Catholic students torn over allegations

Recent allegations against church leaders have left students looking for answers.

University of Minnesota students and student groups have a wide range of reactions surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct and a possible coverup of child pornography claims among Catholic Church leaders.

Image by Lisa Persson

University of Minnesota students and student groups have a wide range of reactions surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct and a possible coverup of child pornography claims among Catholic Church leaders.

by Alexi Gusso

Following recent sexual abuse allegations against a prominent local Catholic priest, Catholic University of Minnesota students and student groups are seeking truth and accountability.

Rev. Michael Keating of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been sued for allegedly engaging in “multiple instances of unpermitted, harmful, and offensive sexual contact,” with an unnamed plaintiff while she was a minor, according to court summons.

The case follows recent allegations that church officials ignored or concealed issues brought to them regarding two other priests accused of possessing child pornography, one of whom has been convicted for abusing two children, according to a Minnesota Public Radio investigation.

Biochemistry and microbiology freshman Benji Schuneman said hearing about the allegations against Keating “hits a little close to home.”

Schuneman, who attended Catholic elementary and high schools in the Twin Cities, said he never knew Keating personally but had heard of him.

University law student Jacob Rhein said he’s “very close friends” with Keating and has lived with him for months at a time. Keating has also spoken at the University’s law school.

“I have great confidence in his character and integrity,” said Rhein, who is the event planning coordinator for the student group Saint Thomas More Real Catholic Club and Pre-Saint Society.

“We are ready to stand by him,” Rhein said.

The case against Keating, filed Oct. 13, alleges he inappropriately touched the woman multiple times, beginning when she was 13. The woman, now in her late 20s, is referred to only as Jane Doe 20. According to the court summons, the alleged abuse occurred from approximately 1997 to 2000, while Keating was a seminary student. The day before the suit was filed, Keating went on leave from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he is an associate professor of Catholic studies. His attorney has denied the allegations.

Earlier this month, following the MPR investigation, Archbishop John Nienstedt established a task force to examine clergy sexual conduct issues.

Elizabeth Gorecki, president of the University student group Catholic Medical Association, said that upon learning of the allegations against Keating, she was happy with the archdiocese’s quick response.

Gorecki said she was motivated to “seek the truth” about the situation and how the allegations are being handled.

“I think controversies or suffering or any adversity in life is definitely a time to really look into why one’s involved in the church,” Gorecki said.

She said her group would likely look into and discuss the complaints filed by the county, the plaintiff’s statement and recordings from press conferences, among other materials.

“My hope is that healing and peace can be brought to both sides in whatever comes of the situation,” Gorecki said.

Choosing ‘defensiveness’

In situations of alleged abuse, many Catholics “choose defensiveness regarding their faith over applying the principles of their faith to the survivor’s experience,” said Terence McKiernan, a church-going Catholic and president of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit, which logs incidents of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church across the country.

The defensiveness comes from feeling backed into a corner, he said, because as a “believing Catholic, there is no other place you can obtain the Eucharist except the Catholic Church.”

Jeff Anderson, the prosecuting attorney in the Keating case, said large groups have historically rallied around the accused in similar incidents. But in Keating’s case, Anderson said, he sees a “change in the mood of the public.”

He said that he’s seen less hate mail and fewer death threats in this case than in other similar ones he’s prosecuted, and that he thinks the attitude shift comes from the “great weight of evidence that’s been revealed.”

McKiernan agreed that the evidence being presented in the Keating case could be one reason Anderson has seen a muted reaction.

“This [case] is kind of opening the door into a very intimate situation that I think people shy away from,” McKiernan said, specifically referencing personal emails Keating sent to Doe 20 that Anderson’s office released Oct. 17.

‘Culturally Catholic’

University psychology and linguistics junior Marissa Cerone said she used to be more serious about her Catholicism. But now, she said, it’s more of a “cultural experience” for her rather than a religious one.

“I think the only way for the church to bring back people like myself … is to stop focusing on putting down the people who don’t openly support [it],” Cerone said.

Schuneman, the biochemistry and microbiology freshman, said that while he was growing up, his family would discuss controversies and allegations similar to Keating’s “with disgust.”

“It really made me question the church as a whole,” he said.

Schuneman said he still considers himself Catholic but hasn’t attended mass since coming to the University.

Cerone said she feels incidents like the allegations against Keating push church members to “reestablish [the church] as a force for good in the world” and push the religion toward a more socially-aware approach.

“People that are looking for a reason to move away from the church find scandal as a way to do that,” Rhein said, “and people who are trying to run toward the church see this as a way to do that as well.”

Church reaction

McKiernan said the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has already tried multiple times to stop abuse, with revisions of its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

But recent cases in the Twin Cities and elsewhere have shown minimal tangible improvements, he said.

In this lawsuit, “the leadership has more investment in the priests than in the Catholic community,” he said, adding that this is “exactly the kind of behavior that we’ve been told has been remedied.”

The reaction to the Keating case could also be different because the plaintiff is female, McKiernan said.

According to a 2010 report from the John Day College of Criminal Justice, 81 percent of minors sexually abused by members of the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2002 were male.

“There’s a general feeling that this doesn’t happen to girls,” McKiernan said. People “take a step back” when a case with a female plaintiff gets attention, he said.

McKiernan said the internal evidence coming out of the Archdiocese’s own investigation into the complaint to church officials in 2006 against Keating indicates there has been some action to prevent this type of abuse.

Anderson, the prosecuting attorney, said the church doesn’t evolve on its own. Instead, he said, it needs to be watched over to make sure that “there’s growth, there’s shame, and from that there can be positive changes.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.