Jan. 19, 2014: Doubts shadowed St. Thomas priest on the rise

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2015 - 1:31 PM

Documents show the Rev. Michael Keating's career was advancing as investigators gathered information about alleged improprieties.

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Illustration: Robert Carter Special to the Star Tribune

Students wept in the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas when the Rev. Michael Keating took a leave of absence last fall over a child sexual abuse lawsuit filed against him in St. Paul.

Few could reconcile the allegations in the suit — that Keating had abused a 13-year-old girl while studying to be a priest — with the charismatic 57-year-old professor known for his spellbinding lectures and aggressive defense of traditional Catholic values.

When the suit was filed, former Archbishop Harry Flynn and his top aide, who had known about the allegations, abruptly resigned from the St. Thomas board of trustees. The university launched its own investigation of Keating, including why university officials were not told about the alleged abuse, about a church investigation that raised some questions about Keating’s behavior with other women, or a set of recommendations that Keating’s contact with adolescents and young women be restricted.

“That was certainly not on my radar,” said Marisa Kelly, a former dean at St. Thomas who had responsibility over Catholic Studies from 2006 to 2011, a period when Keating was building his reputation in the department even as he was being investigated.

Keating has denied any wrongdoing. He declined to be interviewed for this story because of the ongoing lawsuit, but his attorney has said the allegations are highly defamatory and “thoroughly discredited.” Keating remains on indefinite leave from St. Thomas, and the university said Friday it can’t comment on questions related to the investigation.

Documents in the Keating case, like other recent disclosures about how the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis handled clergy sexual abuse allegations over the past four decades, raise questions about the church’s willingness to disclose alleged or confirmed cases of abusive priests.

Since 2008, the archdiocese fought against releasing a list of priests credibly accused of child sex abuse, before agreeing to do so late last year. It continues to fight a court order to release a more sweeping list of any priest accused of abuse after 2004 because it says potentially innocent priests would be harmed.

Latecomer to priesthood

Keating did not become a priest until he was 46, but he has long been deeply involved in religion. In 1984, the Cleveland native joined Servants of the Word, a lay order of Catholic and Protestant “brothers” in Michigan who took vows of celibacy and dedicated themselves to “helping young ­people live faithful lives.”

Stuart Ferguson, a steward of the group near Ann Arbor, said Keating quit the order in 1995 but was in good standing. By 1997, he was a seminarian in St. Paul and in May 2002, he was ordained.

From 1997 to 2000, a police report said, Keating allegedly fondled the daughter of family friends, often while he read to her on the family couch. She was 13 and Keating was 41 when it began, according to the report. E-mails he sent her from Rome in 1999 and 2000 expressed love and affection.

The alleged victim, now 28, told family members about Keating’s behavior after she entered college. In 2006, she took her case to the archdiocese and to the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office. No criminal charges resulted and a clergy sexual abuse review board for the church concluded in 2007 that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of child sexual abuse.

The evidence is described in memos written by the Rev. Kevin McDonough, then the vicar general and the archdiocese’s primary investigator of sex abuse claims. He used the phrase “inattentive seductiveness” to explain Keating’s relationships with several women before he became a priest.

A priest at St. Thomas who was a religious supervisor to Keating told McDonough and police that Keating told him he had a “passionate physical encounter” with an Italian teenage girl while in Rome. Keating told McDonough that his words “did not mean what they might appear to mean.” McDonough confirmed that the Italian girl flew to Minnesota for Keating’s 2002 ordination.

The memos also include a nun’s report that Keating behaved in a way that came across as “special” or “romantic” to four or five women before he joined the seminary in St. Paul. The nun said a woman in her 20s from Costa Rica was emotionally “bruised” by Keating in a relationship that had become romantic.

While the review board did not find child abuse, its ­opinion, released to the alleged victim in late November 2007, included a set of recommendations that Keating be supervised and limited in his contact with youth.

“The priest is to be restricted in activities in the nature of retreats, spiritual counseling, or mentoring, particularly of adolescents or young adults,” the review board ­recommended.

The board also recommended that Keating receive coaching, that his supervisors be notified of its findings and that a follow-up report be made to ensure Keating’s compliance.

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