Sins of the Fathers
By Laura Frank
July 25, 1999
The handling of child sex abuse allegations against former Roman Catholic priests Franklin T. Richards and Edward J. McKeown was laden with problems far deeper and more complex than previously reported, recently released police investigative files show.
Those files, plus interviews with victims, prosecutors, government and church officials tell the story of how two sexual predators, sometimes working together, used their positions of trust to gratify themselves.
It is also the story of how church and government officials failed to act decisively to protect other children, once the former priests' secrets began to surface.
Those secrets began in the early 1970s. Richards explained to police earlier this year how he kept the silence of 25 school boys he molested.
"My whole thing was I tried to be so nice that they wouldn't want to turn me in," Richards told Nashville detectives in February. His voice on the police tape recording is calm and deliberate. "If I did something with somebody, I would go out of my way to be extra nice to them."
The tactic worked. For years, none of Richards' victims came forward to tell what he had done. And in 1985, after three victims did report sexual abuse by Richards, the silence and the secrets continued among church officials. For 27 years, the child abuse by Richards and McKeown did not surface publicly.
Even today, after McKeown stands convicted of raping a boy, parts of the truth remain hidden.
As recently as two weeks ago, church officials were offering incomplete and misleading statements about what they knew, when they knew it and what they did about it. And new information surfaced showing Juvenile Court officials whose job was to protect children kept the secret as well. All the while at least in the case of McKeown more children were molested.
After church officials first learned 13 years ago that McKeown had molested children, eight more boys were sexually abused, police records show.
Bishop Edward J. Kmiec declined to be interviewed about information revealed in the police file. So did the Rev. David Perkin, spokesman and chancellor of the diocese.
However, in recent weeks, church officials have made statements to The Tennessean that later were found to be untrue, misleading or in contradiction with other accounts.
* Officials said neither Richards nor McKeown had access to children after admitting their abuse.
But both were still around children. McKeown was allowed to help with the youth group at St. Ignatius in Antioch, the youth leader there said. Richards taught religion to grade school children at Christ the King, according to church records.
* Church leaders said they were unaware McKeown had taken a record-keeping job for the Davidson County Juvenile Court Clerk after he left the ministry.
But records show church leaders did know about the job.
* Officials said the church lent Richards $10,000 to pay for therapy for three victims he sexually abused while principal of Knoxville Catholic High School but that the church paid no money itself to the victims.
Richards told police the church paid an additional $20,000. This money was also aimed at helping the children get therapy but came with a provision the victims must remain publicly silent about the abuse, Richards said.
* Church leaders said they were unaware McKeown had admitted to more than the reported abuse for which they sent him to treatment in 1986.
However, church records show McKeown's therapists wrote the bishop that year that McKeown "in a forthright way acknowledges other sexual contacts and ... is interested in correcting this behavior."
Church leaders were not alone in their failure to do anything that stopped the abuse. Government officials failed, too.
* In 1985, the state Department of Human Services received a report that Richards had abused the Knoxville boys, but police records show the abuse was never reported to them, as policy dictated.
* In 1995, Metro Nashville police mysteriously dropped an investigation into allegations McKeown sexually abused a neighborhood boy.
* From 1990-91 and again from 1994 until McKeown was arrested in January, he worked in the records section for the Davidson County Juvenile Court Clerk, even though the Juvenile Court judge at the time, the clerk and two of the judge's top assistants had been warned that McKeown was a pedophile.
Though there is no evidence McKeown used his job to molest children, he molested six boys between 1990 and this year, he later told police.
"The public needs to know this so no one else has to go through what our family has gone through," said the mother of the child McKeown was convicted of raping. "I would never wish this on my worst enemy, much less an unsuspecting family.
"From the church to the police to the court, everyone failed. They failed these children."
The tranquil green hills of Richards' farm in Williamson County were supposed to be a refuge for the schoolboys who spent weekends there in the 1970s. But to Richards and McKeown, the farm was a place to molest boys.
