The Rev. Kevin McDonough, a Catholic official who was closely involved in the handling of three controversial sexual misconduct investigations of fellow priests, has resigned from the board of trustees at the University of St. Thomas, where one of the accused priests is a professor of Catholic studies.

The resignation of McDonough, a former vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, is the second high-profile departure in the widening scandal. The Rev. Peter Laird, who served as vicar general to Archbishop John Nienstedt, resigned two weeks ago after a church whistleblower went to civil authorities with a complaint that the archdiocese did not take action against priests accused of sexual improprieties.

McDonough had been an investigator for the church in those cases.

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

Also Friday, the Star Tribune confirmed that a Boston public relations firm with experience in handling the priest sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston made a recent pitch to do strategic communications work for Nienstedt. It wasn’t confirmed if the firm, Rasky Baerlein, was hired, or what other companies might be competing for such a role. Rasky’s website lists “crisis and reputation management” as one of its specialties.

Was St. Thomas told?

The developments followed a week of allegations that Keating sexually abused a teenage girl starting when she was 13. McDonough was at the center of the archdiocese’s investigation of those claims, which were reviewed by the church in 2006 and 2007, but disregarded.

The case resurfaced Monday when the alleged abuse victim — now 28 years old — filed a lawsuit against Keating.

One of the major questions now surrounding the case is whether St. Thomas officials were told by McDonough or then-Archbishop Harry Flynn about the allegations against Keating, who has been a full-time professor at St. Thomas since 2005. Flynn continues to serve on the St. Thomas board.

Supervision not enforced

According to a November 2007 document from the archdiocese, the clergy review board on Keating’s case recommended that he be put under supervision and not be allowed to counsel adolescents and young adults, or to go on retreats with them. A university source told the Star Tribune on Friday that Keating led students on a study retreat to France in 2007 and has been a regular retreat leader for students since he arrived.

On Thursday, e-mails that Keating sent to his alleged victim from Rome in 1999 and 2000 were made public by her attorney, Jeff Anderson. In the e-mails, which the girl’s mother has described as “quite seductive,” Keating expressed love and affection for the girl. At the time, she was 14 and 15 years old and he was 44 and 45 and studying to be a priest.

New reports on other girls

On Friday, Anderson unloaded new documents showing that McDonough looked into reports in 2006 that Keating also had very emotionally intense and perhaps sexual relationships with two other girls.

One of the reports revolved around an Italian girl whom Keating befriended in Rome. As previously reported, one of Keating’s fellow priests in St. Paul told a sheriff’s investigator in Chisago County in 2006 that Keating had told him about having a “passionate encounter” with the girl in Rome.

According to memos written by McDonough during his investigation of the claim, the Italian girl flew to St. Paul for Keating’s ordination into the priesthood and stayed with the family of one of Keating’s close friends. “A number of people have commented on the intensely connected emotional relationship that Michael Keating and [the girl from Rome] had, and a variety of kisses and other embraces that were publicly visible,” McDonough wrote in one memo.

When McDonough went to interview Keating, he told him that if he had an explicit sexual encounter with the girl from Rome, “he would be subject to immediate dismissal from the priesthood under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” according to the memos. By then, an attorney for the archdiocese had received an e-mail from the girl in Rome saying that Keating had done nothing improper with her, the memo said.

But McDonough wanted to hear from Keating himself, according to the memos. After McDonough warned him about the career-ending consequences of a “grave violation of the Sixth Commandment with a minor,” Keating told him that the words “passionate encounter” did not mean what they might appear to mean on the surface, the memo said.

The McDonough memos released Friday by Anderson also showed how the former vicar general contacted a woman who was leading a “consecrated” life in Michigan who had information about Keating’s interactions with several women, including herself. Keating’s resume indicates that he was in Michigan before moving to St. Paul and was involved in the Servants of the Word, “a Christian brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.”

McDonough was checking out an unconfirmed report that Keating may have had a sexual relationship with a minor while in Michigan, but the woman “clearly indicated to me that that was not so,” McDonough wrote.

But the woman did tell McDonough that she had “a great deal of concern” about a pattern of behavior by Keating that came across to at least four or five women as something special or romantic.

McDonough said he proposed the phrase “inattentive seductiveness” as a description for the behavior, and she agreed.

Memos to have role in suit

McDonough, who is pastor at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul, could not be reached Friday for comment.

Anderson said he will use the memos written by McDonough for corroboration in the Minnesota lawsuit that accuses Keating of harmful sexual contact against his client, which they say spanned a three-year period and caused her severe psychological trauma.