With all Terry McAteer has gone through in the 36 years since he was molested by a beloved family priest at the Disneyland Hotel at the age of 10, the last two years have been the roughest.
First, the priest sex scandal burst into the open, with glaring headlines, hundreds and even thousands of victims coming forward, and mounting evidence of decades of coverup by church leaders.
Then, in 2001, Terry McAteer’s son, Gregory, had his tenth birthday.
“That was my most painful year,” said McAteer. “Looking at my son at 10, and thinking of myself at 10. Thinking how much I needed to protect my child. I learned from Gregory about what his world was like at 10 and remembered what my world was at 10.”
And it continued to be a difficult time as the uproar over predator priests has grown and spread.
“I read every victim’s story, every priest’s story. And I envision myself in every one of them.”
There have been a lot of tears in the past two years, said McAteer.
“My wife has been the reason I am” He took a long pause to find the right word. “Sane.”
“She’s seen the pain, the tears. They’ve always been private tears, never public.”
At least, McAteer thought, his abuser, Peter Keegan, had been defrocked and could no longer entice children while wearing a priest’s collar. He didn’t know what had happened to Keegan since 1995, but the law knew. And with the rise in public awareness of pedophilia in the church, evidence was being gathered.
Pete Keegan had become too hot for the church to handle by 1991. After San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn and Santa Rosa Bishop Mark Hurley had passed him from parish to parish always followed by complaints of child molestation they packed him off to serve at a church orphanage in the parish at Tijuana, Mexico.
The final straw came in 1995 when the archdiocese agreed to pay $450,000 to a young man allegedly molested by Keegan for three years. The molested man said in his suit that Keegan had forcibly thrown him to the ground, removing his clothes and molested him at the church school and at the rectory.
The settlement called for the archdiocese to send letters to every diocese in the United States, warning them about Keegan.
But Keegan was out of reach of American courts in Mexico. Contacted by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, he didn’t admit to any charges, but said, “I’m trying to spend what years I have left doing good, because of regrets in my past life. We’re all sinners.”
And until his arrest last weekend in Puerto Vallarta, he maintained a post office box on this side of the border in Oceanside – to receive his monthly church pension.
After the the settlement, the church contacted the McAteer family attorney. They wanted to settle with Terry.
Under terms of the settlement, McAteer cannot say how much money he acquired. But the Santa Rosa diocese alone has admitted paying $7.4 million to settle abuse claims, with some claims as much as half a million dollars. None of those victims had as much evidence as Terry McAteer about what church leaders had done to cover up and protect molesters.
And because McAteer had gone to the church and the press, but not the police, a quirk in the law would make him a key figure in bringing Pete Keegan to justice.
As the uproar over predatory priests increased nationally, San Francisco DA Terence Hallinan and other prosecutors around the country began subpoenaing church personnel records, including that of Father Peter Keegan.
“It was the thickest file they had,” McAteer said he was told later. “It showed a monster was out there.” It included years of complaints, including the charges from Terry McAteer in 1997.
How many? “Over the months, it keeps bubbling up,” McAteer said he has been told. “They keep finding more and more leads. In 1977, I told the church, and they let scores of kids be hurt after that. It’s so painful.”
Of the church leaders who ignored McAteer’s warnings about Keegan in 1977, San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, resigned in 1994 and lives in the Bay Area. His second in charge, Father Patrick McGrath, is still in the priesthood. Mark Hurley, bishop of the Santa Rose diocese, resigned in 1987 and died in 2001.
The district attorney called McAteer last summer, and he testified for three hours before the grand jury in September. Austin Peter “Pete” Keegan, now 67, was immediately indicted on 25 counts of child molestation and sodomy of two boys in the late 1960s. The indictment remains sealed, and the names of juveniles cannot be revealed, but McAteer said he is one of those boys.
A $5 million warrant was issued for Keegan’s arrest, and he fled into Mexico. The FBI persuaded the church to shut off the ex-priest’s pension payments, hoping a money squeeze would flush him out. Acting on a tip from Mexican police that Keegan was seen in Puerto Vallarta, a notorious haven for pedophiles, an ATM machine was staked out, and Keegan was arrested when he came to use it on March 1.
Terry McAteer began to prepare to face his abuser once more, this time in court, perhaps as soon as this summer.
He knew that because things were going to become very public, the time had come to tell his children what had happened to him on those two nights in 1967.
“Liz and I have had a conversation with our children. Jeanne is now 14, Gregory 12. They understand that something bad happened to dad. There was some anger, some not wanting to talk about it. They don’t know the details – just what a 12- or 14-year-old should know.”
One of the things that is hardest to understand is what would drive someone, a priest or anyone else, to seriously hurt a child.
“Some have said it’s a sickness,” said McAteer. “But sickness implies you can get better. This is not a sickness. This is” He couldn’t find words. “This is beyond what society has been able to describe.”
The last days, knowing that Pete Keegan is in custody, have been really rough, McAteer said. “That’s one of my greatest fears, being in the courtroom across from him knowing that I have to face him.”
For McAteer, catharsis is not a motivation for him to testify. What it’s about, he said, is justice.
“He must pay a penalty to society.”
Meanwhile, McAteer said that even though the last year has been tough and the next year will be tougher, he and his family will get through it.
For him, life in Nevada County has been good. He loves his job as county schools superintendent, and calls rumors that he wants to be governor “hooey.”
“I’m happy where I am, very happy.”
In the years since his abuse, he has never sought counseling. His method for coping was taught to him by his mother, he said.
“She said sometimes you get kicked and stepped on, and you have to pull yourself up. You can’t let the events of the past rule your future.”
Fugitive ex-priest Austin Peter Â³PeteÂ² Keegan, called a Â³monsterÂ² by the San Francisco district attorneyÂ¹s office, was captured in Mexico last weekend. Nevada CountyÂ¹s superintendent of schools, Terry McAteer, hopes this will be the final chapter of a painful 36-year search for justice for himself and countless other sexually abused children. He told his story to Richard Somerville, editor of The Union. This is the final part of a series.