"They wanted to do rotten things to me," says a Nashville man, now 39, who was brought to the farm starting when he was in the eighth grade.
"I was vulnerable," the man says now. "My family was going through a lot. I needed some guidance. That's not what I got. These guys should have been serving the perfect purpose. Instead, they served the worst."
Both Richards and McKeown would bring kids to the farm in the early 1970s. Later, Richards' family owned another farm near Franklin. He told police the same kinds of abuse happened there. The priests also molested children in such places as state parks, a house boat and parish rectories, records and interviews show.
In interviews with three men who were brought to the farm near Fairview when they were students at Christ the King Elementary and later Father Ryan High School, a similarity emerges in their recollections.
The men are different ages and are not named because The Tennessean does not identify victims of sexual abuse without their consent.
Richards and McKeown confirmed many aspects of these memories during interviews with police.
Each victim recalled a one-room cabin, with mattresses pushed together in a corner where everyone slept. On the porch stood a refrigerator, plumbed so the boys could get cold beer from the ever-present keg inside without having to open the door. Marijuana was allowed. Strip poker was the game of choice for the priests.
Then, in the late night and early morning hours, the priests would prey on the tired, intoxicated teens.
Richards described to police how he would set himself up to be sleeping near the boy he wanted to molest.
"It would almost be like I pretended I was having a dream," Richards said. "... I would be touching them. I would be masturbating against the guy and when I had an orgasm, it was over with."
McKeown was more direct, his victims say.
"We'd all be asleep," said a former Father Ryan student who is now 44. "He would grab me by my testicles. It happened more than once. What he did to me, I know he did to other people. I would say there are at least 30 other people."
Another man, now 43, said: "They'd bring us to the farm starting out when we were altar boys at Christ the King. Our parents didn't worry about us because we were with a priest."
Many of the boys kept returning to the farm, those interviewed said, for the free alcohol and free rein. At first, the sexual advances from the priests were both confusing and intriguing for some of the youngsters.
"It's kind of weird to explain," the 39-year-old said. "For a young adolescent, and this is your first sexual encounter ... at first, it fascinated me in a way. I remember thinking, "Is this what guys do?'
"Then it gets worse, and the wreckage this leaves is devastating. I needed these guys, and they were after me."
Not all of the boys who came to the farm were molested. But the three victims interviewed said the priests seemed to focus on boys who were vulnerable, often selecting those who had crises in their families and needed mentors.
"I know what I was doing was wrong," Richards told police. "... I know there were some horror stories."
Both priests, now in their 50s, were asked to leave the ministry on March 1, 1989, though they technically are still priests. Today, McKeown is in state prison serving 25 years without parole for raping a then-12-year-old boy in 1995. Richards will never be punished for his crimes, prosecutors say, because the eight-year statute of limitations has expired.
Richards, who now maintains computerized data for Florida's Palm Beach County Health Department, declined to discuss his past with The Tennessean.
"I really can't comment," he said. "I've done everything I can do in my power. You just wonder, is it ever going to end?"
McKeown declined a request for an interview from The Tennessean.
During an interview with Nashville police in February, Richards said he had been given psychiatric treatment for his pedophilia. He said the treatment worked, that he hasn't touched a boy sexually in 15 years and that he no longer had the desire to do so.
He also said he had expected to be caught back in the 1980s but then told police he knew, once the expiration of the statute of limitations was in effect, it would prevent his prosecution.
Despite the number of victims the priests took to the farm and elsewhere, neither police nor prosecutors found evidence anyone reported the abuse in the 1970s.
The men who were molested as boys say they did not report the abuse when it was happening for several reasons, including that they thought they wouldn't be believed. They also feared ridicule.
"I wasn't going to say anything," the 43-year-old said. "I was the good A-student, the athlete. I had an image to uphold."
"I wondered what defect there was in me," the 39-year-old said. "Why were they picking me? I have a disgusting knot in my stomach thinking about it still."
