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SNAP of Tennessee

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee 

Diocese remained silent as reports of molestation grew

By Laura Frank / Tennessean Staff Writer

For more than two decades, the Rev. Edward Joseph McKeown lived two lives. In one, he prayed to God as a Roman Catholic priest. In the other, he preyed on schoolboys for sexual gratification.

The leaders of Nashville's Catholic Diocese learned of McKeown's secret side 13 years ago -- and quietly sent him away for pedophilia treatment that included hormone injections.

But after six months, diocese officials let him come back to Nashville, where he continued to molest children. When those same officials forced him to leave the priesthood in 1989, they sent him away with a $1,300 monthly stipend.

They never told police. They didn't reach out to his victims. They never warned the Metro Juvenile Court, where McKeown became a record keeper.

And in those 13 years of silence, McKeown molested eight more boys, he told police.

Documents that McKeown kept and interviews with prosecutors, police and victims begin to pierce the veil of secrecy that surrounded McKeown's past.

In remaining silent, the diocese officials ignored the law, Catholic policy and ethical principles, say lawyers, ethicists and victims.

Diocese officials had no immediate response to requests for comment. Assistant District Attorney Helen Donnelly, who prosecuted McKeown, did.

"I'm Catholic and I love my church," Donnelly said. "But if (diocese officials) had stopped worrying about McKeown in 1986 and started making the children of our community their primary concern, then we might have prevented the abuse of eight children."

In the end, it was a 16-year-old Nashville boy who finally helped stop McKeown -- wearing a hidden recording device on his body and taping McKeown's confession. On tape, McKeown apologized to the boy for years of sexual abuse and said that he himself had been abused by a priest as a child in Nashville.

Ten days ago -- some 13 years after he admitted his pedophilia to his superiors -- McKeown pleaded guilty to raping and molesting the boy. The former Father Ryan High School teacher, now 56, will spend the next 25 years in prison without chance of parole. McKeown told police he'd spent the past 27 years molesting boys.

The abuse happened in places like state parks and parish rectories. It happened in every town he was assigned to work: Nashville, Chattanooga, Dayton, and Harriman.

McKeown's assignments and hobbies often made it easier for him to get access to children. He was a basketball official for the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association for 15 years. He ran the Catholic youth organization in Nashville and Chattanooga. Even as chaplain to the Harriman police department, he would offer to let runaways or troubled children stay with him at the rectory.

The Tennessean has interviewed several of McKeown's victims, including the victim whose mother first brought allegations about McKeown to the diocese in 1986. All those interviewed said church officials failed to reach out to them.

That is contrary to the principles of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. That governing body in 1985 gave U.S. bishops a five-point response to child sex-abuse allegations that calls for them to deal promptly with concerns of the victim and family members to offer solace and support.

The principles also include following the laws on reporting child sex abuse.

Requests for comment went unreturned Friday from Gino Marchetti, the diocese attorney, and the Rev. David R. Perkin, diocese chancellor, spokesman and one of the priests who knew about McKeown's diagnosed pedophilia since at least 1989.

During the last four months, Perkin has declined repeated requests for comment about what church leaders knew and when they knew it.

"The church didn't do anything," said the man, now 43, whose mother first reported McKeown to the Nashville diocese. The Tennessean does not name victims of sexual abuse without their consent. "It should have been reported."

The 43-year-old said McKeown took him in a camper on a golfing trip to Pickwick Landing State Park in 1973. On the second night, the man said McKeown jumped on top of him and grabbed him by the testicles.

"I fought him," the man said. "But every time I kept trying to move and get away, he would squeeze harder. I never stopped trying to get away. But he was able to get my underwear off and molest me."

The man told another priest about the abuse. Nothing happened.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, who helped write the Catholic church's first report on sexual molestation among clergy, said the Nashville diocese's lack of response to victims and its failure to report abuse to authorities has been repeated in dioceses around the country.

"Even though they should be held to a higher standard, the primary concern has been for the leadership, not for the masses or for the victims," Doyle said.

Joseph C. Hough, dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School and professor of Christian ethics, said he did not know the full facts of the McKeown case, but based on reports from police and victims, he called the situation a "very, very gross moral failure all around."

"If they'd known for 13 years, that seems to me to be morally inexcusable," Hough said. "There's no moral excuse whatsoever for exposing kids to a known pedophile."

