Not Your Daughter: When a Spiritual Parent is a Predator

by | Nov 4, 2021 | 0 comments


by Stephanie Krehbiel, Executive Director


This past summer, I went to Minneapolis and Chicago to be present at filming locations for Into Account’s public service announcement video about Catholic composer David Haas. As aware as I thought I was of the scope of Haas’s abuse, watching groups of women whose ages span three generations repeating the lines this one predator said to them was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my advocacy career. The moments that survivors had to repeat Haas’s lines for the camera were excruciating, as if they were expelling poison. In some moments, the quiet shock on the faces of the filmmakers was my best anchor to reality: yes, this is truly as horrific as it feels. This is real.

There was never a moment in filming when an overprotective part of me didn’t want to halt everything, but I felt that especially when the youngest survivors repeated Haas’s ubiquitous assurances of familial connection—“you’re my daughter,” “I’m going to take care of you,” “Call me Papa Bear”—followed by the comments about their beauty, about their bodies, his creepy admiration of their fresh adulthood. The incestuous nature of Haas’s behavior towards the young women in his mentorship circles is so lacking in subtlety that I suspect he has been protected–and probably still is–by its overtness. Surely, people will think, he didn’t mean that. If he did, surely he wouldn’t be so obvious about it.

But again and again, the evidence shows us that he did mean that. Read Brenna Cronin’s story. Natalie Pucillo’s story. In the story we published yesterday, you hear from Elizabeth K., a twenty-one-year-old woman who has known David Haas for most of her life. She attended the same church as Haas, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Up until she learned about the allegations against him, she considered him one of the most important people in her life. He called her a “daughter.”

This past June, he contacted Elizabeth again, “This past year has been the most difficult year of my life,” he wrote to her. “I hope that I am not a big disappointment to you. I have been wanting to contact you for a long time, but have been too nervous to do so … but here I am.” He then invited her to join an email list hoping to add her to an email list that he used to send out a daily “reflection/meditation” that he called “AWAKENING.”

It was vile, and it was also a completely normal communication from him. Elizabeth writes, “David was certain, absolutely certain that I was within his grasp…After everything that had come out, everything I’d heard, [he thought] that I’d still be on his side. He thought the risk-to-reward ratio of him sending me an email, a year after it all, was still in his favor.”

This is the power of spiritual abuse: that so many people who know Haas could read that squirmingly intimate email, sent by a 65-year-old sexual predator to a 21-year-old woman, and think, “Oh, that’s just David.”

Haas’s portrayal of himself as a spiritual father for young musicians allowed him to normalize manipulation, coercion, and boundary crossing in ways that negatively affected the lives and spiritual health of more young people than I can bear to think about. In his nineteen-year career as the director of Music Ministry Alive!, he and his co-director Lori True created an environment in which hundreds of teenage children and young adults were subjected to classic tactics of coercive control. MMA alums have described to me intense recruitment efforts, fatigue-inducing schedules, daily events producing heightened emotional states, regular pressure to share personal information, and a sense of intense belonging that made its inverse—shunning by the leaders and their inner circle—a thing to be feared above all else.

While these may seem like normal characteristics of a summer camp for teenagers, they are also traits of a cult. The adults in charge should be mitigating these factors, not fueling them. But at MMA, the adults at the top were spiritual abusers who answered to no one. And one of them was a charismatic predator who asked children to call him “Papa Bear.”


It is erroneous to believe that those who didn’t experience sexual assault were “spared.” I’m relieved that my organization received the reports on Haas before Elizabeth was subjected to sexual assault from a man she thought of not only as a second father but as a conduit of God. But if you read her story, you’ll see that she was deeply harmed. Nothing about the kind of relationship that an adult like David Haas has with a child is innocent or authentically parental.

An adult like David Haas cannot repeatedly gift an icon of St. Dymphna to a child without the sexually predatory father and murdered daughter at the heart of that story reverberating through their relationship like a promise and a threat. It is a kind of spiritual incest.

Elizabeth’s realization about the St. Dymphna icons evokes a similar moment in Brenna Cronin’s story, in which Haas, who had already sexually assaulted Cronin during a trip when she was ostensibly interviewing for an MMA job, send her an email describing his composition of the hymn “Blest are the Pure of Heart.”

“I just composed the attached piece for you,” he wrote. “I love your heart, and your striving for integrity, your ache for justice, and your selfless spirit…so this psalm came to mind, and in thinking of how grateful I am for you – the song poured out rather quickly.”

The lyrics of this song are as follows:

Blest are the pure of heart, they shall see God, they shall see God.
God, who is welcome to your house?
Who then can rest on your mountain?
Those with integrity, who do what is right, speaking truth with courage.
Blest are the pure of heart, they shall see God, they shall see God.
They never slander with their tongue.
Nor harm their friends. They rebuke the godless.
They honor those who believe, to God they keep their word
And defend it with strength and protect it.
Blest are the pure of heart, they shall see God, they shall see God.
They never give for selfish gain
Nor take a bribe, these are the just ones
They stand forever, unshaken, unshaken.

Cronin writes,

“The phrase ‘Blest are the Pure of Heart’ appears in the Beatitudes. Many will recognize this line from his song ‘Blest are They.’ With one phrase, ‘Blest are the pure of heart, they shall see God, they shall see God,’ DH spiritually manipulated and silenced me.

‘Blest are the Pure of Heart’ isn’t a psalm setting. He made the piece up. He took the words from Psalm 15 and used them against me. Reminding me that I must do what is right and keep quiet about the hotel incident. Reminding me that God would look down on me if I ever dared to slander DH’s name, or to harm my ‘friend’ in any way. Reminding me that I must stand frozen forever.”

And she continues:

“At 27, I did exactly what he was subliminally and overtly telling me to do. He was calling me pure and lovely and little and quiet and putting me square in a quaint jewelry box like a twirling ballerina doll. I assumed that role for a long time.”

We can, I suppose, thank God that this man never had his own children.


If someone you love came under Haas’s influence as a child or young adult, the kindest thing you can do is be available to listen with patience and presence. Allow their interpretations of the past to change. Make space for that.

From Elizabeth’s story, we can see how “Did he do anything to you?” isn’t the question we should be asking. Because trauma, directly inflicted or indirectly absorbed, takes time to understand, and new information can make the past a newly terrifying place to explore.

And there is the moral injury done to young adult leaders at MMA, many of whom knew something wasn’t right, but whose elders and mentors modeled the complicity and deference to power that they would inherit. How can we even begin to measure that harm?

Don’t push. Don’t impose any narrative. Just be there for them. Stay emotionally present for them. Make space for big emotions, and make space for a total lack thereof.

Elizabeth’s journey into her own past has been nothing short of heroic. Perhaps it’s because she is so young, and perhaps it’s because of my recent experiences watching the PSA video filming, but right now my own emotions are big, and I am furious. I am still furious that Haas tried to reach her again, furious that her parish leaders have not chosen to protect her, furious that she is no longer safe in the church where she grew up.

Most of all, I am furious that anyone could think she was “spared.”

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