The boys' parents did not report the abuse largely for two reasons: they didn't know at the time and didn't want to believe it later.
The first time McKeown was reported came in July 1986. The mother who reported him to then-Bishop James D. Niedergeses did so 14 years after the abuse occurred and several years after her adult son had admitted it to her.
The mother, now in her 80s, said her son's revelation made her search the past for signs of abuse. She remembers her son as a child coming home crying one day, saying Richards made him take his clothes off.
"I thought this couldn't have happened. I didn't press it. Can you imagine?" the mother asks now. "Priests represent Christ on Earth. I had all the faith in the world in a priest.
"In the homily, they would always tell us to encourage our sons if they wanted to be priests. I thought that was my duty. I didn't want to do anything to discourage [my son] from being a priest."
The mother pauses a moment, then adds one last thought: "I woke up too late."
The first allegations against Richards and McKeown that diocese officials say they received came months apart.
In 1984, three Knoxville Catholic High School boys confronted Richards about his sexual abuse against them, Richards told police. Richards said he then reported himself to the diocese and was sent to a Knoxville psychiatrist for treatment. Later that school year, the boys' parents complained about the abuse to the diocese.
Diocese officials never asked him for the names of other victims, Richards later told police.
A secret financial settlement was reached with the three victims Richards told police the sum was $30,000.
He said his psychiatrist reported the abuse to state Department of Human Services authorities, as the law required. Those authorities apparently never notified police, however, so Richards was not investigated.
McKeown, too, was sent for treatment after the mother's talk with the bishop. His regimen included six months of in-patient therapy and hormone treatment at The Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn.
However, there is no evidence that anyone from the church ever reported abuse allegations against McKeown to police or state authorities, as required by law. Prosecutors said they dropped an investigation into bringing charges against church officials for not reporting the abuse when they discovered the statute of limitations had expired.
A year after McKeown returned from treatment, the diocese received another complaint about him. An East Tennessee mother said he'd abused her son. Church leaders said the abuse occurred in 1984. McKeown told police it was in 1985 and 1986. The bishop learned of the allegation by letter from a priest in Knoxville. The diocese attorney, Gino Marchetti, said he was unaware of the allegation until earlier this year. Again, there is no evidence that the suspected abuse was ever reported to authorities.
The third complaint against McKeown came after Christmas 1988, when McKeown gave a schoolboy a condom for Christmas. At the same time, rumors had begun to spread about what Richards had done in Knoxville.
Church leaders asked both McKeown and Richards to leave the active ministry. Both did so, entering secular life and taking their secrets with them.
The secrets almost came to light in 1995.
A Nashville mother suspected McKeown had molested her son in the trailer park where they both lived. A doctor confirmed that the son showed signs of sexual abuse. The mother called Nashville police from the doctor's office.
Metro detective Ron Carter arranged to wire the boy with a tape recorder and have him confront McKeown, hoping to capture incriminating statements. But Carter didn't show up at the arranged time. The mother, whom The Tennessean is not naming to protect the identity of her son, says Carter didn't return repeated calls to his office or pager.
Had police taped the eventual confrontation, the mother said, they might have recorded the confession McKeown eventually gave and it would have prevented other boys from being molested. Police still have not explained why that investigation mysteriously evaporated.
As it was, McKeown slipped away again.
The decades of abuse finally came to light in January, when a 15-year old boy told state child protective service workers that McKeown had raped him. McKeown had begun sexually abusing him in 1995. Police were stunned to learn that McKeown had been given custody of the boy in 1998 after he got in trouble with the law.
Detectives put a recording device on this boy and had him confront McKeown. When they heard his confession, the police knocked on the door. McKeown not only admitted to molesting the boy, but also wrote out a list of names, dates and descriptions of similar abuse starting in May 1972.
He told police about the farm, although he didn't name Richards. But the victims did. They began calling the police department with allegations against both McKeown and Richards after news of McKeown's arrest was made public.
