Revered for his work with the poor, McDonough now entangled in abuse cases

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2013 - 9:08 AM

Revered for work with poor, the Rev. Kevin McDonough is accused of protecting abusers.

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The Rev. Kevin McDonough in 2002.

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The Rev. Kevin McDonough charmed legislators as chaplain of the Minnesota Senate. He leveraged his community connections to revive a struggling St. Paul parish and school. On his way to the highest levels of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he gained national stature in helping root out priest sexual misconduct.

Now the charismatic parish priest finds himself at the center of growing controversy and outrage over how the Twin Cities archdiocese handles cases of clergy sex abuse. Newly revealed documents paint a picture of someone protecting accused priests while methodically working behind the scenes to limit damage to the church.

McDonough had a key role in at least three cases of alleged priest sexual misconduct that, combined, have resulted in a lawsuit against the archdiocese, a priest in jail, the resignation of a top archdiocesan official and calls for the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt.

“Kevin McDonough is doing his job to protect his church. Sadly, what he is doing in his job is destroying my church,” said Bob Schwiderski, an advocate for victims of priest sexual abuse who has worked with McDonough for years. “I believe he is a tremendous parish priest, but when he is in his chancery job, he is a much different man.”

Those who know and who have worked with McDonough said the allegations should not overshadow his enormous contributions to low-income residents, including reopening the school at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul in 2001.

“He is very smart and very talented, the guy you always want on your team,” said John Estrem, a former Catholic priest who now runs an agency that serves those with developmental disabilities. “People really connect with him. He is very passionate and faith-driven.”

McDonough resigned his seat on the University of St. Thomas board earlier this month. He was the archdiocese child safety officer until leaving the post this summer. He declined to be interviewed, as did more than two dozen priests, family members and leaders in the archdiocese.

Newly released documents offer a revealing and complex look at McDonough’s 17 years as vicar general — the archbishop’s top deputy and often the one called upon to carry out unpleasant tasks inside the church.

Three priest cases

For eight years, archdiocese officials wrestled with whether a priest in Hugo was fit for ministry. Church officials in 2004 found 2,300 pornographic images on his computer, which was found by a parishioner. A 2012 letter from Nienstedt to a cardinal in Rome noted that an investigator for the archdiocese “concluded that many of the images were borderline illegal due to the apparent age of those photographed.”

McDonough said in a memo to church leaders that he did not deem the images of “likely” minors to be pornography. He concluded that revelations about the images should not prevent the priest from re-entering ministry, so long as “archdiocesan leaders believe he has made the necessary changes to his life.” No charges have been filed against the priest, who is on leave, but St. Paul police reopened a criminal investigation this month.

In May 2011, church documents show, McDonough recommended against informing congregants at Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul about the behavior of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, their pastor. Wehmeyer had admitted “cruising” in areas known for men seeking anonymous same-sex encounters, as well as engaging in unwanted, sexually suggestive conversation with men in bookstores.

McDonough wrote in a memo: “I agree with Father Curtis that disclosure there would only serve to out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish!)”

Wehmeyer is now serving a prison sentence for sexually abusing two children and possessing child pornography.

In 2006, McDonough led an investigation and ultimately dismissed allegations that the Rev. Michael Keating sexually abused a teenage girl in the late 1990s. The victim filed a lawsuit this month, claiming abuse by Keating and saying that church officials were too eager to dismiss her accusations and protect Keating.

“Over the years, I have seen Father McDonough’s name and his actions in the middle of so many of these cases when he chose not to do the right thing,” said Jeff Anderson, an attorney who specializes in suing the Catholic Church and who is representing Keating’s accuser. Keating is now on leave as a Catholic studies professor at St. Thomas.

Anderson said McDonough’s actions and once-private memos reveal someone more concerned with protecting the church than victims and their families. “He persuades everybody he is sincere. But he is often the point person in the coverup,” he said.

Anderson said he initially trusted that McDonough was serious about getting bad priests out of parishes, particularly because McDonough helped develop the first comprehensive guidelines for priest sexual misconduct.

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