Monday, August 11, 2014

Twin cities priest accused of sex abuse on job until months ago

Emily Gurnon
Pioneer Press
August 11, 2014

The Rev. Kenneth LaVan began sexually abusing girls with his first parish assignment in the 1960s, and later threatened to burn down a woman's house and have her husband killed -- yet he was not removed from active ministry in the Twin Cities until last year, according to court and internal church records.

The Rev. Kevin McDonough told then-Archbishop Harry Flynn in 2005 that, while he knew of LaVan's "boundary violations with adult females, I had forgotten that there were two allegations in the late 1980s concerning sexual involvement with teenaged girls."

There were "significant doubts" about the girls' stories, however, McDonough told Flynn. Nevertheless, he raised the possibility of "reopening an investigation into these old matters.

" Flynn said that wasn't necessary.

The details about LaVan's record at parishes in West St. Paul, Crystal, Lake St. Croix Beach and Lino Lakes, among other locations, were revealed through a court-ordered release of his internal church file. Attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who sued the archdiocese on behalf of a man alleging sexual abuse by a different priest, released the contents of the file Monday to reporters.

"The secret personnel file of Kenneth LaVan shows a pernicious 'blind spot' among Catholic officials at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: the stunning and heartless minimization of the sexual abuse of girls and women," Anderson said in a written statement.

LaVan, 81, now lives in Oakdale. He did not return calls placed to a number listed for him Wednesday and Thursday.


Bishop Andrew Cozzens, with the St. Paul archdiocese, said in a statement Thursday that under present standards and protocols, "if we receive similar allegations regarding a priest, we would immediately call the police."

The approach to psychological treatment for priests is different, too, Cozzens said. "We consider it a way to get an understanding of their mental health. A priest who has sexually abused a child may indeed receive treatment, but would not be considered again for ministry, no matter what progress he might make in treatment."

One of the early allegations against LaVan was by a girl who said the priest forcibly raped her at the Church of St. Raphael in Crystal when she was 14 or 15. LaVan served there from 1965 to 1970.

Psychologist Gary Schoener was hired by the archdiocese to examine LaVan. He also evaluated the girl's account and that of another teen, who said LaVan kissed her "passionately," backed her up against a wall, fondled her breasts and grabbed her crotch. The contact began when she was between the sixth and seventh grade, she said.

The first girl said the rape occurred when she was in a room at the church with LaVan, sitting on the floor as he sat on a couch. "Her next memory is of Father LaVan on the floor, holding on to her, trying to kiss her," Schoener wrote in a December 1988 report to Vicar General Michael J. O'Connell. "She remembers pushing him away, and then remembers him on top of her." He put his hand over her mouth and penetrated her, Schoener wrote.

LaVan denied "anything close to" a rape, though Schoener said he believed LaVan was minimizing events with both girls.

"The alternative -- that these stories are fabrications -- seems extraordinarily unlikely," Schoener wrote. Putting him back in a pastoral or counseling role, he said, would be "very risky."

And yet that is what the archdiocese did, after sending LaVan to a seven-month inpatient treatment program at the St. Luke Institute in Maryland.


Schoener's examination of LaVan came after reports of his involvement with several women. An adult parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Lake St. Croix Beach, where LaVan was assigned from 1983 to 1985, told Bishop Robert Carlson that LaVan "became very upset" when she ended a sexual relationship between them.

LaVan harassed the family, "frequently went up and down in front of their house and surprised (her) on the beach," according to a 1985 memo from Carlson to then-Archbishop John Roach. The woman's husband confronted him and told him to leave them alone.

"The next Sunday Father LaVan preached a sermon on those who would not forgive," and asked a fellow priest to invite the woman to the rectory, Carlson wrote.

When she continued to rebuff him, LaVan "mentioned a threat about possibly burning down the house ... 'or have your husband murdered, but I am not that kind of person,' " Carlson quoted LaVan as saying.

Carlson urged Roach: "If we don't want this to build into a real problem it is my recommendation that we accept Father LaVan's resignation from the parish, find a suitable cover story and get him into an in-patient treatment program ... so that this thing does not blow up."

Carlson is now archbishop in the Diocese of St. Louis, Mo.


The archdiocese sent LaVan in 1986 to a treatment program at the Servants of the Paracletes in Jemez Springs, N.M. Later that same year, the archdiocese made him pastor at St. Richard's Catholic Church in Richfield. The following year, he was moved to St. Joseph of the Lakes in Lino Lakes. It wasn't long before he was sent to treatment again, this time for the seven months at the St. Luke Institute. Four days after his 1989 release, LaVan returned to St. Joseph of the Lakes. He was to be monitored; his assigned supervisors were the Rev. Joseph Wajda and the Rev. Richard Skluzacek -- who had themselves been accused of molesting children.

In 1992, another victim came forward and met with McDonough. He also heard that LaVan was violating boundaries with parish staff and that there was an "aggressiveness" in his behavior toward victims.

LaVan remained at St. Joseph's until his retirement in 1998, according to church records. In retirement, LaVan continued to perform priestly functions such as funerals, and he celebrated Mass at various parishes for vacationing clergy. Among those was St. Olaf in Minneapolis.

The 2002 national Catholic bishops conference in Dallas spawned the creation of what is now known as the "Dallas Charter," or the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Among other things, it called for a priest to be removed from ministry after "even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor."

In 2005, then-Vicar General McDonough wrote to Flynn and others that, as part of a review of clergy files in light of the new rules, it became apparent that LaVan was not considered to have abused children -- despite the allegations from the girls.

Specifically, according to a 1989 lawsuit, a woman who attended St. Michael Catholic Church in West St. Paul with her family when she was a child said LaVan sexually abused her beginning in approximately 1960, when she was 12. The abuse continued for five years, she said.

It took place at the parish rectory, the girl's family cabin and at a convent, when she was studying to become a nun. She later settled the case out of court.


McDonough told Flynn in the 2005 memo that officials "did not ever reach our own complete determination about the veracity of the two complaints against him." He suggested that, if LaVan was willing to live by the restrictions of the Charter, "he could do so even without acknowledging guilt ... and we probably would have discharged all of our obligations in his regard."

If he refused, the archdiocese could reopen an investigation, McDonough wrote.

Flynn wrote back in January 2006, saying, "I do not think we should reopen this case again since it seems to have been closed to the satisfaction of everyone involved."

In all, LaVan was accused of sexually abusing at least three girls and several women, including one who suffered from a brain injury and was under psychiatric care at the time of the abuse. Nevertheless, he was not included among the priests "credibly accused" of abusing children as of 2002.

He was removed from ministry in December 2013 only after media scrutiny on the mishandling of sexual abuse by priests in the archdiocese. The archdiocese disclosed his name as an abuser in February 2014.

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