Isaac Henson was monitoring recent reports of sexual misconduct by Twin Cities Catholic music composer David Haas when he ran across disturbing information about an adult leader at the summer music program run by Haas at St. Catherine University.
A retired priest who was a regular at the weeklong program, George DeCosta, had been sued by at least six men for alleged child sexual abuse in his home state of Hawaii, Henson learned, with the first lawsuit filed in 2012. An attorney for the men said five of the cases have been settled.
“I distinctly remember [DeCosta] at morning prayer, evening prayer, sitting up front,” said Henson, who attended the Music Ministry Alive (MMA) program as a high school student from 2015 to 2017. “How was that allowed to happen?”
Henson is among 113 former MMA participants, parents and team leaders who have sent a petition to St. Catherine’s, seeking “transparency and accountability” for Haas’ alleged behavior and DeCosta’s presence in the program held on its campus in St. Paul. They’re also seeking explanations from Music Ministry Alive, which drew more than 2,200 students from 1999 to 2017.
The petition, spearheaded by Henson and two other former student participants, reflects the ongoing fallout from the recent reports of sexual misconduct allegations against Haas, one of the nation’s most popular composers of Catholic liturgical music. He also taught at Benilde-St. Margaret’s school in St. Louis Park and was composer-in-residence at the St. Paul Seminary.
The number of women stepping forward to report sexual advances has ballooned to 41, said Stephanie Krehbiel, director of Into Account, a Kansas-based victims’ advocacy group that is fielding reports. About half the reported incidents allegedly occurred at Catholic music events in Minnesota, she said.
Haas issued a public apology in July, saying that he was receiving “professional intervention and treatment.”
“I have come to realize that I have caused great harm to a variety of people,” Haas wrote. “I make no excuses for any harm that I may have caused. I take responsibility for my behavior and I am truly sorry.”
St. Catherine University has announced an independent investigation into ties between Haas, MMA and the university. And the list of Catholic institutions that have stopped performing Haas’ music — popular standards in Catholic hymn books — continues to grow.
For the tens of thousands of music enthusiasts who attended Haas’ concerts and workshops across the country over the years, the events have spawned deep and mixed emotions. Many are angry that so many young women may have been subjected to sexual advances. But they’re also saddened by the stain on beloved Haas hymns such as “Blest Are They” and “You are Mine,” which have drawn nearly 4 million and 10 million YouTube listeners respectively.
“It’s been a betrayal of trust,” said Audrey Carbine, the mother of a former student from the Baltimore area.
“David Haas was a gifted composer, and Music Ministry Alive was a wonderful program,” said Carbine, a parent who signed the petition. “This is another example of faith leaders revealed to be weak.”
The discovery of DeCosta’s history added another layer of dismay for victims’ advocates and the former MMA students who had seen the priest at prayers, concerts and meals shared by adults and students at Music Ministry Alive.
The Honolulu Diocese had stripped DeCosta of his priestly functions, such as celebrating Mass, in 2009 following a credible allegation of child sexual abuse, the diocese reports.
Since then, at least six men have filed lawsuits against the diocese alleging they were sexually abused as boys by DeCosta, said their California-based attorney Mike Reck. Settlements have been reached in five cases, he said.
Nonetheless, DeCosta, a friend of Haas, was a frequent participant in MMA’s adult program. In 2012, for example, he was listed on its website under “Meet the Team.”
“George DeCosta is a retired priest in the Diocese of Honolulu, Hawaii, and has served as a member of the Adult Track team for many years at MMA,” it said.
DeCosta’s participation in the 2012 conference “was completely without the permission of Bishop [Larry] Silva,” said Msgr. Gary Secor, vicar general of the Honolulu Diocese. “From 2009 on, he was prohibited from activities that put him in contact with minors as part of his temporary and then permanent suspension.”
Haas and Lori True, the former assistant director of MMA, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that they were unaware of the abuse allegations until after DeCosta’s program involvement.
Even then, “it was Haas’ understanding that they were allegations and nothing more,” said the e-mail. “Fr. DeCosta can confirm this information.”
Haas added that DeCosta “was never convicted of any of these allegations.”
The Star Tribune was unable to reach DeCosta, 82, in Hawaii. But he has maintained his innocence, according to an April 26, 2016, story in the Honolulu Civil Beat, an online investigative journalism news organization. The Honolulu Diocese announced last week that he had been laicized by Pope Francis in July, meaning he no longer is a priest.
Gap in oversight?
The women reporting sexual advances by Haas allege that forced kissing, groping and other sexual improprieties stretched back more than 30 years, Krehbiel said. She and other victims’ rights advocates are asking whether anyone noticed and whether there were policies in place that could have protected the women and halted the alleged behavior.
For MMA’s part, Haas said its policy required adult participants to show proof of completing the online child-abuse prevention program Virtus or its equivalent. St. Catherine University does not have a background check policy for independent groups using its campus, said Toccara Stark, vice president of marketing and communication. She said that whether such a policy existed in the past is something investigators will probe.
Former MMA team leaders say Haas’ ministry was in a particularly gray area for oversight, as MMA’s assistant director, True, was also St. Catherine’s director for liturgy and music, and MMA’s address on federal tax forms was a mailbox at St. Catherine’s.
Likewise, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said it is not required to provide oversight to people not employed by the archdiocese. That said, after receiving a report of sexual misconduct by Haas in 1987, and two more in 2018, the archdiocese declined to give Haas a letter of recommendation.
Background checks for adults working in religious settings but not employed there seem to be a “no man’s land” of safety policies, advocates say.
“There seem to be gaps in protecting children,” said Laurie Delgatto-Whitten, a former team member at MMA and volunteer for Into Account. “For a university not to have something in place for a camp where young people spend the night seems irresponsible.”
The archdiocese acknowledged the gray area.
“The Haas matter illustrates the challenges of responding to allegations of inappropriate behavior by lay persons who work with Catholic groups, especially when they are self-employed,” the archdiocese said in a June 16 statement.
In the months ahead, Into Account plans to release a report on the Haas allegations, and St. Catherine University said it expects to complete its investigation.
Musicians such as Zack Stachowski, director of music and liturgy at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Rochester, are among those watching. The former student and team leader at MMA said people across the country are monitoring developments.
“People need to be held accountable,” Stachowski said.