Al Michaud couldn’t believe the reaction.

He had just told the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, that he’d been molested as a teen by a local Catholic priest. McDonough pulled out the priest’s file, Michaud recalled, and began to cry.

The Rev. Jerome Kern had allegedly groped and fondled at least two boys nearly a decade before he had molested Michaud in a pool at the St. Paul Seminary, and the archdiocese had a file on it. As a visibly shaken McDonough apologized, he told Michaud to give him a few weeks to take action on Kern, who was still in the ministry. “I thought I had an ally,” Michaud said.

But when Michaud called two weeks later, he remembers a completely different tone. He said McDonough acted as though he didn’t remember the conversation and told Michaud to pursue the case through other channels.

Michaud was stunned then. He’s even angrier now.

Two decades after that meeting and nearly 37 years after Kern sexually assaulted him, Michaud wants justice — and a face-to-face explanation.

He plans to file a report in coming days with St. Paul police documenting the 1977 assault in hopes that it will lead to criminal charges that could put Kern, now 72, behind bars.

“How many people sat down with Kevin McDonough and told their story and nothing happened?” Michaud said. “I’m angry. … And I’m not letting this go until it’s finally resolved, until [Kern] is in jail and people are held accountable.”

McDonough, who served 17 years as the archbishop’s top deputy, did not respond to several e-mails or phone messages. McDonough resigned in September from the University of St. Thomas board amid questions about his handling of another clergy sex abuse case.

A voice for victims

As the scrutiny of the archdiocese’s handling of clergy sex abuse cases has intensified in recent weeks, Michaud, a soft-spoken, 52-year-old stay-at-home father, has emerged as a face and a voice for victims.

Though he’s shared his story before, he stepped into the spotlight earlier this month when his attorney Jeff Anderson announced at a news conference another suit against Kern, this time for allegedly sexually abusing a boy while working at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina in the mid-1970s.

Michaud stood with a man identified as one of the earlier victims McDonough had told him about. In 1969 that boy had told his parents that Kern, then a priest at St. Mark’s Church in St. Paul, had repeatedly tried to put his hand inside his cutoff jeans and those of another boy during a swimming outing in Minneapolis. The families later reported the incident to the archdiocese.

According to confidential chancery documents and court records, Kern later told the parents in a face-to-face meeting that he hugged and grasped at the boys while practicing “Italian wrestling,” which he said he had learned while studying in Italy. Several months later, the priest was transferred to Our Lady of Grace and later, to Immaculate Heart of Mary in Minnetonka, where he worked at the time Michaud was assaulted.

Along the way, he abused at least 10 boys — five at Our Lady of Grace alone, according to documents and contacts compiled by Anderson’s firm.

“If they do the right thing” in 1969, said Mike Finnegan, an attorney working with Anderson, “most of these kids don’t get abused.”

Kern, who until recently was living in a residence for retired priests near the St. Paul Seminary, could not be reached for comment. The archdiocese repeated its previous statement that Kern was removed from ministry in 2002 and that it will investigate and respond to the claims.

“Sadly, my story is not unique,” Michaud said. “It’s happened again and again and again. And I don’t get that.

“Where does the compassion for protecting the vulnerable people in the parish come in? Why is it more important that you have to cover up for your priests?”

‘Put it away’

Court records show that Michaud’s story started in the spring of 1977, when Kern, supervising a group of Boy Scouts visiting the St. Paul Seminary, separated Michaud from the others swimming at the school’s pool and fondled him for nearly an hour.

Michaud, a self-described “chubby loner” at the time, eventually broke free and swam laps to keep Kern away. But he said the priest wouldn’t let up. “He’s standing next to me in the shower and constantly talking to me and telling me how muscular I was,” Michaud said.

Michaud remembers Kern telling the group leader that he would drive Michaud home.

“I just plastered myself against the passenger-side door,” Michaud said of the “agonizing drive. When the car stopped, the door opened and I flew out.”

Michaud never told his parents, who were devout Catholics. He just “put it away,” he said, and never said a word about it until the early 1990s, after talking with a friend.

“It was like ‘boom,’ my vault opened up,” Michaud said. He wondered about Kern, telling himself: “He’s probably still out there doing this. And if he is, I need to come forward and say something.”

With encouragement from a parish priest, Michaud called McDonough, who seemed to offer hope. When McDonough turned him away, Michaud was stunned.

His sense of betrayal widened after he went to Anderson to pursue a lawsuit that was reported by local media. Within days of the news coverage, a friend called to tell him that then-Archbishop John Roach had attended mass at Kern’s church. He said his friend told him that Roach put his arm around Kern and asked parishioners to pray for the “misguided soul” suing Kern.

Furious, Michaud typed a letter describing what Kern had done to him. He printed several hundred copies and headed to the church the following Sunday to hand them out to parishioners.

“It was a huge slap in the face,” Michaud said, still angered by the memory.

Lost potential

In 1995, more than a year after filing his lawsuit, Michaud reached a settlement with the archdiocese. He got $80,000 and a promise that Kern would be removed from parish duty and kept away from children.

But nearly eight years would pass before that happened.

“It’s like ‘really?’ ” Michaud said recently in disbelief. “Damn them for putting him back out there and putting kids at risk again.”

According to documents filed in the Michaud lawsuit, Kern wrote a letter of apology in 1988 to the families who reported the abuse in 1969. He did not admit abusing the boys but asked for forgiveness.

“I want to say how truly sorry I am to each and everyone of you for the pain and hurt you endured,” he wrote. “I apologize with all my heart.”

Michaud, who is no longer a practicing Catholic, has never received an apology.

Through the years, he has struggled. Once a good student, he lost interest in high school and his grades suffered. Along the way, he wrestled with guilt and shame and he failed at relationships.

“It’s been hard to get this far over 37 years,” he said. He thinks he has “never lived to the potential that I thought I should have lived to.”

That regret, combined with anger and guilt — for not doing more to confront the church — fuels his actions now. Since Anderson’s news conference, Michaud said he has been overwhelmed with calls, e-mails and Facebook messages expressing support.

“My determination to see this through is as strong as it’s ever been,” he said. “I’m not letting this go. I’m not sitting down anymore.”