Readers of the Awake Blog know that we have closely followed the reports of sexual abuse by Catholic composer David Haas, known for songs such as “Blest Are They” and “You Are Mine.” In 2020 more than 50 women contacted Into Account, a small organization that supports survivors of sexual violence in Christian contexts, to share their stories of abuse by Haas.
Last fall, Into Account released a summary of all it had learned from the people who contacted them up to that point. The document reveals disturbing details of more than four decades of predatory behavior by Haas, an influential figure in Catholic liturgical music who used his status to gain access to potential victims. Many of the victims described being groomed by Haas during his Music Ministry Alive! camp for teens, where young participants were eager for his attention. Some reported that once they turned 18, Haas’s behavior changed, and he would pursue them aggressively at industry conferences. He also intimidated women he abused, threatening to derail their ministry careers, according to Into Account reports.
After the reports became public, GIA, the main publisher of Hass’s music, announced that it had ended its relationship with Haas. Two survivors and a former colleague of Haas began contacting all Catholic dioceses in the U.S., emailing them multiple times to ask that they stop playing Haas’s music. They explained that hearing the music during liturgies is traumatic for his victims and to those who have experienced sexual abuse in other contexts. Margaret Hillman, one of those survivors, told Awake that she had a panic attack while singing a Haas composition during a Mass where she served as cantor.
About 70 dioceses have formally instructed parishes and schools to stop using his compositions.
Recent Troubling Behavior
Many dioceses and parishes continue to use Haas’s music, but Stephanie Krehbiel, Ph.D., executive director of Into Account, says the composer’s status in liturgical music circles has declined. “I had multiple people describe him to me as a kingmaker,” Krehbiel says. “A kingmaker is also somebody who can destroy careers, which he did. The fear of getting on his bad side kept a lot of people silent. But I think that power is pretty much gone.”
Still, it appears that Haas is working to maintain connections with and possibly groom young women. “Grooming” is the collection of tactics used to lower a person’s boundaries to prepare them for abuse. One 21-year-old who attended Haas’s Music Ministry Alive! camp for three years as a teenager reached out to Into Account in June, sharing a message that she received from Haas that month. She granted the organization permission to make the note public. The letter, which has been widely shared on social media, may look like a warm correspondence between friends, but Krehbiel says it features classic grooming techniques.
The letter states, “I know it has been FOREVER since you have heard from me. I am sorry about that, but as you probably could imagine, this past year has been the most difficult year of my life.” Later, the letter says, “I just wanted to reach out and tell you that I miss you, and I hope you are happy and well. I hope that I am not a big disappointment to you. I have been wanting to contact you for a long time, but I have been too nervous to do so…but here I am.”
Krehbiel explains that people who engage in grooming with the intent of sexual abuse often target people that they know are empathic, and will cast themselves as the victim, as Haas does here by describing his “difficult year.”
“It’s important to remind people, that this is a 64- or 65-year-old man, sending this to a 21-year-old woman,” Krehbiel says, a scenario that creates a significant power differential. But here “he is addressing her as though she is a peer and as though they have a relationship of equals.” In the note Haas also invites the woman to join a mailing list made up of a “circle of friends” who have supported him. He shares that people on the list receive a daily reflection from him. Krehbiel says this is likely designed to make recipients feel special or chosen.
Krehbiel believes the publicity about Haas’s behavior has helped keep women like the letter-recipient safe. The woman contacted Into Account through a friend and wanted the letter to be shared to alert others. “What’s good is that she immediately recognized the letter for what it was,” Krehbiel says. “He doesn’t necessarily have the same power that he did to get away with this stuff.”
However, not all people have learned about Haas’s reported grooming and abusive behaviors, leaving an ongoing potential for harm.
What’s Happening in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee?
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee did not respond to multiple emails sent by David Haas’s victims last fall, asking for a moratorium on his music. Although some area parishes have decided to stop playing his songs, as we described in posts last year, the Archdiocese has opted not to issue guidance about his songs. Awake has received several reports of parishes around Milwaukee continuing to play his music, sometimes despite requests from parishioners who have raised concerns. One music minister told Awake that while he has quietly stopped using the music, he is uncomfortable making a public statement about the decision without support from the Archdiocese.
In January of this year, Awake held a virtual event featuring Krehbiel from Into Account, survivor Margaret Hillman, and Laurie Delgatto-Whitten, a former colleague of Haas who worked as an advocate for his victim-survivors. (A summary and recording of the event can be found here.) At the conclusion of the event, Awake encouraged Catholic attendees from Milwaukee to write to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and request a ban on the music.
More than 50 Catholics from the Archdiocese sent letters, explaining why this issue matters to them. Many shared deeply personal stories about the way sexual abuse in the Church has impacted their faith and begged archdiocesan leaders to take action to stand with survivors. Some of these letter writers received a response from Archbishop Listecki, stating, “I am aware that some dioceses/bishops have made public statements and/or discouraged the use of music by David Haas. This is something I will take under consideration in consultation with my advisors.”
Last week, Awake contacted the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to ask if there were any additional decisions made about the music. Jerry Topczewski, Archbishop Listecki’s chief of staff, responded:
The Archdiocese has not made any formal statement to parishes regarding the use of David Haas music. As you know, Haas has no ties to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The selection of liturgical music is a decision made at the local, parish level and something we leave to our pastors and parish directors. We certainly do not condone his behavior or any such behavior by people in positions of power in the Catholic Church. This is why we have a Code of Ethical Standards for Church Personnel and a mechanism available for reporting such incidents. After consultation, at this time the Archdiocese has decided that Pastors/Parish Directors and their staffs have the ability to make these decisions at the local level, following the Catholic Social Teaching principle of subsidiarity.
Besides the initial “form letters” encouraged by Awake, the Archdiocese has received virtually no letters of concern or complaint from either parish leaders or parishioners. If a parish staff member had questions or concerns or was awaiting direction from the Archdiocese, they should simply reach out and ask for assistance.
Milwaukee Catholics, what’s happening in your parish? Click here to let us know what you’ve heard about the use of David Haas’s in your community. We’ll share what we learn in future communications.
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog