Former Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis during a time when recently revealed clergy sex abuse allegations were secretly being investigated by church officials, has resigned from the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees.
The private Catholic university based in St. Paul announced Saturday that Flynn had stepped down Thursday, “effective at the end of the day.” The board elected Michael Dougherty, a trustee since 2003 and chief executive officer of Dougherty Financial Group LLC in Minneapolis, as interim chairman. The trustees expect to elect a permanent chairman and vice chairman on Feb. 13.
Flynn served as archbishop from 1995 to 2008, a period during which the archdiocese investigated reports of cases that have recently come to light, including that of the Rev. Michael J. Keating, a priest who has been a prominent professor at St. Thomas. Flynn had chaired the St. Thomas board since 1995. He was succeeded as archbishop by the Rev. John Nienstedt.
University spokesman Doug Hennes declined to comment on the reason for Flynn’s resignation, and efforts to reach Flynn, who now lives in New York state, were unsuccessful.
The archbishop emeritus’ resignation was the third this month from a prominent position by a Catholic leader close to investigations of allegedly abusive priests that resulted in no public discipline or charges.
It came on the heels of the exit from the St. Thomas board of the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who was vice chairman of the board and who until 2008 served as Flynn’s vicar general, the No. 2 job in the archdiocese. McDonough was closely involved in the handling of three controversial sexual misconduct investigations of priests.
Hennes has said that McDonough told fellow St. Thomas trustees that he was stepping down because he didn’t want questions about his work for the archdiocese to become a distraction for the school. He resigned Oct. 4, but that wasn’t confirmed until Friday — the day new St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan’s office confirmed that the school has hired an outside law firm to investigate the Keating case.
Two weeks ago, the Rev. Peter Laird, who had served as vicar general to Nienstedt, resigned from that post after a church whistleblower went to civil authorities with a complaint that the archdiocese under Nienstedt’s leadership has not taken action against priests accused of sexual improprieties.
Saturday’s statement from St. Thomas reiterated that the university has retained outside counsel to lead an independent investigation of matters related to clergy sexual abuse allegations that impact the university.
A Boston public relations firm with experience in handling the priest sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston recently made a pitch to do strategic communications work for Nienstedt. It wasn’t confirmed if the firm, Rasky Baerlein, was the one hired. Rasky’s website lists “crisis and reputation management” as one of its specialties.
Flynn, 80, was a member and later the chairman of the state’s first ad hoc committee on sexual abuse by priests, according to his biography on the archdiocese’s website, “and guided it through the challenging days of 2002-03 as the bishops faced a nationwide scandal.”
Calls to many members of St. Thomas’ 43-member board resulted in refusals to comment or were not answered or returned on Saturday night.
Dougherty, the new interim St. Thomas board chairman, issued this statement: “On behalf of the board of trustees, I want to thank Archbishop Flynn for his many years of dedicated service to the board and to the university.”
Reached late Saturday, Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who handles clergy sex abuse cases, called Flynn’s exit from the board a “superficial gesture” that only protects the reputation of St. Thomas and the archdiocese.
“It’s going to take more than people stepping down from high positions to protect our kids,” Anderson said, continuing his call for the church to identify abuse offenders and details. “More has to be done.”
Although Flynn was one of the top decisionmakers at the archdiocese, Anderson said that he was in a “ceremonial position” at St. Thomas and that he expects more fallout from the recent uncovering of allegations of past abuse. “There will have to be fundamental changes,” he said.
New York author Michael D’Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who mentioned Anderson in a book about sex abuse and coverups in the Catholic Church, said the recent revelations and leadership shake-ups are particularly shocking because they come out of Minnesota.
“In no place has the Catholic Church had more experience with this terrible problem and more opportunity to handle it,” he said Saturday night. “At some point, you’d think the lesson could be learned.”
D’Antonio said it would have been unusual for Flynn not to know as an archbishop about the abuse cases that have been recently disclosed. “What I think people are shocked at is the breadth of the revelations,” he said. “There are new things being revealed every day. This is the kind of thing the church thought it was past.”
Advocates for clergy sex abuse victims long have been critical of what they called inadequate action on the part of Flynn and other archdiocese officials to address clergy sexual abuse.
“The buck stopped with him … in my eyes, he’s responsible,” said Bob Schwiderski, the Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “He should have left a long time ago.”
Schwiderski added that he believes recent allegations have unfairly tarnished the university’s image. “St. Thomas needs clean leadership,” he said.
The cascade of developments followed a week of allegations that Keating had improper contact with a teenage girl, starting when she was 13. With the archdiocese then under Flynn’s leadership, McDonough was at the center of its investigation of those claims, which were reviewed by the church in 2006 and 2007 but disregarded.
The case resurfaced Monday when the victim, now 28, filed a lawsuit against Keating.
It isn’t known if St. Thomas officials were told by McDonough or Flynn about the allegations against Keating, who has been a full-time professor at St. Thomas since 2005.
According to a November 2007 document from the archdiocese, the clergy review board on Keating’s case recommended that he be put under supervision and not be allowed to counsel adolescents and young adults, or to go on retreats with them. But on Friday, a university source told the Star Tribune that Keating led students on a study retreat to France in 2007 and that he has been a regular retreat leader for students since he arrived.
On Thursday, e-mails that Keating sent to his alleged victim from Rome in 1999 and 2000 were made public by Anderson, her attorney. In the e-mails, Keating expressed love and affection for the girl. At the time, she was 14 and 15 years old and he was 44 and 45 and studying to be a priest.
The next day, Anderson made public new documents showing that McDonough looked into reports in 2006 that Keating also had emotionally intense relationships with two other girls. Anderson has said he will use the memos written by McDonough, who is now priest at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, for corroboration in the Minnesota lawsuit.
Staff writers Susan Feyder and Tony Kennedy contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141