The speakers at Awake Milwaukee’s latest Courageous Conversation shared how reports of sexual abuse by Catholic composer David Haas were brought to light last year—and then made a powerful case for ending the use of Haas’s music.
The speakers at the January 21 event included Dr. Stephanie Krehbiel, co-founder and executive director of the small nonprofit Into Account, which has received more than 50 reports of abuse by Haas; victim-survivor Margaret Hillman, who was assaulted by Haas when she was 18; and Laurie Delgatto-Whitten, a former colleague of David Haas who is now advocating for his survivors.
Krehbiel (pictured above, left) opened the conversation by describing how her organization—which supports people sexually abused in Christian settings—was contacted last spring by a victim-survivor of David Haas. At the time, Krehbiel explained, she didn’t know Haas’s name, or understand his prominence as the composer of much-loved hymns, such as “Blest Are They” and “You Are Mine,” and the popular Mass of Light. The survivor told Krehbiel that there were many other women with their own stories of abuse by Haas.
When those women began contacting Into Account to make their own reports, Krehbiel and her team chose to reach out to dioceses and music publishers who had business relationships with Haas, to share what they were hearing. “I want to emphasize that’s not a step that an organization like mine can take lightly or easily,” she explained. “We don’t do it unless we’re 100 percent certain that people are telling us the truth.”
Krehbiel also reached out to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to ask that they issue a press release about the emerging reports. This attention prompted more and more women to contact Into Account to share their experiences. “The youngest victim that has reported to us is 23 right now, and the oldest victim that has reported to us is 65 right now,” Krehbiel said. “So that’s over three generations of women.” As an experienced survivor advocate, Krehbiel said the patterns reported to her suggest that Haas likely has “many, many, many more victims” who have yet to come forward.
“I worry that word still isn’t out” to those victims, Krehbiel said.
Why Report to Into Account?
Why did the women choose to report their abuse by Haas to a small, largely unknown organization with roots in the Mennonite Church? “I’ve thought about that a lot,” Krehbiel said. She believes that it helps that Into Account is experienced at listening to and supporting survivors, and “the fact that we are not Catholic” is also beneficial.
“One of the things that has gotten in the way of any accountability for David Haas is that he has tremendous power” in the liturgical music world, she said. “He has a record of being extremely retaliatory when people try to do anything to hold him to account.” In contrast, Krehbiel’s organization has “nothing to lose in these communities. We could take risks that other people who had been reported to couldn’t or weren’t willing to take.” She stressed that the reports to Into Account weren’t the first allegations about Haas. “It’s not that nobody ever said that they were being abused,” she said. “It’s that they weren’t believed, or it wasn’t seen as a big deal, or they were intimidated, often by Haas himself.”
Because news stories about the allegations against Haas often understated the severity and impact of the abuse, Into Account released last fall its own summary of the abuse reports it had received up to that point. The report shares the women’s stories in unflinching detail, and offers some context, suggesting spiritual, institutional, and theological factors that contributed to the abuse.
The Survivor’s Perspective: “Stop Making Us Do the Heavy Lifting”
During the conversation, victim-survivor and cantor Margaret Hillman (pictured above, center) shared that she was assaulted by Haas at age 18 during a college visit to Minnesota. She told almost no one about this experience; when she tried to tell a friend in music ministry, that person said, dismissively, “Oh, you’re one of David’s girls.”
Hillman said she coped by pushing the memories deep down and not thinking of them again until she encountered the SNAP report last summer, describing Haas’s abuse of other women. She began suffering flashbacks about her own assault, and also had a panic attack while leading music composed by Haas at Mass. This led her to write to her bishop, Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice in Florida, asking him to consider a ban on Haas’s music. The bishop did exactly that, declaring a moratorium on the songs.
