Documents: Ex-UST leader knew of abuse claim; untrue, school says

Jeff Anderson and Marie Mielke
Jeff Anderson, left, and Marie Mielke, right, January 12, 2015.
Madeleine Baran / MPR News

Internal archdiocese documents released Monday by a clergy sex abuse attorney claim former University of St. Thomas president Dennis Dease knew of child sex abuse allegations against a Catholic Studies professor for several years.

The newly released documents contradict the university's public statement last year that Dease and other top administrators did not know about the allegations against the Rev. Michael Keating until late 2013.

The timing is important because Keating was allowed to work closely with students at St. Thomas. In October 2013, MPR News reported a clergy review board had recommended Keating not mentor young people. But it wasn't clear then if the archdiocese had passed along that recommendation to the University of St. Thomas. Last October, St. Thomas officials concluded that Dease and those who reported directly to him did not know of the accusations.

Documents released Monday, however, indicate that was not the case and that some St. Thomas leaders were told about the claims against Keating.

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

In one 2010 memo, Archbishop John Nienstedt rebuked Don J. Briel, then head of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program and Keating's boss, for letting Keating work a semester at the university's Catholic Studies program in Rome. Nienstedt also tightened Keating's monitoring plan to require him to receive approval for additional assignments.

One document, an Aug. 10, 2012 email from a former top church deputy, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, to the president of the North Dakota-based University of Mary, Msgr. James Shea, details the allegations against Keating, who had been appointed to serve on the University of Mary's board of trustees.

McDonough wrote, "I disclosed all of the above to the President of the University of Saint Thomas, Father Dennis Dease, and to the director of the Catholic Studies Program in which Father Keating teaches, Dr. (Don) Briel. I have checked back with both of them from time to time, and each considers Father Keating's conduct to be exemplary."

Shea replied to McDonough: "Thank you for appraising (sic) me of the situation."

The letter was among 599 pages from Keating's internal file at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released Monday by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who is representing Marie Mielke, the woman suing Keating for allegedly sexually abusing her as a minor. The archdiocese provided the documents as part of a massive lawsuit brought by an alleged victim of another priest.

Rev. Dennis Dease
Rev. Dennis Dease is the president of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Art Hughes / MPR News file

Dease maintains he did not know about the allegations against Keating until October 2013, according to University of St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes. The former university president "does not recall any correspondence or any conversations with Father McDonough about Father Keating," Hennes said.

Hennes said that a private law firm hired by the University to investigate its handling of Keating obtained a copy of McDonough's email as part of its investigation but concluded that Dease never spoke to McDonough about the allegations. "I don't know why (McDonough) included a reference to Father Dease in the email, his email to Father Shea," Hennes said.

The University won't release its findings, Hennes said. "We plan to release no further information at this time."

Lawyers reviewed "thousands of emails and other documents including a copy of the Father McDonough email to Monsignor Shea," Hennes said. "The conclusions of the investigation took into account the totality of all the information, and the bottom line is Father Dease was not aware of any allegations against Father Keating until October 2013 when the lawsuit was filed against Father Keating."

Rev. Michael Keating
The Rev. Michael Keating.
George Martell / The Pilot Media Group

Keating, through his attorney, has denied the abuse allegations, which include claims that Keating sexually touched a girl before he was ordained a priest. A law enforcement investigation did not result in criminal charges. Keating resigned from his position as a professor at the University of St. Thomas last year. Briel retired in the summer of 2014 amid fallout from the lawsuit and reporting by MPR News.

Hennes declined to say whether Briel's departure was related to his handling of Keating. "I can't comment on that because it's part of the investigation," Hennes said.

Marie Mielke, 29, who had filed the lawsuit against Keating as "Doe 20," came forward publicly at a news conference Monday at Anderson's St. Paul law firm. "I think that hiding something that isn't your fault just gets exhausting," she told reporters.

In October 2013, University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan, who replaced Dease in July 2013, announced that she would commission a private investigation of the Keating matter. Sullivan last October announced that the investigation found that, "Prior to October 2013, neither I, President Emeritus Father Dennis Dease, nor any current or former direct reports, were aware that allegations of sexual abuse or inappropriate conduct had been made against Father Keating."

Julie Sullivan
Julie Sullivan, at a press conference Thursday, Feb. 14., that announced she'd been chosen the next president of the University of St. Thomas.
Alex Friedrich / MPR News file

Sullivan also claimed officials didn't know about recommendations and restrictions from the archdiocese clergy review board and that "no university employees who had authority to make decisions regarding restrictions or conditions on Father Keating's activities at the university were aware of the allegations or of any recommendations or restrictions."

Sullivan called the investigation "confidential" and declined an interview request at the time.

Dease and Briel could not be reached for comment, and Shea did not return a phone message left Monday. Briel has previously declined to comment on Keating.

The archdiocese directed MPR News to Roger Gross, an attorney representing Keating. "We believe that these allegations are without any merit whatsoever," Gross said. He declined to arrange an interview with Keating and would not say whether Keating had opposed the release of his clergy file.

'He needs to be home'

Documents released Monday also show archdiocesan officials disagreed about how to handle the abuse complaint by Mielke and other allegations of inappropriate relationships with an underage girl in Italy and two adult women.

One document shows that Mielke's therapist told the archdiocese that Mielke showed psychological symptoms consistent with someone who has been sexually abused.

McDonough sided with Keating, according to the documents, and privately told the University of Mary president that he believed Mielke suffered from "delusions" and had "some emergent form of mental and/or emotional disability at the time she was making these complaints." Anderson, Mielke's attorney, has filed a lawsuit accusing McDonough of defamation for his comments on Mielke's mental health.

Keating at one point also petitioned McDonough to help him with a dispute with then-chancellor for canonical affairs Jennifer Haselberger.

In 2011, Haselberger — who would resign in 2013 and come forward to expose a cover-up of clergy sex abuse — refused to tell the Archdiocese of Atlanta that Keating had never been accused of child sex abuse. The Atlanta archdiocese requested the assurance as part of paperwork to allow Keating to participate in a wedding Mass.

The Rev. Kevin McDonough
The Rev. Kevin McDonough served as the archbishop's deputy from 1991-2009.
Getty Images/File 2007

After Haselberger's refusal, Keating appealed to McDonough, who agreed to contact the Archdiocese of Atlanta on his behalf. "Jennifer does not know how to make a mental reservation," McDonough wrote in an April 18, 2011 email to Keating.

McDonough claimed that Atlanta officials intended to ask only about "credibly accused" priests, and therefore the Twin Cities archdiocese would not need to disclose the complaint against Keating.

"Many thanks Kevin," Keating wrote. "I breathe a sigh of relief."

McDonough and his attorney did not respond to phone messages Monday.

Anderson said he believes "mental reservation" refers to a Catholic doctrine that allows people to lie in certain cases. Anderson said he's questioned many Catholic officials under oath about mental reservation in lawsuits throughout the country, and most claim not to practice it.

The documents also show that Archbishop John Nienstedt, who replaced Flynn in 2008, expressed frustration with how McDonough had handled the Keating case.

Nienstedt voiced his "disappointment" that Keating had been allowed to work for a semester at the university's Catholic Studies program in Rome.

"I think that it was unfortunate that he was allowed to be away from the University campus, even though he did have some minimal supervision in Rome. I am writing with the hope that we would not repeat this kind of an assignment for Father in the future," Nienstedt wrote. "He needs to be home where his activities can be monitored."

In his reply to Nienstedt, Briel explained that McDonough had "provided information about the entire process" involving the allegations against Keating. "We discussed the restrictions to be placed on Father Keating's ministry, during and after the investigation," Briel wrote. "As the formal process investigating the allegations concluded, I raised the issue of Father Keating's going to Rome. Father McDonough informed me that the allegations had been found to lack substance, but that it was considered appropriate to have some supervision for a period of one year."

He continued, "In order to discharge the monitoring obligation, we agreed that Father Paul Murray ... might be helpful in this area since he has wide experience in spiritual direction and has worked in similar cases. At the same time I informed the chaplain, Father Joseph Carola, S.J., of the situation in case concerns would be expressed during the semester."

Briel wrote that he had never seen Keating engage in inappropriate behavior.

Abuse claims

The abuse claims against Keating first surfaced in 2006, when Mielke's parents told the archdiocese and the Chisago County Sheriff's Office. The sheriff's office found insufficient evidence to file charges.

The archdiocese conducted its own investigation of Keating from 2006 to 2008, documents show. The case went before the archdiocese's review board, and McDonough and an attorney for the archdiocese also investigated the claims.

In November 2007, the archdiocese provided Mielke's father with a copy of the review board's findings, which concluded there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of sexual abuse of a minor. The clergy review board, however, still recommended that then-Archbishop Harry Flynn prohibit Keating from mentoring young people.

As church officials investigated the initial claims, they uncovered other allegations.

Another priest told McDonough that he thought Keating had "very emotionally intense and perhaps physically sexual relationships with two under aged young women," according to McDonough's Feb. 2, 2006 memo.

One of the women lived in Italy and had met Keating when he was studying in Rome to become a priest. "A number of people have commented on the intensely connected emotional relationship that Michael Keating and [the girl] had, and a variety of kisses and other embraces that were publicly visible," McDonough wrote.

"Archbishop, it is not clear at this point where all of this will go," he wrote, adding, "Either Keating "has a deep inability to understand when a relationship with a woman has crossed emotional boundaries," or he committed sexual abuse.

The Italian girl would later deny any sexual contact with Keating, according to church documents. In a statement released Monday, Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche said Keating "will remain on leave until the archdiocesan Clergy Review Board can complete an internal review of this matter, which is still ongoing."

The review board's assessment "will be comprehensive and include a revisit of decisions made in the past, in light of any new information that is produced as a result of the civil lawsuit and the archdiocese's prevailing commitment of placing victims first," he said.

In a statement released Monday, Haselberger said "men like Father McDonough, Archbishop Nienstedt, Bishop Lee Piche, and Father Peter Laird found it easy to disregard my advice, no matter how sound, on the basis of my gender and status as a lay person. The only questions that remain to be answered are how long those with authority in the Catholic Church will continue to give countenance to such attitudes, and how many additional people will have to suffer as a result."

Regardless of whether Keating sexually abused children, McDonough wrote, in a May 5, 2006 memo to Flynn and to other church officials, the priest had another problem, which McDonough described as "an ongoing pattern of irresponsible seductiveness (non-sexual) in Father Keating's life."

Documents show that Keating continued to deny the allegations but reluctantly agreed to be monitored by the archdiocese.

"I want once again to state that I was not involved in any sexual misconduct," Keating wrote in a July 16, 2010 letter to McDonough. "Although I understand the reasons for monitoring protocols generally speaking, I don't think them either necessary or appropriate in my case. Nonetheless for the overall good of the situation I am willing to comply."

The archdiocese directed MPR News to Roger Gross, an attorney who said he's representing Keating in the civil case. "We believe that these allegations are without any merit whatsoever," Gross said. He declined to arrange an interview with Keating and would not say whether Keating had opposed the release of his clergy file.

Mielke on Monday criticized the way McDonough handled her complaint. "I think he is a snake," she said.

She said she remains a practicing Catholic, and said she likes Nienstedt.

"I think that (Nienstedt) is a good man, but I think he suffers from cowardice. I think he's a coward, which breaks my heart."

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