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'Shame keeps so many victims silent': MN clergy abuse victim speaks out

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Joe McLean relaxes on his front porch with his wife, Colleen, behind him.
Joe McLean filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis claiming he was sexually abused as a minor.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Joe McLean grew up the youngest of six kids in a devout St. Paul Catholic family. He was a product of Catholic schools, weekly religious classes and Mass every Sunday, including a stint as an altar boy. 

Religious retreats and confession were a normal part of that life. At a 1981 retreat for teen boys at St. Mary's church in downtown St. Paul, 17-year-old Joe met the Rev. Mike Charland, who was essentially on loan to the archdiocese from his religious order. 

Charland ran the retreat, which ended with the priest hearing confessions in a secluded room. When Joe's turn came, he owned up to something he had long kept to himself: He and his girlfriend had sex.

Charland absolved him, with no lecture. But then came a strange, unmistakably sexual hug.

"He was brushing his pelvis side to side against mine and suddenly I realize what he's doing because he's aroused," McLean recalled in a recent interview. "He released the hug. And he held my face in his hands and then he kissed both of my eyes and then he kissed me on the mouth."

McLean said he was so shocked he didn't remember leaving the room. He told his parents that a priest had done "something bad." Their response, he said, was silence. He also told some close friends. But he was too scared and ashamed to tell police or anyone inside the church. 

McLean is one of hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse who have made clergy abuse claims against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in the past few years, forcing it into bankruptcy court. A Minneapolis bankruptcy court judge will hear arguments Tuesday over competing plans to move the organization back to financial stability. 

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

As the courtroom wrangling continues, McLean said he wanted to make his story public. It only happened once, but McLean said Charland's abuse and betrayal made him feel tainted, less worthy than others, and isolated. It contributed to his depression and alcoholism. 

"He kind of singled me out," McLean said. "He seemed to be interested in my spirituality.  I looked up to him. Probably, looking back, I thrived on the attention that he was paying me."

He kept the abuse quiet. In 1998, 17 years after that grinding hug McLean got married. His wife, Colleen encouraged him to speak out, and he did.

"It helped him. It's important to have your voice heard," she said. "There's so much shame with being a victim. That shame keeps so many victims silent."

Colleen McLean has a conversation with her husband, Joe McLean.
Colleen McLean talks with her husband, Joe McLean as they sit on their porch in Minneapolis Monday afternoon.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

In 2002, four years into their marriage, McLean reported his abuse to the archdiocese. But by then, Charland had left the priesthood, married, and was working as a psychologist. He had a job with a youth group. 

Collen McLean said her husband was horrified and resolved to do what he could to keep Charland away from children. "He made it his mission to just make sure that this man did not have access to children and that he knew: we're keeping an eye on you if you continue to try to work with children."

Investigations by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, St. Paul police and Ramsey County Attorney's Office got nowhere. There wasn't enough evidence and too much time had passed for prosecution. 

The archdiocese informed Charland's employer about McLean's report, but Charland continued to work as a psychologist and marriage and family counselor.

In 2015, his former religious order agreed to provide McLean's attorney the names and personnel files of seven priests credibly accused of sexually abusing children. McLean was not surprised to learn Charland's file was one of them. 

"They didn't have to tell me what was inside there. I had the sense all along," he said.

McLean and his lawyer, Jeffrey Anderson, provided MPR News access to the file. One letter said that in the 1970s, Charland was "clearly involved in sexual misconduct with underage boys." Another letter spoke of Charland's "sexual expressions with younger boys."

The file also documented that at least one official with the Twin Cities archdiocese had counseled Charland about his multiple homosexual relationships. McLean said the file shows the church ignored and covered up Charland's serial abuse "every step of the way."

Charland has surrendered his professional licenses and retired but admits no wrongdoing. Licensing boards have determined he had engaged in sexual and other professional misconduct before his licensure. 

He did not respond to several calls for comment.

McLean said he wants a full public accounting from the archdiocese detailing all information about its sexually abusive clergy, adding that he doubts he'll get one. Short of that, he hopes that speaking out will encourage other abuse victims to end their silence.

"I tried for too long," he said, "to kinda, keep it to myself."