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.
Occasionally, Anderson said, he would notify McDonough when someone came in with credible claims of clergy abuse that were not headed to litigation.
McDonough would come over and take down all the information, expressing sadness and concern, Anderson said.
In the end, Anderson said he came to believe that McDonough was most concerned with using the information to quiet victims and limit the church’s potential exposure.
“It’s a paradox in a sense that he has an authenticity and sincerity to him that makes him warm and makes you respect him,” Anderson said. “And then it so contradicts some of his actions, that are so different from the man you see and think you know.”
Deep St. Paul roots
McDonough’s family has a supersized footprint in the local Catholic faith, around the Twin Cities and even in national politics.
The oldest of 11 children, McDonough is head pastor at the small, diverse Church of St. Peter Claver. He has served as grand marshal of St. Paul’s famed St. Patrick’s Day parade. His brother, Denis, is President Obama’s chief of staff.
McDonough is gregarious and moves easily among his parishioners, who include many African immigrants. At 58, he has wispy, gray hair and engaging eyes that lock in for even a casual greeting. “I am Father Kevin,” he says to guests, between hugs, high-fives and handshakes.
During the 10 a.m. mass last weekend, McDonough said he planned to address “this archdiocesan leadership crisis.” Immediately after, he convened a private meeting with the parish. Journalists were not welcome. “This is a family conversation,” he said.
Those in the 30-minute meeting said that someone asked McDonough if he has a clear conscience about his actions. He told them he does.
One Twin Cities priest said McDonough faced an unfathomable burden of having to be obedient to the archbishop, protect the church and still heal victims of abuse. He believes McDonough failed to understand the severity of the problems he was confronting among priests who needed serious professional help.
“He’s a cocky guy, and I think he thought he was smarter than these psychopaths and narcissists,” said the Rev. Mike Tegeder, a Minneapolis pastor. “But you can’t outsmart them. They know what they are doing.”
A victim’s story
One victim of priest sexual abuse praises McDonough as someone who displayed tireless dedication to her healing.
Nancy Galatowitsch said that beginning at age 12, she was sexually abused repeatedly by the pastor of St. John Vianney, in South St. Paul. She said that the priest also had sexual relationships with adult women.
Around 1993, Galatowitsch became overwhelmed by a flood of emotions from the abuse. She called McDonough and told him what happened several decades before.
The offending priest had been dead for years, but McDonough assured her that the archdiocese would pay for her therapy and medication.
For seven years, the archdiocese paid every bill.
“Father Kevin saved my life,” said Galatowitsch, 77, who now lives in Brainerd.
McDonough last week did not dispute her account.
Last year, Galatowitsch’s mother died. She wanted to have her funeral at St. John Vianney.
Galatowitsch called McDonough out of the blue and told him of her mother’s wishes — along with a lingering, paralyzing concern of her own. She could not bear to see any picture or other evidence of the priest who had caused her such torment.
When they came for the funeral, church officials had scrubbed any sign of the priest.
His picture had been removed, Galatowitsch said. Even the nail.
If only for one day, she said, it was like the priest who caused so much heartache in her family never existed.