Our Accountability for Church Music Composer David Haas’ Abuse

The Soldier Compelled the Passerby to Carry the Cross © 2003 Michele Beaulieux

We are called to act with justice.

I read those words in a distinct rhythm because of a song, a song that I want—in a futile urge—to purge from my mind. Christian music publisher, GIA Publications, published the song, “We Are Called” by David Haas in 1988. That was a year after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis received its first report about the composer’s unwanted sexual advances on women. Let that sink in: the first report was 33 years ago—before most of his well-known songs were published. Not only did people know, they knew for decades. They knew in 1991 when Haas wrote “You Are Mine,” which readers of the Jesuit magazine, America, chose as one of the greatest hymns of all time

But it wasn’t until January this year that GIA suspended its sponsorship and publishing relationship with Haas. It did so after learning that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was no longer providing him a letter of suitability. Other music publishers followed suit. Women continued to come forward. On July 8, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced that it will not use Haas’ compositions at Archdiocesan Masses. On July 9, Haas offered a meager apology on his website.

If the church community had called Haas to accountability and addressed his abuse when it first came to light, he would not have become the famous composer he became and we would not know the songs we know now. We might, instead, be singing the songs of women he abused—many were fellow musicians and composers. Or he might have gotten help, and we’d be happily singing his songs of redemption today. Whatever the outcome, we wouldn’t be in the predicament in which we now find ourselves: trying to reconcile the melodious songs that have inspired our faith with the embodied antithesis of their messages. “You Are Mine” wouldn’t have a creepy double entendre. 

But, the church community did not call Haas to accountability. Instead, he flourished in a “rape culture,” a culture that normalizes sexual violence and blames victims for the violations they experience. Women reported, but as one victim-survivor relayed, they weren’t heard, weren’t listened to, and weren’t believed. People in positions of power in the church knew that Haas crossed boundaries, but they brushed it off. On social media, some people acknowledged that they were not surprised by the allegations. This complicity upsets me more than the allegations. People knew. Was his talent too amazing? Did we look the other way because we did not want to lose his lyrical melodies? Was he bringing in lots of money at conferences and for his publishers?

The clergy sex abuse crisis first brought the Catholic Church’s rape culture into clear view. Other denominations have had abuse crises, too. For most of us, the horrific stories of sexual abuse in the church inspired empathy. We could feel for the victim-survivors. We were horrified, but we weren’t directly affected. Most of us have not been subject to Haas’ violations either, but we have worshipped to his music. His transgressions sucker-punched millions of Christians in a primordial way. We now know that his spiritual abuse had been polluting our liturgies for decades. We’ve been left to reconcile this new information about his behavior with our past enjoyment of his songs, and it’s jarring. We wonder what to do.

At this point, anything we do about Haas is a little too little and a little too late. My prayer is that justice doesn’t lead to demonizing Haas—a sick man who needs help and accountability—but rather to community self-reflection. I don’t want to sing David Haas songs in worship anymore, not to punish him, but as a community penance in support of the women he violated and we failed. Let’s discern our role in his victims’ abuse in a Haas-less silence. When we’re tempted to hum one of his songs, let’s take a moment to reflect on the factors that led to us learning it. Let’s consider the songs we might have learned instead and elevate the music of the women whose careers his abuse stunted.

Simply righting past wrongs can lead to a futile cycle if we don’t also create equitable churches with a culture of respect that will help prevent future abuse. Sexual and spiritual abuses are abuses of power, and unequal power leads to abuse.

Haas’ continued predation is an indictment of the Catholic Church hierarchy and its commitment to gender complementarity. This theology forms the basis for the church’s sexism and sexual abuse. It posits that men and women have complementary roles in the church and the family: men lead and women serve.

Haas’ 33 years of abuse is also an indictment of the rape culture in which we all live and worship. True, most of us did not know about Haas’ abuse, but did we call out the sexism and problematic behavior we did experience and witness? Did we support others who did? Our complicity in micro-aggressions lays the foundation for more egregious violations.

Where were we all those years? Let’s do better. Let’s be co-strugglers, working to transform an oppressive culture, not just as helpers, but as mutual partners accepting collective responsibility. Wherever we are in relation to the church, let’s challenge gender complementarianism, advocate for women’s full equality, and insist on inclusive language. Let’s demand transparency about sexual abuse reports. Let’s engage in collective action for structural change.

After all, we are called to act with justice.

Related writing: The National Catholic Reporter published another commentary I wrote on responding to the removal of David Haas’ music: Let’s ‘Lift the Lowly High’ in Liturgical Music.”

I also wrote two counterstories—stories with alternative outcomes that represent a moral shift away from the dominant cultural narrative—about how dance groups might deal with teachers who, like David Haas, violate boundaries with students. The dynamic I address in the series, “Just Say ‘No’ to Teachers Who Troll,” applies to any teacher or person in authority. The Contact Quarterly Contact Improvisation Newsletter published the first counterstory, “Uninviting,” and the second, “Alternatives,” is on this blog.

© 2020 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 12.31.2020

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