‘They’re lying,’ said McAteer of church leaders
After trying to alert the Catholic hierarchy of the San Francisco and Santa Rosa dioceses about the predatory priest in their midst, and meeting only evasion and denials, Terry McAteer went on with his life, building a career and a family over the next 17 years.
He taught history at his old high school in San Francisco, St. Ignatius, a Jesuit Catholic school, then at Sacred Heart in Menlo Park.
“Teaching at Catholic schools, faith obviously was a large part of my life,” said McAteer. “The church leaders let me down, but my faith was between myself and the Lord, and not with them.”
That has continued to this day. He is good friends with Father Simon Twomey at his current parish, St. Patrick’s in Grass Valley. His children have been baptized in the church, and had their first communion.
“You have to separate the two,” what was done to him as a boy and his faith in God, he said. “If you don’t, it will eat you up. You will become very angry and cynical. And that’s what your church is about, your faith.”
While at St. Ignatius and at Sacred Heart, he became friends with a number of priests on the teaching faculty. “I saw some very wonderful people in that profession.”
Yet, even in the 1980s, the issue of child molestation by priests was a taboo topic, just not discussed, said McAteer, “even as we’ve found out there was so much of it going on.”
McAteer came to Nevada County as many of us do – in search of a beautiful sanctuary in the Sierra. His parents had owned a spacious home on Lake Tahoe for 30 years. It was sold after his father, prominent San Francisco politician Gene McAteer, died in 1967.
In 1981, the 24-year-old teacher went in search of a place for a weekend retreat accessible from the Bay Area, and affordable. He found a piece of land on the shores of Scott’s Flat Lake.
“A friend and I, Jim Fitzgerald, built this cabin ourselves – took classes on how to build a house,” he said. “I figured I’d only do this once in my life, so why not give it a shot?”
So McAteer, who married his college sweetheart, Liz Everett, in 1984, already was a sometime resident of Nevada County when in 1989 – with Liz pregnant with their first child and with Terry having received a doctorate in education after years of night classes at the University of San Francisco – the couple made a momentous life decision.
“We decided, ‘Let’s get out of Menlo Park and up to Nevada County, and I’ll find a job in the foothills,’ ” McAteer said. “And that was it. I didn’t have a job, but got one that fall teaching at Bear River High School.”
Their daughter Jeanne was born that year.
“That was monumental for my mother,” said McAteer. “Her view of the world revolved around San Francisco. For five years after we moved up here, she would have a fruit-of-the-month box sent, because she didn’t think we could get fresh fruit!”
He got a part-time job working at the county superintendent’s office. In 1990, because of his well-known family political background, he was asked to run the campaign of Skip Houser, the assistant superintendent, for the top job.
“I had never been a politician, but politics was part of being a McAteer,” he said. “For instance, Diane Feinstein (now a Democratic U.S. senator) was my father’s administrative aide.”
Houser won, and named McAteer his assistant superintendent.
Fifty-four of the 58 county school superintendents in California are elected to their jobs. It’s a state constitutional office, like the governorship. “We’re Sacramento’s arm to oversee education here in Nevada County,” McAteer explained.
Houser decided not to run for re-election in 1994, so McAteer threw his hat in the ring. In May, two weeks before the hotly contested election, Father Pete Keegan shook McAteer’s world again.
“I came home in the afternoon, and Liz handed me the Chronicle and said, ‘You’d better sit down and read this.’ I can remember her words. I picked up the front page, and there was a suit filed by three Santa Rosa kids claiming that they had been molested by Peter Keegan. And the story said the diocese of Santa Rosa and the archdiocese of San Francisco denied any prior knowledge of any wrongdoing by Peter Keegan.
“Looking up at Liz, my first words were, ‘They’re lying.’ She said, ‘I know.'”
McAteer picked up the phone that day and called the Chronicle’s religion reporter, Don Lattin. “I could tell he was so shocked (‘It’s Senator McAteer’s son who’s stepping forward?’) that he had to check that I was who I said I was. He called me back in an hour and said, ‘You’re right!'”
It made the front page the next day.
“It was a big step for me,” recalled McAteer. “How would this affect the election in two weeks? My opponent graciously didn’t want to make it an issue, so it didn’t even get covered in The Union up here.”
But it was on the front page of the Sacramento Bee and on television news, and McAteer was interviewed live on local news radio. There were requests for appearances on national television talk shows, all of which he turned down.
“The only thing I asked Don Lattin was that he not write about where I was living and my occupation,” said McAteer, “so all the calls went to my mother’s house. Which was fine. I just didn’t have the time and energy. All my energy was in winning the campaign.”
But he received more than 200 letters from friends and family whom he had never told about what happened at the Disneyland Hotel in 1967 when he was 10. And he was elected superintendent that year, and two times since, unopposed.
Meanwhile, a crew from San Francisco’s KRON-TV tracked Pete Keegan to where he had been assigned as a priest after a commendation from Archbishop John Quinn: an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico.
Keegan was asked about the charges by Terry McAteer. The priest said Terry was a nice Catholic boy from a nice family, but he hadn’t seen him for 30 years, and none of what he said was true.
And they taped him during the day. “They showed him walking down the street, hand in hand with two little boys,” said McAteer. “It was as repulsive as can be.”
But Father Pete could afford to be arrogant. He knew that in a civil action, he was out of the hands of the law in Mexico. And with a six-year statute of limitations in criminal cases, the priest may have thought he was protected from extradition. But eight years later, Terry McAteer would have the last word.
Saturday: The final chapter.
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