Houston Priest Still Working Despite Abuse Accusation
He Acknowledges He Crossed a 'Boundary' with Boy 2 Decades Ago

By Reese Dunklin
The Dallas Morning News [Houston TX]
June 9, 2003

Shortly after U.S. Catholic bishops began a crackdown on sex abuse last summer, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston received a complaint about one of its priests.

The Rev. John T. Keller had allegedly let a deacon's teenage son drink wine on a trip two decades ago, then called the intoxicated boy into bed and fondled him.

Questioned by the diocese, Father Keller denied abusing the youth but acknowledged he "crossed a proper boundary by holding you in a manner inappropriate for a priest," Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza wrote the deacon's now-grown son in January.

For his actions, Father Keller would have to undergo counseling "to ensure he is not at risk for any future inappropriate behavior," the bishop wrote. His job was safe, though.

The priest is one of several from across the country who have faced questions about their conduct but who have remained in ministry since the bishops adopted their new zero-tolerance policy.

Father Keller declined interview requests. After inquiries by The Dallas Morning News this spring, he discussed the claims during Masses at his current parish, Prince of Peace Catholic Community in northwest Houston. Church members responded by giving him standing ovations, diocesan officials said.

Bishop Fiorenza's chancellor, the Rev. Frank Rossi, said the diocese concluded the "conduct that was determined to have occurred did not fit for it to be identified as sexual abuse" under the new policy. He added that there had been no other allegations made against Father Keller.

The bishop, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was among the church leaders favoring the get-tough policy last June at the bishops' Dallas meeting. On the day it passed, he told the Houston Chronicle it was "as strong as we hoped it would be. I think, in effect, it is zero-tolerance."

The deacon's son, a former altar boy who now teaches at a Houston private school, questioned the thoroughness of the diocese's review of his allegations.

"I basically feel like I'm the one having to make the case - not just bring it forth - and defend it, too," he said. "They didn't do anything else."

Applying the policy

His case highlights two central issues in the application of the bishops' new policy: what constitutes sexual abuse under the charter and what evidence would be needed to remove a priest from ministry.

The policy defines abuse as misconduct or exploitation that used a minor as "an object of sexual gratification," even if force or contact were not involved. A "single act" - acknowledged by a priest or found to be credible after an investigation - is cause for permanent removal. Bishops can request that the policy's 10-year statute of limitations be waived in order to remove priests for misconduct from long ago.

But to trigger that punishment, Monsignor Rossi said, "There would need to be some sexual intent or sought sexual gratification."

Father Keller told the review board he had no sexual intent in "holding" the teen, according to Bishop Fiorenza's letter to the accuser. At the time of the incident, the boy was 16 and Father Keller was serving at a parish in Spring.

The accuser said he didn't buy Father Keller's defense: "He put his hands down my pants. How could that not be sexual intent?"

Review board members unanimously agreed that Father Keller "acted very inappropriately," the bishop wrote in his letter. But a majority couldn't "conclude that additional acts occurred that would have constituted sexual abuse."

The bishop wrote that the priest gave the review board a different account of what happened during the camping trip. Monsignor Rossi declined to elaborate on the priest's account.

Since learning of the decision in January, the accuser said he has asked for minutes of the review board meetings and the priest's statements, but the diocese told him they were internal documents.

Two members of the board - chairman J. Michael Solar, a lawyer, and Monit Cheung, a social work professor - said they could not comment because the diocese considered the case confidential.

"I can tell you the cases we have reviewed, we've reviewed very carefully," Mr. Solar said.

The accuser said the board did not aggressively pursue information he and his mother provided to the diocese about two past conversations they had with Father Keller about the incident.

'Love letters'

A few years after the trip, the mother said she discovered in her son's room "love letters" from the priest. She said she confronted Father Keller and told him to stay away from her son, who was still in high school, and to get therapy. The priest responded "he was dealing with his 'problem' in therapy," the mother wrote in a letter she sent Bishop Fiorenza last fall.

In an interview, she said that neither the bishop nor the review board contacted her about her letter. Monsignor Rossi said Bishop Fiorenza took the mother's account into consideration in making the decision.

The accuser said when he was in counseling in the mid-1990s he and his therapist arranged a meeting with Father Keller. He described that session to the diocese's victim assistance coordinator last summer. He told her he asked the priest "if there had been others because he was concerned that his lack of outcry had put others at risk," she wrote in an August 2002 memo to the bishop. "John Keller assured him that he was the only one."


Monsignor Rossi would not say whether the review board or Bishop Fiorenza questioned Father Keller about that session, saying the investigation was confidential.

Monsignor Rossi would not say how many complaints the diocese had investigated or sent to the board, but said the Keller case was the only one "to go completely through the review board process."

"I can assure you there is no diocesan priest in ministry who has any credible allegations of misconduct against them," he said.


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