Warning: This post includes explicit details of sexual abuse.
The news about Catholic composer David Haas has grown increasingly troubling. As we shared in August, the organization Into Account began receiving reports last spring from women accusing Haas of sexual misconduct. Many of the victims described being groomed by Haas—or singled out for special attention—during his Music Ministry Alive! (MMA) camp for teens. News outlets reported that once the victims turned 18, Haas would pursue them aggressively at music conferences, cornering them, groping and kissing them forcibly, and threatening their careers in music ministry when they rejected his advances.
Since those first reports emerged this summer, Awake has been considering how Milwaukee-area Catholics might respond in compassionate, survivor-centered ways. We believe the latest news makes the need for action more urgent.
A 40-Year Pattern of Predatory Behavior
This summer, GIA Publications, publisher of the Gather hymnals, announced that it had suspended its relationship with Haas, whose songs include “We Are Called,” “Blest Are They,” “You Are Mine,” “Holy Is Your Name,” and “We Have Been Told.” 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.
As the news about Haas spread, women continued reaching out to share their stories of abuse by Haas with Into Account, a small organization led by Stephanie Krehbiel, PhD, that supports victim-survivors abused in faith-based settings. On October 1, Into Account released a summary of all it has learned from the 44 people who contacted them to make reports. The document reveals disturbing details of more than four decades of predatory behavior by Haas, showing how a much-loved, influential figure used his status in the Catholic community to deflect suspicion, connect with potential victims, and intimidate victims into silence.
The women who made reports to Into Account ranged in age from 13 to 53 years old at the time of their abuse by Haas. The earliest report involves the 1979 rape of a 13-year-old girl during a confirmation retreat in Minnesota, where Haas provided music. Children were sent into the woods alone to pray. When a chaperone noticed Haas and the child emerging from the woods and reported this to a priest the next day, the priest allegedly told the victim, “Shame on you. It takes two to tango.” When the rape was reported to Archbishop John Roach at the girl’s confirmation, he allegedly said, “Yes, I know who you are. You should be ashamed. It takes two to tango.”
Some women reported to Into Account that in the 1980s, Haas forced oral sex and other sex acts on them as teenagers. Into Account notes that around 1982, Haas appears to have become more selective about the age of his victims, limiting his contact with teens to grooming only until they reached age 18, likely an attempt to dodge the law.
He met many of his victims through his MMA camp, which he ran at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1999 until 2017. Haas encouraged participants to call him “Papa Bear,” and was known for being physically affectionate, with attendees eager for his attention. People told Into Account that Haas was particularly attentive to vulnerable teens, including those with a history of anxiety or depression or who struggled with body image. “David Haas … shows a preternatural ability to identify children who were already experiencing sexual abuse or other trauma,” Into Account says in its report.
Some of the women who spoke to Into Account said that they were startled when they reached age 18, and Haas’s caring mentorship would shift abruptly to sexual aggression, including forced kissing, groping, sending pornographic texts, and rubbing up against women, sometimes until he achieved orgasm. One report describes him crawling into bed and groping a woman who was recovering from vocal cord surgery; another report recounts how Haas exposed himself and masturbated in front of a young woman in a car.
When women described such encounters to other people who knew Haas, some responded with dismissive comments such as, “That’s just David.”
Should Dioceses Place a Moratorium on Haas’s Music?
As we shared in a blog post this summer, some music ministers have debated the use of Haas’s music, which includes much-loved contemporary hymns. An October 6 story by the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) describes efforts by Margaret Hillman and Susan Bruhl, two victim-survivors who are working with Laurie Delgatto-Whitten, a former MMA employee, to ask U.S. dioceses to stop using his music. They also request that dioceses ban Haas from ministering or performing in their communities, and that they publicly announce these decisions. Since July, the women have sent three separate letters to the dioceses.
Of the 174 dioceses the women contacted, 54 have responded that they will ban Haas and his music, while 86 haven’t responded at all. As of October 6, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has not responded to any of these three letters, Delgatto-Whitten says. When Awake contacted the Archdiocese for a response, no one was immediately available to comment.
Many of Haas’s victims say it’s re-traumatizing to hear or sing Haas’s songs. In its report, Into Account writes: “David Haas created a liturgical landscape in and beyond the Catholic Church in which it is almost impossible for those he abused to participate in their own communities of worship without intrusive reminders of his abuse.” For example, Hillman, now a cantor in Florida, told NCR that she experienced panic attacks this summer while leading songs by Haas during Mass. Other victims have said they work to avoid liturgies where they may hear his music.
The women asked dioceses to make public statements about their decisions to ban Haas and his music, so that the faithful understand why his songs are not being played. “By restricting the use of his music we send a message that says the Church and its people are committed to avoiding causing further trauma to his survivors,” Delgatto-Whitten says. A team-member of Music Ministry Alive for the program’s first two years, Delgatto-Whitten left in 2000 because she says Haas was unwilling to address her concerns about some camp practices. “At the time I had 20-plus years experience in youth ministry, and was the only team member with that background,” she says. “Many of the practices used at MMA I found to be manipulative or just downright poor pastoral care of teenagers.”
Weighing Your Parish’s Decision
Kate Williams, senior managing editor at GIA Publications, the main publisher of Haas’s music, wrote in a recent column that music ministers should stop using Haas’s music, suggesting that they ask themselves the following questions:
• What if a survivor is in your community and hears his music in liturgy?
• How can you justify contributing to the royalties that financially sustain someone who has caused harm such as this?
• Why not take this opportunity to learn a new piece of music?
• What does it say to victims of abuse if your desire to sing “your favorite song” outweighs their pain?
Williams also expressed gratitude for the rapid, compassionate response of the Diocese of San Jose, which she suggested might serve as a model for others. The statement from that diocese reads, in part: “The Diocese of San Jose takes these allegations very seriously. We are resolute in our solidarity with all victims and survivors of sexual abuse. In response to these allegations, we have suspended the use of David Haas’s music in the Diocese of San Jose until further notice, effective immediately.”
If you are a music minister or concerned Catholic in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who would like to discuss compassionate, survivor-centered responses to the Into Account report about David Haas, please contact us to be part of an ongoing dialogue about next steps.
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog