A promise of 'zero tolerance' for abusers
In June 2002, more than 200 bishops and 700 reporters arrived at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas.
Over three days, bishops debated Flynn's new policy. The final document, known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, said that any priest found to have sexually abused a child could no longer serve in ministry. The provision became known as "zero tolerance."
"In the past, secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited the healing process and, in some cases, enabled sexually abusive behavior to be repeated." Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People
Despite a wave of positive publicity, it wasn't a noteworthy change.
The Vatican already required bishops to report child sexual abuse to Rome and set penalties that included dismissal from the priesthood. Earlier that year, Pope John Paul II had warned that "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."
The Charter was more of a public promise than anything else, made by many of the same bishops who had just been caught hiding abuse. In fact, bishops decided not to include any penalties for bishops who didn't follow it.
Flynn hailed the Charter as "painful" but necessary. "A bishop would be foolhardy if he did not immediately try to implement all aspects of this," he said.
Victims gave speeches aired live by C-SPAN and other networks.
David Clohessy, an organizer with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, cried as he told the bishops about his recovery from sexual abuse by a Missouri priest.
"I could describe nights curling up in the fetal position and sobbing hysterically while my wife Laura simply held me and eventually having to get up and change the bed sheets because they were soaked with tears," he said. "I could talk about nightmares, depression, sexual problems, about how now, even now, almost every day, I fundamentally somehow feel like a fraud."
Clohessy pleaded with parishioners watching at home not to "settle for cheap talk, for grave expressions of concern. Don't settle for eloquent apologies. Don't settle for pledges to do better in the future...Let's not replace a dirty bandage over an infection with a bright new clean, bigger and broader bandage. That's not what accountability is."
As bishops applauded, Flynn approached the podium, shook Clohessy's hand and told him, "In the name of all the bishops, I want to thank our guests today for coming and presenting so beautifully and giving us much food for thought and sharing those very painful stories," he said.
Clohessy never heard from Flynn again.
Flynn returned to Minnesota as the leader who had once again healed the Catholic Church, while other bishops returned home to criminal investigations and scathing headlines.
Back in St. Paul, the archbishop weighed his options. The Charter required Flynn to remove abusers and report crimes to police. But if he did, parishioners would realize that the archdiocese that claimed to be a national leader on the issue had covered up abuse for decades.
Flynn decided not to follow his own policy. Instead, he worked even harder to keep the problem secret.
Protected by disinterested prosecutors and a state law that prevented most victims from suing, Flynn kept some offenders in ministry. He didn't call police or ask the pope to defrock abusers. When victims came forward, Flynn relied on a private investigator to refute their claims.
Meanwhile, Flynn told parishioners he had nothing to hide. He even told a reporter that he would welcome a grand jury investigation of the archdiocese, though prosecutors showed no interest. "We need to be accountable, and if that's going to help us be accountable, then so be it," he said. "Our grand juries are called to protect our people, and that's what we must all be about."
Despite his rhetoric and reputation, Flynn knew he couldn't manage the cover-up by himself.
A loyal deputy
The archdiocese had more than a dozen abusers in the priesthood, and the nation's most aggressive victims' attorney worked just a few blocks away.
The archbishop turned to his top deputy, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, for help.
McDonough, then 47, was a commanding presence in the Twin Cities.
He served as pastor of St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul, and on the boards of the University of St. Thomas, Catholic Charities and more than 200 parishes. He later estimated that he worked about 80 hours a week.
Everyone knew Father Kevin. He had charisma and personal connections and moved with ease among politicians and parishioners alike.
As the vicar general since 1991, he'd served as the top deputy for Archbishop John Roach, one of the most prominent bishops in the country, and had handled many of the earlier sexual abuse cases. McDonough had been the public face of the archdiocese's response. No one in the archdiocese knew more about the clergy abuse scandal than McDonough.
As the eldest of 11 children, McDonough succeeded at nearly everything he tried. At Stillwater High School, the 6-foot-4 teenager played on the basketball team, edited the school newspaper and graduated valedictorian. In his spare time, he campaigned for DFL candidates alongside his brother, Denis, who would later become President Barack Obama's chief of staff. By age 21, McDonough had already headed a successful political campaign to elect future U.S. Rep. Gerry Sikorski to the Minnesota Senate.
McDonough was ordained a priest in 1980. Roach recognized his potential and sent him to study canon law in Rome, an assignment often reserved for those being prepared for elite positions within the church hierarchy.
A few years after McDonough returned he became Roach's top deputy. He held the job of vicar general for the next 17 years.
McDonough aptly referred to himself as the archbishop's chief of staff. On paper, the vicar general had little power and could only carry out the orders of the archbishop. Behind the scenes, however, he had tremendous influence.
In 2002, he faced his toughest assignment yet.
Negotiating with child abusers
When the national scandal broke in 2002, the archdiocese had at least 11 abusive priests in ministry. At least another nine accused priests had retired, moved to other states or worked in administrative jobs.
Flynn wanted all of the men to remain in the priesthood — and he didn't want the public to find out. He asked McDonough to persuade abusers to retire quietly for "medical reasons" or transfer to less prominent assignments.
One of the most generous deals went to the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, who had pleaded guilty in 1983 to sexually abusing a boy.
In a secret, legally binding agreement, Flynn declared Gustafson medically disabled.
The document signed by Gustafson and McDonough in July 2006 explained:
"Because a priest who is engaged in the sexual abuse of minors has an intrinsic mental or physical impairment which has been determined to be permanent, and cannot now be cured or reversed by any voluntary act of the priest, and because such impairment prevents the priest from engaging in his regular occupation as a priest, such priest will be determined to be permanently and totally disabled under the terms of the Pension Plan for Priests of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis."
As part of the agreement, Gustafson and the archdiocese agreed to not defame each other. Gustafson promised to "take consistent, explicit steps to avoid being identified" as a priest.
In a deposition earlier this year, Flynn claimed that Gustafson was no longer a priest. He said the payments helped Gustafson and other offenders who struggled to find work after being removed from the priesthood.
"What message would it send to the world if we threw these people out in the street without any difficulty, without any assistance?" Flynn said.
Gustafson continued to minister to Catholics, however. Visitation Monastery in Minneapolis lists him as a "leadership development consultant." Last fall, the priest declined to comment when shown a copy of the agreement.
Although abusers remained in the priesthood, their names disappeared from public clergy directories.
McDonough told abusers that he removed their names to avoid detection and bad publicity. "I do not relish the idea of a reporter standing outside of your home, holding a copy of the Directory and claiming that you are being secretly kept in the priesthood in violation of the Charter," he wrote in an October 2002 letter to accused priests.
"I want to emphasize that this decision does not constitute our abandoning the approach of pastoral support that we have been attempting to take. Again, you have been very cooperative and I am most grateful."
The archdiocese set up a monitoring program for abusive priests in 2005. Participation was voluntary, but McDonough used the extra payments as a way to gain compliance. The monitor, an archdiocesan official, would meet a few times a year with offenders. He would ask for the offender's own account of his compliance with therapy, restrictions on ministry and contact with children. The infrequent visits and reliance on self-reports made it impossible for the monitor to verify anything.
An outcast among them
The Vatican AFP/Getty Images file 2013
A priest who'd been accused of sexually abusing teenage boys tried to force Flynn to follow Vatican rules. The Rev. Joseph Wajda had denied the allegations and wanted an opportunity to clear his name. He had already agreed to leave ministry, but he believed that the archdiocese had violated his rights under church law.
McDonough stalled and proposed other ways to resolve the case. At various points, McDonough told Wajda that he could receive extra payments, similar to other abusers, or have his case decided by an informal group of retired judges.