Two Nashville detectives flew to Florida in February and knocked on the door of Richards' West Palm Beach bungalow. At first, he denied knowing much about McKeown. But when it became clear the detectives had talked to some of Richards' victims, Richards began to confirm his own list of victims.
He told police he had expected them to come calling after McKeown was arrested, saying: "I knew my name was going to get brought into it."
Richards told police his treatment cured him of any desire to have sex with children. He blamed the church's dismissal of the priests in 1989 for McKeown's lapse.
"It may be because he didn't have the support to keep that from happening," he said.
While Richards was being questioned by police, the diocese leaders were beginning to be questioned themselves.
Prosecutors from the district attorney general's office wanted to know what church leaders knew about the abusive priests and when they learned it. Letters show the prosecutors didn't always believe the diocese was fully disclosing all it knew.
But if prosecutors felt they weren't getting all their questions answered, the public was even more in the dark.
Perkin acted as spokesman for the diocese after McKeown's arrest. When asked if the diocese had received any allegations of child sex abuse against McKeown in response to a February appeal for victims to come forward, Perkin said no.
When told that ?I?The Tennessean ?I?had talked with a victim who said he had told Perkin himself that McKeown had abused him, Perkin faxed a statement that read: "You ... asked if we had received any allegations of misconduct, which I interpreted to mean recent misconduct which was being investigated."
When asked if there had been any other allegations of sex abuse against any other priests in Nashville, Perkin refused to answer.
When ?I?The Tennessean ?I?learned that the Davidson County grand jury had subpoenaed the records of a second priest under investigation for child sex abuse, Perkin said he could not identify that priest because of "privacy considerations."
However, the diocese later released the second priest's name Richards in response to questions from ?I?The Tennessean ?I?concerning allegations Richards' victims had made. It wasn't until then that the public learned church leaders had known about both McKeown's and Richards' pedophilia for 13 years.
Diocese leaders scrambled to react.
They called meetings with their attorney and with influential Nashville Catholics. They arranged a conference call with ?I?Tennessean ?I?editor Frank Sutherland.
The leaders pressed Sutherland for a printed clarification on the headline of a newspaper story the Sunday before, which read "Diocese stayed silent as molestation reports grew.' The diocese knew of only two complaints about McKeown's behavior, the leaders told Sutherland: The 1986 molestation report and the 1988 condom Christmas gift.
But even then, disclosure was not complete. Church leaders did not reveal a 1988 molestation report or any of the other facts that have now come to light.
Two weeks ago, Bishop Kmiec called a hastily arranged private meeting of priests and deacons in the diocese. There, several priests asked diocese officials to speak forthrightly about what the church did and knew, some attendees later told others.
Other priests asked that church leaders identify a third priest who prosecutors said had been under child sex abuse investigation with Richards and McKeown. This, they argued, would lift the cloud of suspicion from all other priests.
Diocese officials refused to identify the third priest.
Richards, through the tapes of the Nashville detectives, offers an explanation for why he believes the church was silent for 13 years about two of its priests who had sexually abused children.
"A lot of things were different then," Richards says. "People have realized, "Oops, we've been messing up. We're setting people up to be hurt.' It takes time for people to know the right way to do it."
But that, the mother of McKeown's last victim says, doesn't explain why the truth remained hidden for so long.
"For the last 13 years," she said, "everyone involved has fallen down on their moral responsibility."
FROM THE DIOCESE
This is Bishop Edward J. Kmiec's response to a Tennessean request for an interview:
"I received your message regarding documents related to the McKeown case. We have been informed by the district attorney's office that the investigation and the case are closed. Our diocese cooperated fully in that investigation. We continue to offer counseling for any victims and urge any other reports to be given to the district attorney's office.
"I am sure you are aware that Father Bill Fleming, pastor of our Cathedral parish, is critically ill with cancer, and I am deeply concerned for him and involved with his care at this particular time."
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