Accusers Recall Outings with Priest, Broken Trust

By Jeremy Kohler
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 3, 2003

* The Rev. Michael McGrath faces more allegations of sexual abuse than any other priest in area.

The Rev. Michael McGrath had a reputation that followed him from parish to parish: He was like every kid's cool uncle.

Many who knew McGrath, a priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis from 1975 to 1997, must strain to remember him in a white collar. They recall him in a polo shirt and jeans, driving a van filled with teens to Six Flags with the radio blaring hard rock.

"He was the coolest," said Herbert Alexander Graham IV, 30, who said he was one of many youths whom McGrath took on outings during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Today, Graham is the plaintiff in one of a dozen lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by McGrath. While other priests have been accused of worse - rape and sodomy - no priest in St. Louis has ever faced more accusers.

"I think we're barely scratching the surface," said Patrick Noaker of St. Paul, Minn., one of three lawyers representing the alleged victims.

Wentzville police are investigating two allegations of sexual abuse. It is unclear whether other authorities are considering charges against McGrath.

Almost all of the lawsuits focus on the trips in McGrath's van. Most were day trips: to Six Flags or Busch Stadium, or for ice cream. A few trips were over several days to cities such as New Orleans and Chicago.

"One at a time he would let us come up there," said Graham. "He would be in the driver's seat, but he would scrunch up against the door. He put in a stool between the two front seats, and we would sit half on the driver's seat and half on the stool.

"Then we'd be sitting there using the brakes and gas, and we were actually driving. Then he would start doing his business ... he would fondle (me) until I would get an erection.

"How many times? I would say hundreds ... every single Friday and Saturday, sometimes on Sunday, we were out with Father McGrath going to ball games. There was never any instance when he didn't do it to me."

McGrath, 57, who lives in Richmond Heights, declined to be interviewed for this story.

McGrath has not functioned as a priest since 1997, when the archdiocese put him on administrative leave. In the intervening years, he turned his longtime avocation - mass transit - into a career. He drove buses for Metro, and, most recently, Greyhound.

Many in the St. Louis area know him as a self-styled transportation guru. His strong views on Metro's problems were profiled in the Riverfront Times in July 2001. Some learned only recently - in news accounts of the lawsuits - that he had been a priest.

The accusations that McGrath sexually abused his alleged victims - nine men and three women - all stem from McGrath's days as a priest. McGrath worked for Bi-State Development Agency, now Metro, from January 2000 to Oct. 1, 2001. He was a part-time driver who was laid off in 2001 during a major systemwide layoff. The agency has no record of complaints of sexual abuse against him, said spokeswoman Angela Mabry. A representative with Greyhound, where McGrath worked more recently, said she could not discuss whether McGrath faced any complaints.

There is little variation in the male plaintiffs' accusations against McGrath. Each says McGrath fondled him while letting him drive his van.

One of the female plaintiffs, a 38-year-old woman who lives in Texas, detailed sexual abuse in the van but also at other places. Two other female plaintiffs say they were victimized in 1992 at Bishop DuBourg High School in St. Louis, where McGrath was their religion teacher. They claim in separate occasions he touched them sexually as they slept in a van during a school trip.

All of the plaintiffs have something else in common: None came forward to accuse McGrath until recently.

At the time, the touching "was just a little bit of a surprise," said one of the plaintiffs, Don Clark, 33. "Then I didn't think or do any more about it just because of the trust we had in him. I didn't think that someone in that position would do anything to hurt me."

Noaker said the fact that his clients kept the abuse silent for two decades doesn't make their claims any less valid.

Many of them repressed the memories and are only now - in a time when the public seems more sympathetic to sexual abuse victims - coming to grips with the pain the abuse has caused, he said.

In his suit, Clark claims the abuse caused him to develop coping mechanisms: "great shame, guilt, self-blame, depression, repression and disassociation."

"I wouldn't say I turned out bad," said Clark, a real estate investor who will celebrate his eighth wedding anniversary this month and has two y oung daughters. "But it makes you wonder about the choices you've made in your life and why you've chosen the path you've chosen in your life. How could it not have had a bad impact on you?"

Painful memories

Barbara Klump says the abuse had the worst possible impact on her family. Her son, Christopher Klump, 30, took a fatal dose of cocaine this spring after learning it was too late under the statute of limitations to file criminal charges against McGrath.