Wajda refused. He contacted the Vatican, and the Vatican told Flynn to follow the formal process. Wajda later lost his case and was told that he would be dismissed from the priesthood. He said he has appealed the decision and is awaiting a final ruling from the Vatican.
The Wajda case also shows that the archdiocese treated some accused priests worse than others.
Wajda had been an outsider in the archdiocese ever since he reported another priest for child sexual abuse in the 1980s. Although church officials claimed that they were grateful to Wajda for reporting abuse by the Rev. Thomas Adamson, the information was used by victims' attorney Jeff Anderson to help persuade a jury in 1990 to award $3.5 million to one of Adamson's victims.
Flynn allowed some accused priests to remain in ministry, but he refused to allow Wajda to visit the Catholic nursing home where his mother was dying, Wajda said. He was finally able to see her when she was transferred to a regular hospital.
By the time Wajda got there, his mother was confused and near death. She clutched her rosary and said, with Wajda in the room, "Why doesn't Joe come and visit me? Please come and visit me, Joe," he recalled.
"That was the last words I heard from her," he said. "I thought that was unfair."
'Credibly accused' priests
No one outside the chancery knew how many priests in the archdiocese had abused children. In 2003, U.S. bishops paid for a study to determine how many priests had abused children and why.
Researchers asked each diocese to provide the number of abusers, along with information about the age and sex of each victim and other data.
McDonough and another archdiocesan deputy came up with 33 names. Those men would later become known as the "credibly accused priests."
The archdiocese used its self-reported number as evidence that the problem of clergy sexual abuse wasn't as widespread as some reporters claimed.
"This stain will be with us for a long time," Flynn told the archdiocese's newspaper in 2003. "Even so, it is just that we not condemn the vast majority of our priests and religious for the egregious acts of the very few offenders, which as this audit and review demonstrates, is clearly the case."
In 2014, faced with a judge's order and media scrutiny, the archdiocese admitted that the list was incomplete. It added another 14 names, and MPR News reported that nearly 70 priests had been accused.
A 'psycho-sexual iceberg'
As the cover-up continued, the pace picked up. McDonough sometimes met with several abusers on the same day. He started to consider himself something of an amateur psychologist and developed his own pseudo-scientific vocabulary, as seen in hundreds of internal memos from 2002 to 2008.
Of one priest who kissed two teenage girls, McDonough wrote, "I believe that it is likely that he did kiss them without any conscious sexual intent, at least in part because he was largely unaware of that dimension of his life at that time."
He said the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer's habit of cruising nearby parks wasn't necessarily sexual. "I do not believe that Father Wehmeyer actually goes to these parks to pick up other men," McDonough wrote. "Rather he likes to be around the environment where such things are happening, since it gives him some sort of thrill." (Wehmeyer later pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.)
A priest caught groping young men in his bedroom did not have any deep-seated psychological problems, McDonough concluded. He assured a colleague that the misconduct was not "the tip of some awful psycho-sexual iceberg but a previously reinforced pattern that now must be changed."
'You're a priest forever'
Jennifer Haselberger, who would later expose the archdiocese's secrets, was working for the Diocese of Crookston in 2006 when she first encountered McDonough's approach.
Crookston Bishop Victor Balke had asked Haselberger to find the Rev. Gerald Foley and tell him that the pope had dismissed him from the priesthood, she said. Foley had been accused of sexual contact with adult women and at least one teenage girl, according to a 2005 letter by McDonough.
Haselberger was surprised to find Foley working in the Twin Cities archdiocese, in apparent violation of the Charter. She organized a meeting with Foley and McDonough at the St. Paul chancery.
Haselberger arrived early so she could review the paperwork with McDonough. She showed him the Vatican decree that dismissed Foley from the priesthood.
Foley "should be given the opportunity to review it, not that I need to tell you this," Haselberger said. "You've probably been through this before."
McDonough looked confused. "Actually, can I take a look at this?" he said, pointing to the decree. "Because it's the first time I've seen one."
