LA Mesa's Pedophile Priest: How John Keith Went to Grave Denying Abuse

By Ken Stone and Annie Lane
The Patch
March 5, 2012

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

Previously confidential document released as part of settlement. Credit:

[with video]

[Document 1]

[Document 2]

Sandusky at Penn State. Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. A 60 Minutes episode on the pedophile priest scandal in Ireland.

Recent cases of child sex abuse at the hands of trusted adults are tragically sad, but seem far removed from the Jewel of the Hills. But in the 1980s, a priest at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church may have been the Jerry Sandusky of La Mesa.

The Rev. John Keith, who later served as a chaplain at Grossmont Hospital, went to his grave denying he had molested an altar boy named Jeremy Norton.

A year before his death in May 2003, Keith told the Union-Tribune: "I swear to God none of this happened. But I have an idea [Jeremy] was convinced it happened, by his mother."

Norton, then 29, told the paper: "I remember once we were in the car, and he put his hand against my crotch. It got worse."

A lawsuit against the San Diego County Roman Catholic diocese was eventually settled out of court, but it alleged Keith once took 12-year-old Jeremy out of class in 1985 without his mother's knowledge and bought gifts for him at Toys R Us in La Mesa.

"Once alone ... the boy was forced to fondle the priest," The U-T reported in May 2002. "The family said Keith molested the boy several times, although their lawsuit refers to only one instance."

But in October 2010, in a nearly $200 million settlement, the local diocese released about 10,000 pages of documents related to priests accused of molesting 144 children.

Nearly 150 pages were about the Rev. John Charles Keith, who died at age 77.

The documents (attached) paint a picture of a tortured soul—and a recurring target of complaints for not paying his bills—who was sent to a Maryland mental hospital known for treating pedophile priests.

He also underwent dozens of counseling sessions in 1993-1994 with a La Jolla psychiatrist.

Even, so he was banned from certain ministries in December 2002.

"Since 1993, several adults have made allegations of sexual abuse against you," then Bishop Robert Brom wrote Keith. "As you know, you were sent for evaluation and treatment at Saint Luke Institute in 1993."

In light of its report, Brom said, and in accord with church policies, Keith was barred from celebrating Mass or administering the sacraments and ordered not to wear clerical garb or present himself publicly as a priest.

"I appreciate your cooperation in abiding by these directives and I encourage you to continue to lead a life of prayer and penance as reparation for your past misconduct," Brom wrote.

In his May 2002 interview with the U-T, Keith said: "I'm old. I'm getting ready to die. I'm not a bad person. If I was evil, if I was planning to hurt people it would be different. But I'm not and I didn't do those things."

But in confidential documents released eight years later, a May 1994 handwritten note from Keith asking permission to be a prison chaplain.

Keith wrote Bishop Brom: "Having discussed this with Dr. [Peter] McDade and knowing my sincere desire to make amends for past mistakes, I was encouraged to write you to offer my help."

Two days later, the letter was marked "refused."

Contacted by Patch last year, McDade said he wouldn't comment on a confidential patient-doctor relationship.

Keith also lived and worked at Little Flower Haven, an assisted living retirement home on La Mesa Boulevard.

In June 1982, according to documents released in the lawsuit, Bishop Leo T. Maher wrote Keith: "I am pleased to appoint you chaplain for Little Flower Haven, Grossmont, Alvarado and Kaiser hospitals effective August 1, 1982. You will have residence in Little Flower Haven."

The Rev. James Poulsen has been at St. Martin of Tours since 2005, but recently said: "I don't know the man [Keith] at all. I've been here for six years as I said; he was here back in the '80s. I don't even know the situation. I don't even know if he's living or not."

In light of the letters to Keith where other priests offered prayers, and forgiveness, should this priest have been forgiven for particular acts?

"Yes, that's the basis of our whole religion—is that we believe we can be forgiven," Pastor Poulsen said last year. "We believe in a merciful God and each person has to approach God on his own."

Poulsen noted the scandal at Penn State, and said: "It shows us that [molestation is] a social problem, not a problem of any particular religion or institution. It's very pervasive."

He said: "One in four girls are molested sexually before they reach the age of 18. One in six boys are. And that's the cost of society, the culture we live in."

Poulsen said his parish "saw no decline whatsoever in income or offerings or in attendance" as a result of the Jeremy Norton scandal.

Asked what Poulsen would do if molestation occurred on his watch, he said: "I don't want to deal with hypotheticals, OK? I would do my best. I would act as wisely and as mercifully as I possibly can for everybody involved."

Later he said: "There are reporting laws; I would certainly have to comply with those. But I would act as wisely as I could."

Why does child molestation happen?

"I have no idea," said Poulsen, a priest for 43 years. "I just believe that it's pervasive in our culture and in many other cultures as well. I think probably globally."

Are there warning signs, or did this come out of the blue?

"Every case is different," Poulsen said. "Sometimes there are warning signs; sometimes there aren't. Sometimes it just happens that it comes to light, like at Penn State."

He was asked what consequences the Jeremy Norton case had for the La Mesa church.

"I'm not sure. There were probably many," he said. "It would depend on people's opinions. I can't speak for everybody who was affected by this [incident], every parishioner―they all react differently, they're all individuals. So are the priests."

But he said: "Whenever there's a scandal of any sort, of any organization, there are consequences and a period of healing."


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