Her husband, Allen Klump, in June filed a wrongful death suit seeking unspecified damages from McGrath, the archdiocese and Archbishop Justin Rigali. Her other son, Ronald Klump, 33, in July sued McGrath alleging the priest also abused him.

McGrath was an associate pastor at St. Simon the Apostle in south St. Louis County from 1983 to 1988. Barbara and Allen Klump, members of a different parish, met him in 1984 after he agreed to officiate at their daughter's wedding the following year. Soon they were letting their sons spend more time with him.

"We were a family of 13, and we didn't have much growing up," said Ronald Klump, a single father of three children who delivers cabinet materials and lives in south St. Louis County. McGrath "would take us out to get ice cream. My dad was working two jobs to make ends meet. ... I remember my oldest sister saying, 'At least we know they're safe and out having a good time.'

"We never said anything about it - ever, ever," he said. "I think it was more because we were afraid we would get in trouble."

In 1987 they say they heard a rumor from a relative who was a parishioner at St. Simon that McGrath was molesting boys.

"She called me as the boys were getting ready to go on a trip to Colorado" with McGrath, she said. "She said, 'Don't let the boys go because we just found out (McGrath) is a pedophile.'

"We asked the boys, 'Has he ever done anything to you?'" she said. "They said no."

It wasn't until January 2002 that Christopher Klump, after a failed m arriage, told his parents about what had happened, Barbara Klump said. The three of them were driving in the mountains of New Mexico. Christopher was curled up on the back seat, his mother said.

"He said, 'Remember what you asked me a long time ago? And it was real hard for you to ask?'" she said. "And I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. And he said, 'Father McGrath abused me.'"

The Rev. William B. Ahrens, who was pastor at St. Simon from 1985 until his recent retirement, declined to be interviewed about McGrath. He referred a reporter to the archdiocese offices. Monsignor Thomas J. Woracek, who preceded Ahrens at St. Simon and was McGrath's superior for more than two years, also declined to discuss McGrath.

James Orso, an archdiocesean spokesman, said the archdiocese's lawyers have asked priests not to comment on McGrath because of the pending lawsuits.

If St. Simon churchgoers were whispering about McGrath, their voices were never heard by the Rev. Ronald Chochol, a part-time associate pastor there between the summer of 1984 and January 1987. Chochol said he spent little time at the church, focusing instead on teaching full time at Kenrick Seminary.

Chochol said from his limited perspective, McGrath worked well with kids and seemed to be good at his job. McGrath had his quirks, Chochol said. He played the radio loudly in the rectory. And he was "perennially last-minute." If Mass started at 8:30, he'd arrive at 8:25. But there was no hint of a deeper problem.

If parishioners really knew about abuse, "I would think they would say, 'Father have you heard this stuff about Father McGrath?'" Chochol said.

Never told her parents

The 38-year-old female plaintiff in Texas says another priest witnessed McGrath fondling her in 1977 in the basement of St. Patrick Church in Wentzville when she was 12 years old. The priest walked in on the incident, allowing her to flee, she says. The priest has since died.

The woman, a medical professional who works in the criminal justice system near Houston, never told her parents about what she said were several incidents of abuse. Her parents loved McGrath, she said. A simple phone call made McGrath their hero, she said. When her father was ill, he made a phone call that allowed her father to enter a special hospital program. To this day, the family believes the program saved her father's life, she said.

"If I had told my father about McGrath's abuse, my dad would be in prison today and McGrath would be dead," she said.

Years later, when she became engaged, her parents insisted that McGrath would officiate at the wedding. Her protests seemed illogical, and her parents won.

"That was supposed to be the happiest day of my life, and there he was," she said.

One of McGrath's former parishioners has come to his defense. Thomas Baird of Florissant said McGrath often visited him one summer when he was a teenager in the late 1970s. Baird, who attended St. Ferdinand Parish in Florissant, was in bed recovering from spinal surgery. McGrath, an associate pastor, visited every week to give him the holy communion, Baird said.

There was never any inappropriate touching, Baird said.

"That wasn't the priest that I knew," he said.

"Getting the message"

Noaker said he believes McGrath is St. Louis' version of John Geoghan, the now-defrocked priest whom officials in the Boston archdiocese shuttled from parish to parish even after Cardinal Bernard Law knew of the scores of allegations against him. Many of the allegations against Geoghan - rape and sodomy - were more serious than those faced by McGrath.

