As we reported last week, the organization Into Account has released a document summarizing 44 reports it has received about sexual abuse by popular Catholic composer David Haas. A group of his victims have written to U.S. bishops, asking that they stop playing his music. To start to understand why they’ve made this request, we share Margaret Hillman’s story.
Margaret Hillman was 12 years old when she joined the choir at her parish in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Within a few years, she began serving as a cantor, leading the congregation during Mass. Liturgical music became a family affair; Hillman’s mother soon joined the choir, and eventually met her second husband in the group.
So Hillman (pictured above) and her mother were excited to attend a concert in Rhode Island in 1986 to hear Catholic composer David Haas perform. Haas had written songs they loved to sing, such as “Blest Are They,” “We Are Called,” and “You Are Mine.” Hillman, who was 18 at the time, chatted with him at an after-party, where Haas told her about St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He lived in St. Paul and said he was affiliated with the school, which offered a liturgical music major. He suggested she visit the campus.
They exchanged contact information, and Haas kept in touch. He asked her to send a tape of her singing, and then encouraged her to come to St. Paul for the campus visit. He said that he didn’t have space for guests in his home, but offered to pay for a hotel room during her stay. Hillman remembers that her mother was uneasy about the trip, but Haas’s calls reassured her. And given Haas’s prominence in the liturgical music community, many people around her were excited. “My music director was just positively giddy that I was going on this trip,” Hillman remembers.
“Things Didn’T Feel Optional”
When she arrived in St. Paul, Haas took her for tours at St. Catherine’s and the nearby University of St. Thomas, and then out for dinner. The next day he had to sing at a funeral, so Hillman was on her own for much of the day. Haas returned to the hotel that evening, bringing fast food for dinner. Because there was no table in the room, they ate on the bed. After they ate, Haas kissed Hillman. When she resisted going further than that, he got angry and accused her of leading him on. “He said that I was being like a child, and this is what adults do,” she remembers. Ignoring her objections, he removed her clothes and his own. He performed oral sex on her and then loomed over her, demanding that she do the same for him. In her report to Into Account, Hillman wrote, “This is the part I have flashbacks about, this particularly terrifying and humiliating moment. This was my first sexual experience of any kind.”
“It was surreal,” Hillman explains to Awake. “Everything happened so fast, before you had a chance to react. I was 18, alone in a strange city, a thousand miles away from home, and things didn’t feel optional.”
When she returned home, Hillman didn’t feel that she could tell anyone. She thought her mother, who was recovering from a painful divorce, was too emotionally vulnerable to hear about it, and music friends were so proud of her connection to David Haas. Hillman worked to put the experience out of her mind.
Now 53, Hillman says that looking back, she sees how much it affected her. She grew anxious, began having panic attacks, and had trouble trusting men. “I actually spent several months trying to chase my husband away when we were dating because I figured something was going to go horribly wrong at some point,” Hillman remembers. She did attend St. Catherine’s for two years, but was never alone with Haas again, though she encountered him regularly at music ministry conferences over the years. At one point she tried telling a music ministry friend what happened. “She brushed it off with, ‘Oh, you’re one of David’s girls.’ And I kind of shut down.”
a Panic Attack While Singing
In July 2020, Hillman was startled to read that dozens of women were coming forward to Into Account, reporting their own stories of abuse by Haas. It was suddenly clear to Hillman that her own experience was part of a larger pattern of predatory behavior. “The totality of it all brought up so much that had been stuffed down,” Hillman says.
Now living in Sarasota, Florida with her husband and two adult children, Hillman has continued her work in music ministry at two different parishes. Days after the news about Haas emerged, Hillman was singing a psalm composed by Haas at Mass when she suffered a panic attack, pausing mid-song but recovering enough to finish.
She immediately wrote to Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice in Florida, explaining what happened to her and requesting that he tell parishes in the diocese to stop playing Haas’s songs. In response, the bishop sent letters to all parishes to put a moratorium on Haas’s music, an extreme relief to Hillman. Music ministry is vitally important to her. “I sing at a lot of funerals, and I love when I can give someone comfort on their worst day. The biggest compliment I can get as a cantor is not how pretty I sounded, but that I helped somebody to pray. I’m not willing to give that up for anybody.”
Through social media Hillman connected with another of Haas’s victims, Susan Bruhl, and Laurie Delgatto-Whitten, a former team member of David Haas’s music ministry camp. The three of them began sending a series of three letters to all U.S. dioceses, asking them to ban Haas’s music. Of the 176 dioceses they contacted, 55 of have responded that they will stop playing his music. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has not responded to any of the letters sent by the women.
Hillman notes that it’s not just Haas’s direct victim-survivors who feel traumatized by his songs. Other abuse survivors find them painful as well. “I’ve spoken to people who felt very triggered just reading about what happened,” she says. “It’s very hard to expect them to sing the music.”
Using Music to Manipulate
While many Catholics have reacted with compassion to the news about Haas, Hillman notes that others have been hurtful. “People say things like, ‘How can you take the music away from us?’ or ‘We can still use this music, we’ll just separate the art from the artist.’” But she believes this separation is impossible given that Haas used his music as a tool to abuse his victims, even choosing lyrics designed to manipulate. Multiple women report that as teenage girls at Haas’s music ministry camp, they clamored for his attention and were thrilled when he made eye contact with them while singing “You Are Mine.” Another woman says he sent her a song he composed for her, using the words of Psalm 15 to encourage her silence. Others report that Haas made them feel “chosen” by sitting next to them at the piano to share new liturgical compositions he was writing.
“He used the music itself to gain access and influence,” Hillman says. “I don’t really understand why anybody would want to bring any element of those connections and connotations into the liturgy.”
“There’s so much beautiful music out there,” Hillman adds. “There are so many new things being written and so many old things that were written long ago by other people. It’s a good time to start exploring them.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Margaret Hillman for sharing her story. We also want to acknowledge that every survivor’s path is different. We honor the journeys of all survivors, and are committed to bringing you their stories. If you have experienced sexual abuse, you can receive support through the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, 800-656-4673, which operates 24 hours a day. In Milwaukee, you can contact one of the Aurora Healing Centers at 414-219-5555. If you seek support from the Catholic Church, contact the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Victim Assistance Coordinator at 414-769-3332. Also, Awake is always open to listening to and learning from survivors. We invite you to reach out to us if you would like to connect.