with trauma has a name: dissociation. It's a common experience among those who have been sexually abused.

Nancy didn't tell anyone about her abuse, she said, because she worried that no one would believe her.

As children, the sisters turned to speed skating as an escape. Miriam won a silver medal in the 1968 Olympics. She was distracted, she said, and may have missed signs that Nancy was being abused.

When Miriam got married in the late '60s, she also chose LaVan to perform the ceremony because she didn't know he had done anything wrong. "It makes me furious," Miriam said. "I would never have sought out somebody who had done what he did with Nancy."

Earlier this year, Miriam was startled to learn that Nancy had no memory of her wedding. Nancy said she assumes she blocked it out because it was traumatic to see LaVan there.

"At this point in my life, I just feel a combination of regret that I was so ignorant of the events that had taken place within my own family," Miriam said, "and outrage that I wasn't part of the intervention" at the church years later.

Accosted in a convent

LaVan tried to keep in contact with Nancy after she left high school. She had entered a convent and was considering becoming a nun. One day, LaVan stopped by unexpectedly and tried to kiss her.

Nancy panicked and told the nun in charge of novices that LaVan had forced himself on her. It was the first time she had told anyone that she had been abused.

She remembers that the nun invited her for a private conversation in the middle of the night and gave her a Coke. She listened as Nancy explained.

The nun agreed not to allow LaVan to return. When LaVan tried to visit again, he was turned away.

An archdiocese official later interviewed the nun, according to church memos, and she confirmed Nancy's account.

Nancy had forgotten a key part of the story, however, and it didn't surface until conversations among the sisters earlier this year. Barbara had gotten a call from Nancy at the convent a short while later. She was upset and wanted her sister to visit her.

"You just said something about Father LaVan," Barbara explained. "You didn't give any specifics, but you just were scared. You were really scared."

Gaps like these make Nancy uneasy. "At one point you say to yourself, 'Isn't this great that I'm able to just block stuff?' Because of that, I've been able to move on and function and do what I think is a lot of good in this world.

"But at the same time, there's nothing more unsettling than knowing that you can't remember."

LaVan also told a therapist and church officials about the encounter years later, according to church memos. "When he kissed her he sensed that she pulled away from him," the Rev. Kevin McDonough recounted in a memo summarizing LaVan's account after a 1988 meeting.

A secret revealed

Nancy's sisters didn't learn of the abuse until the late 1980s, when Nancy fell into a deep depression.

One day she started crying and couldn't stop. She called Kate and her husband, Mark, a psychiatrist, and asked to move in with them. Kate and Mark had two sons, one 18 months and the other 6 years old at the time.

"I just did what you needed to do," Kate said, "threw the kid in the car, went and picked her up, brought her home."

When Mark came home from work, he found Nancy lying on the couch.

Kate said, "I'll just never forget ... he said, 'Have you ever had any thoughts of suicide?'

"She said, 'Well, I do think about driving into the cement barrier on Hwy. 100 when I'm going home from work.'

"And Mark goes, 'Well, I think that qualifies.'"

Nancy stayed at their house for about a year. She saw a psychiatrist several times a week and received treatment for depression.

"She had terrible anxiety and she couldn't talk," Kate remembered. "She was pretty much, almost catatonic."

It went on this way for months.

One day Mark asked Kate if she'd ever wondered whether Nancy had been abused. "He said, 'She kind of acts like somebody that has [been], especially in the context of the family,'" Kate recalled.

Slowly, Nancy began to tell her sisters what had happened. They believed her.

In 1988, Nancy reported the allegations to the archdiocese.

At first, she felt comforted by the church's response. The archdiocese's top deputy, the Rev. Michael O'Connell, wrote her a letter thanking her for coming forward.

Kate saved O'Connell's letters. "We should start a museum," she said, sifting through the documents.

Barbara hadn't read the letters until recently. "I could have been dead and buried and never known anything about this. Probably better off," she said, laughing.

In the first letter, O'Connell told Nancy, "I sincerely hope and pray that we will be able to do some justice in this matter which surely has placed you and yours in the sad position of being a victim of a priest of the Church."

He explained the archdiocese's policy — LaVan would be sent for an inpatient evaluation and possible treatment. He wouldn't be allowed to have contact with "vulnerable people." The archdiocese would "enter into discussions of restitution, especially from the perpetrator to the victim. We would also talk about reconciliation at some distant time if that were desirable on the part of the victim."

Three weeks later, Nancy received another letter from O'Connell. The tone was so different that Nancy had trouble believing it came from the same person.

O'Connell said he needed Nancy to meet with a therapist hired by the archdiocese to "gain greater clarity and specificity regarding your accusations, given the grave nature of those accusations and a way of protecting the rights of both the accused and the accuser."

Nancy refused.

Kate then took her to meet with attorney Jeff Anderson. Nancy filed a lawsuit and reached a settlement with the archdiocese. She said she received $12,000.

