By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog
If you’ve attended a Catholic liturgy sometime in the last three decades, chances are that you’ve heard or sung a composition by David Haas. His songs include “We Are Called,” “Blest Are They,” “You Are Mine,” “Holy Is Your Name,” and “We Have Been Told,” to name just a few. As a result, it was gut-wrenching to read in June that multiple women have accused Haas of sexual misconduct. Earlier this year, GIA Publications, publisher of the Gather hymnals, announced that it ended its relationship with Haas. The Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, where Haas is based, also declined to write a “letter of suitability” for him, preventing him from ministering under the Archdiocese’s auspices.
The situation poses difficult questions for music ministers, some of whom are debating the ethics of using music written by a man accused of sexual abuse. Awake spoke to two music ministers, one in Milwaukee and one in Louisville, Kentucky, about how they are making decisions about the use of Haas’s music.
When she heard news about the allegations against Haas, Mary Robertson, director of liturgy and music for Three Holy Women and Our Lady of Divine Providence in Milwaukee reached out to three close friends who are victim-survivors of sexual abuse. She asked how they would feel hearing Haas’s songs during a liturgy. They responded that they would be unable to sing his songs anymore, knowing the allegations against him. One responded, “I would feel anger that once again survivors don’t matter, that the Church once again can’t make the difficult decision to do the right thing and stand in solidarity with the women whose lives will forever be affected.” The parishes where Robertson works have not yet made an official decision about Haas’s songs, but her personal feelings are clear. “I think it would be a slap in the face for a victim, knowing that we’re aware of the allegations and are still using music that Mr. Haas has written,” Robertson says. “To me it would feel like we were selfishly singing a song because it’s our favorite, and ignoring the survivors who experienced the abuse and could be retraumatized by hearing his music.”
Andrew Stone Porter, music minister at St. William Catholic Community in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote about his parish’s process of reckoning with the allegations against Haas. “As we know, false reports of sexual violence are rare, and for a pattern as extensive as this to be false is extremely unlikely,” he recently told Awake. “I quickly became convinced that the allegations were true and that we needed, as a community, to respond to them.”
A Pattern of Manipulative, Predatory Behavior
The nonprofit organization Into Account, which supports victim-survivors abused in faith-based settings, announced in May that it had received multiple reports from women who said they were sexually abused by Haas. This prompted more women to come forward, and more than 30 women have reported sexual abuse by Haas.
The women describe being groomed by Haas during his Music Ministry Alive camp for teens, where he would single out certain girls for attention, praise their talent, give them gifts, and express interest in their careers. They also recount hoping that he would make eye contact with them while singing the hymn “You Are Mine” during the camp concert.
When the girls reached adulthood, what seemed like caring mentorship would shift. Haas would pursue them aggressively at music conferences, cornering them, kissing them forcibly, inviting them to his hotel room, making lewd comments, and threatening their careers in music ministry when they rejected his advances.
In interviews with the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), women describe giving up singing and music ministry, which they’d once loved, and working hard to avoid being retraumatized by hearing Haas’s songs at Mass. “How do I navigate that world where I want to participate in this thing that I love, as a full member of the body of Christ? I feel like I can’t,” one of the women told NCR. “I can’t sing his music, I can’t see his name, I can’t hear people clap along to his songs, as wonderful as they might be.”
Developing a “Survivor-Centered” Response
Stone Porter in Louisville says the news about Haas made him “horrified, and outraged, and saddened on behalf of survivors who have experienced this violence.” But as someone who has been singing and finding meaning in Haas’s songs since childhood, he acknowledged some personal pain. “There was confusion, and sadness, and grief over the fact that part of my self-understanding as a Christian person was shaped by a sexual predator,” he says.
In addition to his music ministry at St. William, Stone Porter is a doctoral candidate in the department of religion at Vanderbilt University, where he is studying ethics and society. One of his colleagues at Vanderbilt, who graduated and became a professor of theology, now works for Into Account. Stone Porter first learned about the allegations against Haas through this colleague’s social media posts.
The ministry team at St. William began to talk about how to respond. “We didn’t have a consensus as a staff, nor did we have the answers, but thankfully I did have my colleague at Into Account,” Stone Porter says. She offered to lead the St. William team in a meeting to help them develop a “survivor-centered” response.
Many Christians respond to sexual abuse allegations with concern for the alleged perpetrator and “with the insight that all of us are sinners, and flawed, that we all make mistakes, and that as Christians, it is our responsibility to forgive,” Stone Porter says. But his colleague from Into Account noted that this response directs all attention to the perpetrator.
“It’s a response in which survivors are totally absent,” he says. “Even though forgiveness is good in theory, if one simply extends forgiveness without making an effort to repair the damage that was done, then one risks replaying the cycle of violence all over again.”
“When violence has been done, our first response should be to attend to those who have suffered the violence and try to ensure their safety and that the pattern of sexual violence is disrupted within our community,” he adds.
Stone Porter was moved by an analogy shared by his colleague at Into Account. “She said to imagine that an experience of sexual violence is a 1,000-pound weight that is bearing down on a community,” he explains. “When sexual violence occurs, 100 percent of that weight rests upon the shoulders of the survivors. If our response is to center the perpetrators and not to attend to the voices and needs of survivors, we ensure that the weight will continue to rest entirely on their shoulders. If we can take steps to listen to their voices, hear their concerns, and in some way change our practices to create a safer environment, then we are reducing the amount of burden on their shoulders.”
The ministry team reached out to St. William parishioners, inviting any survivors of sexual abuse to help “discuss and formulate our path forward,” Stone Porter says. Multiple people responded, and the group will meet for the first time, virtually, in coming weeks. “Given the pervasive levels of sexual violence in churches and in society, it’s very likely that most communities have many members who are survivors of sexual violence,” he says. But parishes shouldn’t imagine that all survivors will agree. “We can’t assume that survivors are a monolithic group, or that discussions or decisions will happen without tension,” he says. “But tension is part of the process, and it is worth pursuing even though it is hard.”
With the help of those survivors, St. William Catholic Community will decide if it will use Haas’s music in the future, and what kind of public statement the parish might make about its decision. One possibility: Stone Porter says they could decide to use Haas’s songs, but include a statement about that decision in the worship aid. “It might say, ‘We play this song, but we condemn the sexual violence that was committed by its author, and we stand in solidarity with the victims and survivors,” he explains.
Mary Robertson in Milwaukee says she is reflecting on how to use decisions about Haas’s music “as a teaching moment for our faith communities, to help them understand what it means to stand in solidarity with victims. It involves listening to them, and in this case, it may mean we don’t get to sing some songs that have become favorites,” she says. “It’s a difficult and emotional decision to come forward as the women did in this case, and their feelings and experiences deserve to be considered in our response. I think that’s a shift that we all need to make: ‘How is what we’re doing affecting victims?'”
She found recent webcasts by music publisher GIA personally helpful, especially one discussing power and influence in the Church. “How do we prevent somebody from accumulating so much star power that it allows them to sway people’s minds?” Robertson asks. The webcast’s panelists suggested that putting anyone on a pedestal—as Haas was, and as clergy sometimes are—creates conditions that permit abuse.
Eliminating Haas’s music from liturgies will leave a gap, Stone Porter acknowledges. “But removing his music from our catalog also gives us the opportunity to find new composers, including women composers,” he says, “whose music might be very special, and brilliant and wonderful.”
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s East Side with her husband and two sons.
For additional coverage of how local parishes have addressed the use of David Haas’s compositions in liturgy, check out this post.