Flynn leaves St. Thomas board amid questions about priest abuse investigations

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2013 - 9:51 AM

The former Twin Cities archbishop is the second high-profile official to quit as a school trustee after questions about the handling of clergy abuse cases.

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Rev. Harry J. Flynn gave the invocation at University of St. Thomas' new president Julie Sullivan's inauguration ceremony on Thursday, October 17, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn. Sullivan is the 15th president and only the third president at the university in the past 47 years.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Former Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis during a time when recently revealed clergy sex abuse allegations were secretly being investigated by church officials, has resigned from the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees.

The private Catholic university based in St. Paul announced Saturday that Flynn had stepped down Thursday, “effective at the end of the day.” The board elected Michael Dougherty, a trustee since 2003 and chief executive officer of Dougherty Financial Group LLC in Minneapolis, as interim chairman. The trustees expect to elect a permanent chairman and vice chairman on Feb. 13.

Flynn served as archbishop from 1995 to 2008, a period during which the archdiocese investigated reports of cases that have recently come to light, including that of the Rev. Michael J. Keating, a priest who has been a prominent professor at St. Thomas. Flynn had chaired the St. Thomas board since 1995. He was succeeded as archbishop by the Rev. John Nienstedt.

University spokesman Doug Hennes declined to comment on the reason for Flynn’s resignation, and efforts to reach Flynn, who now lives in New York state, were unsuccessful.

The archbishop emeritus’ resignation was the third this month from a prominent position by a Catholic leader close to investigations of allegedly abusive priests that resulted in no public discipline or charges.

It came on the heels of the exit from the St. Thomas board of the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who was vice chairman of the board and who until 2008 served as Flynn’s vicar general, the No. 2 job in the archdiocese. McDonough was closely involved in the handling of three controversial sexual misconduct investigations of priests.

Hennes has said that McDonough told fellow St. Thomas trustees that he was stepping down because he didn’t want questions about his work for the archdiocese to become a distraction for the school. He resigned Oct. 4, but that wasn’t confirmed until Friday — the day new St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan’s office confirmed that the school has hired an outside law firm to investigate the Keating case.

Two weeks ago, the Rev. Peter Laird, who had served as vicar general to Nienstedt, resigned from that post after a church whistleblower went to civil authorities with a complaint that the archdiocese under Nienstedt’s leadership has not taken action against priests accused of sexual improprieties.

Saturday’s statement from St. Thomas reiterated that the university has retained outside counsel to lead an independent investigation of matters related to clergy sexual abuse allegations that impact the university.

A Boston public relations firm with experience in handling the priest sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston recently made a pitch to do strategic communications work for Nienstedt. It wasn’t confirmed if the firm, Rasky Baerlein, was the one hired. Rasky’s website lists “crisis and reputation management” as one of its specialties.

‘The buck stopped with him’

Flynn, 80, was a member and later the chairman of the state’s first ad hoc committee on sexual abuse by priests, according to his biography on the archdiocese’s website, “and guided it through the challenging days of 2002-03 as the bishops faced a nationwide scandal.”

Calls to many members of St. Thomas’ 43-member board resulted in refusals to comment or were not answered or returned on Saturday night.

Dougherty, the new interim St. Thomas board chairman, issued this statement: “On behalf of the board of trustees, I want to thank Archbishop Flynn for his many years of dedicated service to the board and to the university.”

Reached late Saturday, Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who handles clergy sex abuse cases, called Flynn’s exit from the board a “superficial gesture” that only protects the reputation of St. Thomas and the archdiocese.

“It’s going to take more than people stepping down from high positions to protect our kids,” Anderson said, continuing his call for the church to identify abuse offenders and details. “More has to be done.”

Although Flynn was one of the top decisionmakers at the archdiocese, Anderson said that he was in a “ceremonial position” at St. Thomas and that he expects more fallout from the recent uncovering of allegations of past abuse. “There will have to be fundamental changes,” he said.

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