Haselberger was baffled. She had assumed that the Twin Cities archdiocese would have asked the Vatican to dismiss many offenders in the four years after the Charter. How was it possible that McDonough had never seen the paperwork?
In private memos, McDonough admitted that he never really understood how to follow the Charter. "Unfortunately, I was prevented by a snowstorm from attending the special training," he wrote in 2004.
When a deputy at the Archdiocese of Boston mentioned that the Vatican had ordered bishops to send abuse cases to Rome, McDonough was skeptical. "This strikes me as a rather odd conclusion," he wrote.
At the chancery, Haselberger didn't have time to dwell on McDonough's unfamiliarity with the process. She wanted to make sure Foley understood that he had committed grave sins that required a serious penalty.
"You are a priest forever / according to the order of Melchizedek." Hebrews 7:17
But when Foley walked in, McDonough took over. He explained that an "external decision" had been made to remove him from the priesthood.
Then McDonough leaned in, locked eyes with Foley, and placed his hand over his chest.
"You're a priest forever in here," he said.
He didn't mention the victims. Haselberger left the meeting in disgust.
Betrayal of victims
McDonough also met with dozens of victims who came forward after the Boston scandal broke. Devout Catholics who sought counseling from the church didn't realize that McDonough was a key player in the cover-up.
Victims described McDonough as deeply pained by the stories. Sometimes, he wept.
Privately, McDonough took note of details that could be used to defend the archdiocese in a lawsuit.
After a series of meetings in 2004 with a man who said he had been sexually abused as a child by the Rev. Jerome Kern, McDonough passed along critical information to Flynn.
He wrote that the man had confided "that he had always remembered the harm that he believes Kern did to him and that he has been 'wrestling with this for thirty years.'
"My guess is that our lawyers would tell us that that sort of an admission would prevent [the man] from ever successfully bringing a lawsuit if there is any kind of statute of limitations on such a suit at all," McDonough wrote.
"I mention this both so that we not be offended by [the man's] emotionally overwrought threats but also so that we recognize that he may have no recourse for help other than what we voluntarily offer to him."
McDonough also maneuvered victims into accepting low financial settlements.
In one case, McDonough went out to dinner with a man who claimed he was sexually exploited by a priest at the St. Paul Seminary. He had already rejected a $5,000 settlement offer from McDonough.
Over dinner, McDonough offered sympathy. He admitted that he had found the priest "creepy" and expressed regret for the man's suffering.
Back at the office, McDonough proposed a strategy to Flynn: "My recommendation is that we would offer him financial help of about $15,000. That way the negotiation moves up from what I previously offered but is still smaller than what he asked for initially by fifty times."
Three weeks later, McDonough sent the man a letter: "After our meeting, I spoke with both Archbishop Flynn and with our chancellor, William Fallon. Although the chancellor, as our chief legal officer, recommended a lower number, Archbishop Flynn asked me to suggest that we make a further gift to you of $15,000, reflecting our acknowledgement of the pain that you experience and that you and I discussed."
The man, who asked not to be named, confirmed to MPR News that he accepted a settlement for about $20,000.
Haunted by a decades-old attack
Some victims couldn't be brushed aside as easily.
Tom Mahowald went to McDonough in 2002 to talk about how he had been sexually abused when he was 11 years old.
Mahowald, then 52, had served as an altar boy for the Rev. Patrick Ryan at Guardian Angels Church in Hastings. One day after Mass in 1961, Ryan asked him to help move some heavy boxes in the church basement.
The priest shut the basement door and grabbed him from behind. "God wants you to do this for me," he whispered into the boy's ear.
Then he pulled down Mahowald's pants and raped him.
Mahowald fought back. As he screamed for help, the priest crushed the boy's testicles with his hand.
A week later, he reported the abuse to his fifth-grade teacher, who told him to talk to the principal. Another priest met with Mahowald during recess and urged him not to call the police.