McGrath worked at seven churches and a parochial high school in just over two decades before the archdiocese put him on administrative leave in 1997. To Noaker, that indicates a shell game to cover up McGrath's deeds.

But church officials and other priests say it's not uncommon for a priest to be moved around to fill needs in the archdiocese. Monsignor Richard Stika, the St. Louis Archdiocese's vicar general, says McGrath's assignments were not made because of allegations of sexual abuse.

Until recently, Stika says, the archdiocese knew of just one such allegation against him: In 1993, a man came forward and said McGrath fondled him once 20 years earlier, when McGrath was a seminarian.

At the time, McGrath said he did not remember such an incident. He was put through psychological testing and placed on medical leave for a year while he received psychological treatments.

In the fall of 1995, McGrath returned to DuBourg High School as a teacher after a team of medical experts told the archdiocese he was "safe to work with young people," Stika said. The following year he was assigned to live at St. Stephen Protomartyr in St. Louis, where his major a ssignment was helping out by saying Mass on Sunday.

What ended McGrath's career as a priest wasn't another allegation of abuse, but simply the notion among his superiors that he hadn't gotten the message during his treatment, Stika said. In late 1996, McGrath took a group of boys to New Orleans with their parents' permission, sans chaperone.

Another priest heard about the trip, deemed it unwise, and reported it to the archdiocese. None of the boys on the New Orleans trip complained, Stika said. Neither did the archdiocese ask their families if there had been any problems.

But the archdiocese's sex review board, then led by Monsignor George Lucas - now the bishop of Springfield, Ill. - decided McGrath was not "getting the message" and was not using "common sense," Stika said. In January 1997, the committee recommended that Archbishop Rigali put McGrath on administrative leave, removing him from all public ministry.

McGrath was barred from saying Mass publicly and wearing the clerical collar. He stopped getting a salary in 1997, Stika said. All benefits, including medical and Social Security, ceased least year, Stika said.

Noaker questions whether the archdiocese is truthful when it says McGrath's personnel files include only the 1993 allegation.

Orso, the archdiocesan spokesman, said local authorities "have been given all the information we have on him from our files."

"... We strongly encourage any one with an allegation of sexual or any other misconduct regarding any former or current clergy or employee of the archdiocese to promptly contact local police or prosecutors or the archdiocese," he said.

"Why would you ... hurt us?"

Graham, one of the plaintiffs, says he confronted McGrath instead.

Graham says memories of the abuse started bothering him in 1998, when he was a student at St. Louis University.

"I said, 'Father, it's Herb Graham,'" he said. "'Can we get together today?'

"I went down to the main door and greeted him, and we go up to my apartment. I say, 'I want to ask you one thing. Why would you do things to hurt us if you claimed to love all us kids?'

"He looked me square in the face and said, 'Do what, Herb?'"

In 1999, a lawyer who said he was a friend of Graham's wrote the archdiocese with an allegation that McGrath had abused Graham. The archdiocese was prepared to help him with treatment, but the lawyer never got back to the archdiocese, said Bernard Huger, an attorney for the archdiocese.

Graham said after the confrontation with McGrath he moved to Phoenix and tried, but failed, to commit suicide in a high-speed motorcycle crash. In 2000, he moved to Decatur, Ill., where he still lives, to be closer to "my beautiful son, who is 8, who keeps me going."

Clark says the suits against McGrath appear to be the only way to protect children because the incidents occurred too long ago for authorities to prosecute.

"The prosecuting attorney was my first call" after speaking with a friend who is a lawyer, he said. "A detective took my statement and told me about the statute of limitations, that people were coming forward and that they didn't know what was going to happen, if anything. I didn't get the sense that anything was going to happen to him criminally."

= = = =

One priest's path

As a priest in the St. Louis Archdiocese for more than two decades, Michael McGrath was given numerous assignments around the St. Louis area after his ordination on May 24, 1975. Lawsuits filed in recent months allege that he sexually molested boys and girls during three of those assignments.

1975: St. Ferdinand Parish, Florissant

1978: St. Patrick Parish, Wentzville (5 alleged victims)

1981: All Souls Parish, Overland

1983: St. Simon the Apostle Parish, south St. Louis County (5 alleged victims)

1989: St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Pagedale

1990: St. Mary Parish, Bridgeton

1993: Placed on medical leave to undergo psychological treatments.

1995: Bishop DuBourg High School (2 alleged victims)

1997: Placed on administrative leave from archdiocese.

Source: St. Louis Archdiocese


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