Kathy Morante, deputy attorney general for Tennessee, says state law since 1985 has required that everyone "who knows or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been sexually abused" must report it.

"The statute applies to everyone," she said. "There are no appellate cases interpreting this, but it would appear that it doesn't matter if the abuse has ended ... or if the person no longer is a child.

"One of the reasons for interpreting it that way is that evidence suggests pedophiles don't just have one victim."

McKeown told police he had 21. The first was abused in 1972; the last just before he was arrested in January.

Police know this because McKeown made a list of his victims for them, recalling names, dates and descriptions of abuse from memory. As far as police know, no one ever reported sexual abuse by McKeown until the summer of 1986.

On a hot July day, the mother of a former Father Ryan High School student stopped by the bishop's residence. A dozen years had passed since her son had graduated. She didn't learn of the abuse her son endured at McKeown's hands until her son entered alcoholism treatment as an adult.

Even then she had hesitated to come forward. She did so finally at the urging of a friend.

"I told her, what if it's not true? The ten commandments say not to bear false witness," recalled the mother, whom The Tennessean is not naming in order to protect the identity of her son. "She said, you've got to go,"

The mother went. Bishop James D. Niedergeses, now retired, met her in the sitting room with a yellow note pad.

"I told him who I was and all about me and what happened to my son," the woman said. "He said it was the first time he'd heard anything about this. He said he was sorry. ... I never heard another word. I never heard another thing."

Niedergeses, 82, said he remembers the woman's visit. When asked why McKeown was never reported to authorities, he said:

"I don't really have, you know, I don't know. Was that the law at the time?...I really don't think I should comment about this."

He did say he believes the mother made a request.

"If I remember correctly, I did what she asked," he said. "She suggested that he not be given an assignment and he was not. He was removed -- (given) no assignment in the diocese whatsoever."

McKeown eventually was removed from all official duties within the diocese. However, that happened three years after the mother's complaint. First, he was sent to an inpatient treatment center called The Institute of Living in Hartford, Ct.

Parishioners at the church where he served at the time, Blessed Sacrament in the East Tennessee town of Harriman, were told he was taking a leave of absence. They were not told why. No one interviewed in Harriman had known of sex-abuse allegations against McKeown while he served there.

"Everyone was asking me why he left," said Jane Palko, who attends Blessed Sacrament and was one of the parishioners closest to McKeown. "Father never told me. Everyone has been asking people who would have been young at the time he was here what happened. Everyone is shocked."

When McKeown returned from about six months of treatment, he was assigned to co-direct the Renew Program for strengthening Catholic adults' faith. His therapists at the treatment center told diocese officials he should not have contact with children.

However, McKeown was assigned to live in the rectory at St. Ignatius church in Antioch, where children were continually present. McKeown worked with the Renew Program until he was forced to leave the priesthood March 1, 1989. He did not tell police what sparked his dismissal.

When asked, Donnelly, the prosecutor, said she could not reveal the reason because it was learned through secret grand jury proceedings.

What is known: The diocese gave McKeown choices for how he would leave. According to records obtained by police, McKeown said he was given the choice of:

• Requesting laicization, a formal process by which a priest petitions officials in Rome to formally end his priesthood.

• Requesting a leave of absence.

• Being transfered to another diocese.

• Simply taking inactive status.

McKeown chose the last, but not readily. He wanted money to live on. The diocese agreed to give him monthly payments of $1,300, which included $700 "in lieu of salary," $400 for housing and $200 for food.

"I think they saw this as their duty to help him stay on his feet until he could get his own job," Donnelly said.

By February 1990, McKeown was working as a record keeper at Metro Juvenile Court. Police found no evidence his new employers knew about his other life.

Neither did state officials know when they granted McKeown temporary custody of a troubled boy last year. It was that boy whom McKeown later admitted raping and molesting, starting when the boy was 12 and continuing for four years.

Then, one day in January, police waited near McKeown's house as the boy confronted him about the abuse. McKeown admitted what he'd done was wrong, and told the boy that he, too, had been abused by a priest as a child.

When the police came to his house, McKeown was ready to talk. They wanted to know about the boy he'd just admitted abusing. McKeown told them that to understand the whole story, he'd have to start more than two decades earlier.

"He laid out everything," Donnelly said. "I think he was just tired of living that double life."