"All the boys and girls are going to know what happened to you," the priest said. "You don't want that to happen."
Mahowald persisted. He told his parents about the abuse, and testified before a church board. Mahowald's parents believed him. The board did not. No one contacted police or removed Ryan from ministry. The priest died four years later.
Mahowald later underwent three surgeries to try to repair the damage to his testicles. He has been unable to father children.
He wasn't looking for a financial settlement when he approached McDonough in 2002. He just wanted to tell his story. At first, the archdiocese surprised him with its generosity. It covered his therapy bills, sent him to a 10-day retreat in Kentucky for victims of clergy sexual abuse, and even paid his health insurance premiums.
In 2004, Mahowald was so impressed by the archdiocese's response that he asked to interview McDonough on video.
"Were you ahead of the curve on this as far as other dioceses?" Mahowald asked.
"Well, short answer would be yes," McDonough said. "Let me say two very important things so it doesn't sound like I'm blowing our horn."
He explained that the archdiocese had joined with psychologists, law enforcement and people from other Christian faiths to learn more about the issue in the 1980s. He also credited lawsuits with forcing the archdiocese to change.
"Frankly, there's nothing that gets one's attention focused as clearly as being sued," he said.
However, McDonough cautioned that lawsuits rarely provide healing for victims. "Loving, Christian, Jesus-like interaction among us back and forth is what this is supposed to be about," he said.
"Thank you, Father," Mahowald said. "I would just like to say in closing I think you treat me very fairly and openly, and I thank you for taking a leadership role in this issue."
"Tom, I have a lot of respect for you, and you've never treated me with anything less than human respect...I'm grateful for the chance to respond to your questions."
'He played us all'
In 2005, Mahowald approached the archdiocese for a settlement. He thought it would be easier than having the archdiocese continue to reimburse his monthly expenses. He didn't anticipate any resistance, and suggested that a meeting could be arranged with a mediator who specialized in restorative justice. It could be a healing experience for everyone.
McDonough responded by hiring a private investigator to determine whether the 41-year-old abuse allegation could be substantiated.
Investigator Richard Setter interviewed Mahowald on Nov. 11, 2005. He grilled him on the details of the abuse, according to a 56-page transcript.
"So you were pretty much totally nude?" Setter asked.
"I still had my socks on, and then he began to try and enter me."
"So he began to try to penetrate you? OK. And he was trying to penetrate you anally?"
Nothing was off-limits. Setter pressed Mahowald on the details of his genital injury. Mahowald provided medical records dating to 1967, but records from 1961 to 1966 were destroyed by the hospital.
In May of 2006, Mahowald received a letter from McDonough.
The private investigator had "found no credible, corroborating or supporting information" to validate his claim, McDonough wrote.
He explained that the archdiocese would no longer pay for his counseling or provide any other financial support.
"I hope that this information, painful as it is, may in its own way be helpful to you in your process of self understanding," McDonough wrote.
Mahowald demanded a copy of the investigative file, but McDonough refused. He eventually received a summary of the findings.
It showed that Setter had failed to interview most of the people who had information that would back up Mahowald's claims. It said Mahowald had made false statements in his interview. A review of the transcript shows that Mahowald never made those statements.
Mahowald challenged the findings and pointed out the errors in Setter's report, but McDonough stopped replying to his letters.
Today, Mahowald's opinion is that the entire investigation was a sham. "They hired somebody that worked for them to prove me wrong," he said.
And he no longer believes that McDonough's initial compassion was sincere.
"That's about him playing you and seeing how much you have to offer and how faithful" you are. "If he thought you were weak, he rode right over you. Stomped on you and spit you out like you were nobody."
He added, "He played us all."
McDonough's hardball tactics worked. Mahowald never sued.
In 2008, Flynn retired with a glowing reputation.
His secret strategy had been a success: Most abusers remained in the priesthood, most victims remained silent, and no one found out that the archdiocese had perpetuated a cover-up that stretched back decades.