As part of the settlement negotiations, Nancy met with LaVan and other church officials. During one meeting, she asked for a few minutes alone with LaVan. "I just wanted to see what he said without being monitored by everyone around him," Nancy said.

The priest agreed.

Alone in the room, LaVan became teary, Nancy recalled. She said he told her, "I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you. I knew how alone you were in that family."

When everyone came back into the room, however, LaVan acted as if nothing had happened, she said.

Later, LaVan acknowledged that he had met with Nancy Meyers alone but said her account of what he said was wrong. He declined to elaborate.

Kate said she wanted then-Archbishop John Roach to know how much the family had been harmed. She wrote him a three-page letter in 1990, explaining the trauma and how she talked about it with her 9-year-old son. "He knows that sexual abuse has made his Mom 'very sad,' and that sexual abuse nearly killed his aunt Nancy," she wrote.

"It's 'a lot' for a nine year old, but he knows that no one has the right to ask you to do something that doesn't feel comfortable."

She closed her letter with a plea on behalf of her family, whose members, she said, all have had to confront the abuse of their sister.

"I am a survivor. My sisters are survivors. At this point, only God knows how many others there are. But you and I know there are hundreds in this archdiocese. I want to know that you will do everything you can to prevent any more little girls and boys from becoming survivors ... You must enter your closet and clean it. I hope and pray to God that you will do it thoroughly."

Roach sent her a four-sentence reply. It said, in part, "It is my honest belief that we are trying to address the questions you raised as sincerely and as openly as we can. My primary hope is that you may have peace."

The Meyers sisters at Barbara's wedding
The Meyers sisters, at Barbara's wedding on Dec. 27, 1958. From left to right: Miriam Rothstein (nee Mary Meyers) 12, Barbara Richter (nee Meyers), 21, Kate Meyers, 8, Nancy Meyers, 11.
Courtesy Barbara Richter

The confrontation

About two years after Nancy reported the abuse to the archdiocese, her sister Kate wondered what LaVan was doing. That's when she learned he was the pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Lino Lakes.

"I called Nancy and I said, 'Oh, my God. He's a frickin' pastor.'"

Nancy told her sister that she wanted to go see him.

"I went, 'What?'" Kate recalled. "'You're not going alone.'"

So the two sisters dressed up and drove together to the church. That's when the confrontation began.

In the room alone with LaVan, Kate and Nancy demanded answers as parishioners kept pounding on the door.

Nancy tried to tell LaVan how she felt. LaVan kept denying that he had done anything wrong and said the allegations had made it impossible for him to trust people. He told them he hadn't made any new friends in several years, Kate recalled.

A parishioner tried to open the door. "Is Father LaVan coming out?" she asked. "What's happening in there?" "It's just fine, he'll be right out," Kate said. She shut the door and the argument continued.

The sisters wanted LaVan to explain why he had befriended their family, why he had touched Nancy and why he was still a priest.

LaVan refused to answer, they said. Then he lunged toward Nancy. Kate stepped in and grabbed the priest by his white vestments.

"I said, 'You get off of her,'" Kate recalled.

LaVan's eyes shifted into a flat stare.

"I'm not supposed to talk to you. I don't have to talk to you," he said, according to the sisters. "I didn't do anything wrong."

Nancy asked the priest why he had gone to an out-of-state treatment facility if he hadn't done anything wrong.

LaVan started yelling again. Parishioners came to the door. Mass was late. "Get these people out of here," LaVan yelled to the parishioners. "I'm being emotionally abused."

Kate appeared at the door again. "This is no concern to you," she told the parishioners. "This is between Father LaVan and ourselves. Ask Father LaVan what's going on."

Kate shut the door and turned back to LaVan. "What are you going to do?" she asked.

LaVan fumed. "I haven't decided yet," he said.

"This parish will know about you," Kate said.

The parishioners knocked again. This time, they threatened to call the police if the Meyers sisters didn't let LaVan leave.

"I went, 'Be my guest,'" Kate recalled. "And I said, 'Nancy, I think we need to leave now.'"

Out in the parking lot, Kate scribbled notes on the church bulletin so she would remember exactly what LaVan had said.

Nancy said she doesn't regret confronting the priest.

"I remember him being really scared," she said. "And that made me feel good, that he had a moment of being afraid."

Kate said the confrontation — and the hours of conversations since then — have helped the entire family.

"The best thing it's given us is that we are really close," Kate said.

Some details have surfaced in news reports over the past year, prompting more conversations. It's strange, Miriam said, to read about one's sister as a "case" or an "alleged victim."

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

The sisters continue searching through childhood memories, telling each other bits and pieces to fill in the gaps. Some conversations leave them feeling exhausted.

"When you put the story together, it is as if it has just happened," Miriam said.

By hearing the family's story, Miriam said, she hopes that "folks will realize that these so-called victims are just like everybody else."