“When you ask me to sing his music, you’re putting his voice in my head,” Hillman explained. “For those of us who listened to his music over the years, or went to his concerts, you hear his voice in your head.” Haas has such wide-reaching influence that many parish leaders could have his victim-survivors in their parishes, Hillman noted. And Laurie Delgatto-Whitten (pictured above, right), who spent two years working with Haas at his Music Ministry Alive! camp for teenagers, added that the Haas’s music can be similarly triggering for survivors of other abuse.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Delgatto-Whitten said she felt compelled to do what she could to support the women reporting abuse by Haas. “I know how important it is for survivors to be believed and to be heard, and how important that is in the process of healing,” she said.
She, Hillman, and another survivor began reaching out to every U.S. Catholic diocese to ask that they also ban Haas’s music. This project has involved emailing every bishop as well as every office of liturgy and music ministry in the country a total of six times. Delgatto-Whitten reports that about 70 dioceses have responded to the emails by suspending the use of Haas’s music. Some dioceses responded that they will continue to use his music until “investigations are completed.” Yet the reality is that there is no single ongoing investigation that will result in a official or definitive answer about Haas’s innocence or guilt, Krehbiel explained.
Finally, “a third of the dioceses never contacted us at all,” Delgatto-Whitten said, “and sadly the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is one of those that has not responded at all.”
Noting the labor involved in making the case to dioceses, Hillman spoke passionately about the need for the Church to make the care of victim-survivors a priority. “The most important thing the Church can do for all survivors is to stop making us do all the heavy lifting,” Hillman said.
Why Hasn’t Haas Been Charged?
Several audience members asked about the possibility of criminal charges against Haas. Krehbiel of Into Account said that there are multiple reasons why charges haven’t been filed and are unlikely in the future.
“One of the simplest answers [is] that statutes of limitations are really quite short, especially for sexual assault committed against adults,” she explained. Krehbiel suspects that like other perpetrators, Haas “got very good at not getting caught, and he got very good at doing things that were less likely to get him in trouble with the law.” As for civil suits or class action suits, “I’m not comfortable saying a lot about that,” Krehbiel said. “We’re not done with this story.” But she acknowledged the difficulties of prosecuting this type of case. “It’s very hard for survivors to go through [court proceedings],” she said. “That’s a thing I always want people to remember. You’re asking a lot of survivors.”
Still, Krehbiel was positive about the effect of GIA’s decision to stop publishing Haas’ music, and decisions by some dioceses to declare a moratorium on his performances. These actions helped “disrupt his ability to get access to victims,” she said. “He has been preying on women by going to conferences and showcasing his music for decades now, and he can’t do that anymore.”
A Call to Action
Hillman and Delgatto-Whitten made compelling arguments for suspending the use of Haas’s music in dioceses and parishes. “This man intentionally used his music for four decades to manipulate and harm women,” Delgatto-Whitten said. “Why would you want something with those connotations?”
Hillman mentioned that she sings at many funerals, and when grieving families ask for a David Haas song, she tells them either that the bishop has asked music ministers not to use that song, or she mentions that the composer “had some issues” and asks them to consider other music. In her experience, they do so without question.
The 100-person audience hailed from all over the country, and at the conclusion of the event, Awake leaders encouraged Catholic attendees to consider asking their parish music ministers and local bishop to halt the use of Haas’s music. (For more on the call to action, see below.) The people of God have an obligation to care for the wounded among us, Hillman said. “We are Church, and we need to do better,” she said. “We need to do better for people who are suffering, or we’re just paying lip service.”
— Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
HOW TO TAKE ACTION
To stand in solidarity with survivors, Awake Milwaukee urges Catholics to contact their parish music ministers and diocesan leadership and ask them to end the use of David Haas’s music. You can find detailed instructions, as well as templates for letters here. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has not issued any recommendations about this music. If you live in another diocese, and don’t know if your diocese has taken action, start by checking this spreadsheet from Laurie Delgatto-Whitten to see if there’s a response recorded there.
Here’s a blog post from Awake Milwaukee about compassionate, survivor-centered responses to Haas’s music from other dioceses and two Milwaukee-area churches.
You can find Into Account’s extensive report on David Haas at https://intoaccount.org/reports. If you are a survivor of Haas who has not yet made a report or connected to support, we encourage you to reach out to executive director Stephanie Krehbiel at email@example.com.