A Catholic priest and University of St. Thomas professor has been accused of sexual contact with a 13-year-old Twin Cities girl more than a decade ago, and of then giving her his car when she confronted him about the incidents eight years later.

The Rev. Michael J. Keating, 57, has taken a leave of absence from St. Thomas and did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations, which are contained in a lawsuit filed Monday in Ramsey County District Court. A university spokesman said Keating “no longer is on campus.”

St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who filed the suit, said that his client and her family took her accusations to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis seven years ago but that they were rebuffed by an internal review panel. Anderson said the case, the latest of several explosive allegations to surface in the archdiocese, is another example of church officials in St. Paul protecting the church’s reputation at the expense of victims and the faithful.

The archdiocese did not comment. “We’re not going to be responding to her claims,” spokesman Jim Accurso said.

University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan told faculty and students at the school late Monday that the administration is reviewing the Keating situation and “will conduct whatever inquiries we determine are appropriate.’’

In an email addressed to “members of the St. Thomas community,’’ she said she learned from media reports on Sunday evening that Keating would be named in a sexual abuse lawsuit.

“The news is shocking and it is sad,’’ Sullivan wrote. “St. Thomas has zero tolerance for child abuse and sexual misconduct, and great compassion for all victims of abuse. Please keep them in your prayers.’’

Sullivan urged school personnel not to gossip about the case, “but to engage in constructive and thoughtful dialogue.’’ She said in the email she will be limited in what she can say about Keating because personnel matters are confidential.

The woman suing Keating is now 28, married and living in the Twin Cities. She is named in the lawsuit as “Doe 20” and asked during an interview with the Star Tribune that her name not be published to spare her from more trauma.

The woman, who describes herself as a devout Catholic, said she was hospitalized twice and suffered long periods of self-loathing and depression because the alleged abuse ruined her early teenage years.

“I believe that every child has the right to innocence,” she said at a news conference Monday. “That is why I cannot stay quiet any longer.”

Anderson said that the abuse continued for three years and that it occurred in the woman’s home after Keating, who was studying to be a priest at the time, befriended her parents.

The woman said the abuse consisted of fondling and inappropriate touching, often while he read to her on the family couch, starting when she was 13 and continuing until she was 15.

She said it stopped when Keating left for Rome to study theology in 2000. On leaving, she said, he surprised her by giving her an open-mouth kiss — her first kiss. Anderson said she was so young, she didn’t know the word for it.

“I was abused in the name of love,” she said. “I was abused — and this is hard to say out loud — in the name of Christ.”

She also said that Keating gave her his car — a 1998 red Ford Escort — in mid-2004, a few months after she first confronted him about the incidents. At the time, she said, she still blamed herself for the earlier episodes and viewed the gift as a kindly gesture.

“Now I see it as a thing he gave me to keep me quiet,” she said.

Insufficient evidence

Keating is director of the Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership at St. Thomas and an associate professor of Catholic studies. He joined the university’s full-time faculty in 2005 and won tenure and a promotion in 2011.

Outside the university, Keating has been highly regarded by St. Paul church leaders and was recently chosen to be a speaker in the archdiocese’s important “Rediscover Catholicism” campaign.

A document furnished to the Star Tribune shows that the archdiocese investigated the woman’s claims, beginning in 2006. She testified before a clergy abuse review panel for the archdiocese, but the panel concluded in late 2007 that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of sexual abuse of a minor. The summary of the panel’s recommendations, delivered in writing to the woman, came with a warning that “further release or dissemination … is unauthorized.”

The woman said that she was crushed by the result and that she believed the process was merely a buffer for the archdiocese. “I think they did believe me,” she said, “but Keating was more important to them.”

Anderson said the church then returned Keating to active ministry with no public disclosure of the allegations or the review.

A copy of the panel’s recommendations for Keating shows that the group did not believe his priestly duties should be suspended “given his effectiveness in many areas of his work.”

A summary of the panel’s decision, dated Nov. 30, 2007, showed that the review board recommended that Keating be restricted from counseling or mentoring adolescents or young adults, or from going on retreats with them. He was to “participate in a structured program of coaching with an industrial psychologist or comparable professional” and have his activities supervised, the document said.

Second investigation

Anderson said he wanted to know how much supervision Keating received and whether his work at St. Thomas conflicted with the panel’s recommendations. “How can you be a priest, saying mass and teaching at a college, and not have access to kids?” asked Anderson.

The Chisago County Sheriff’s Department also investigated the girl’s allegations in 2006. In both instances, members of the girl’s family brought the complaints forward, saying she had suffered severe depression that included suicidal thoughts and a 10-day mental health stay at a Minneapolis hospital. No criminal charges were filed.

The woman said she never intended to sue Keating, but went to Anderson recently after seeing news coverage about alleged coverups in the archdiocese of child sexual abuse and alleged child pornography.

“I didn’t want to sue,” she said. “I love the Catholic Church.”