In March of 2003, a flurry of emails circulated around the St. John’s University campus in Collegeville, Minnesota. A month earlier, a student-athlete brought allegations of misconduct against his professor, Father Bruce Wollmering, to the attention of his coach and other officials at Saint John’s University.
The student claimed that the misconduct began during a class that met during the fall of 2002 and continued into 2003.
Background: At the time of the 2003 allegations, Wollmering was a professor at St. John’s University and had previously worked in multiple roles at St. John’s Preparatory School (beginning in 1967). Wollmering was also a monk (since 1961), priest (1967), counselor (1970) and chair of the Psychology Department at St. John’s University (1994). According to his obituary, Father Bruce Wollmering also conducted more than 50 workshops and seminars in psychology that dealt with subjects such as dream analysis, therapeutic hypnosis, human sexuality, and healthy spirituality.
In an email to Abbot John Klassen (Saint John’s Abbey) and Brother Dietrich Reinhart (President of St. John’s University) dated March 13, 2003 regarding the latest allegations of misconduct against Father Bruce Wollmering, a university employee wrote:
“We are looking for direction from you as to how you would like to proceed, especially considering the delicacy of this case. The student is very anxious to know what’s going to happen as a result of his [Feb, 2003] complaint.”
The “delicate” nature of the allegations included the student’s visibility on campus and a timeline of misconduct that overlapped the disappearance of Joshua Guimond.
By mid-March, the student was frustrated that there was already discussion of a resolution despite his repeated requests to share his story, and the scope of the problem, with the leadership at the Abbey and University.
In a 9:52pm email to Abbot John Klassen and Gar Kellom (Vice President for Student Development at Saint John’s) dated March 19, 2003, the student wrote:
“I am starting to wonder why I haven’t met with you already if you guys are aware of this situation.”
“There is a severe problem at this University, this present day.”
“I want to deal with this as quickly as possible and graduate as quickly as possible so I can leave this place that is causing me these problems.”
At 11:15pm on March 19, 2003, Gar Kellom wrote to Saint John’s University president Dietrich Reinhardt and Saint John’s Abbey Abbot John Klassen:
“This sounds problematic and in need of attention. [Student's Name], as you know is [a prominent student athlete] and from what [Coach's Name] says very upset about this.”
At 4am on March 21, 2003, the student sent another email:
“It isn’t right that although I should be meeting with you, I can’t becuase [sic] the person that did these perverted things to me gets the chance to appeal, and delay this issue.”
Within days, the matter was settled. Quietly.
Despite the severity of the student’s claim of misconduct, testimony from other witnesses and newly discovered allegations of misconduct, Wollmering was allowed to continue teaching until the end of the Spring, 2003 semester.
No announcements were made. Law enforcement was not contacted.
There were some consequences:
Wollmering was required to immediately resign as chair of the psychology department. (Note: Wollmering had been named to a fourth term as chair just months earlier. When he did announce that he was stepping down, no mention was made of any misconduct. Rather, Wollmering claimed that “for health and personal reasons,” he was taking a leave of absence for the 2003–04 academic year.)
Wollmering was required to make his students aware that a complaint had been filed against him, and offer an apology for crossing appropriate student/teacher boundaries. There is no evidence that he made such an announcement.
Wollmering was required to immediately stop counseling students. According to a former employee, however, Wollmering continued to counsel students for several months, despite a supervisor’s knowledge that Wollmering was prohibited from doing so.
Wollmering was required to get an evaluation at St. Luke’s in Maryland. Following the evaluation, he spent six months at Toronto’s Southdown Institute.
Wollmering had been counseling his own students, in violation of American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines. This violation should have been reported to the APA but was not.
Wollmering exhibited a pattern of gender bias and male favoritism in the classroom. This bias had been documented on at least one other occasion.
According to the Minnesota Board, no one at St. John’s (including Wollmering and any mandatory reporters) ever reported his APA violations. Wollmering’s counselor license expired in 2004.
Wollmering retired with dignity from St. John’s University in the spring of 2004. According to his obituary:
“After his retirement from the university, Father Bruce was free to pursue many other interests.”
The Profile of Joshua Guimond’s Likely Abductor
On November 9, 2002, St. John’s University student Joshua Guimond disappeared from campus.
As the one-year anniversary of Joshua’s disappearance approached, a profile of Joshua’s likely abductor was being prepared for placement on the “Find Joshua” web site. Local media was reportedly also interested in publishing the profile.
The profiler, St. John’s University professor Dr. Aubrey Immelman, had published numerous articles on the subject of psychological profiling.
On the morning of October 17, 2003, St. John’s University and the Stearns County Sheriff’s department learned about the profile. Later that same day, an officer called Immelman to discuss the profile. The two met later at the sheriff’s department. The officer asked that the profile not be published on the web site or appear in any other media because doing so might tip off the person responsible for Guimond’s disappearance. According to Immelman, the officer further explained that publishing the profile might cause the suspect to clam up, cover his tracks, or hire a lawyer.
According to information on Immelman’s web site, and in voter guides published in various media when Immelman ran for Congress against Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2008 and 2010, Immelman has been a consultant to the U.S. military on threat assessment and psychological profiling; advised U.S. Customs and Border protection on terrorist profiling; trained intelligence officers from NATO allies in Europe; conducted profiling workshops attended by Central Intelligence Agency officers; and wrote the section on psychological profiling for the authoritative Handbook of Psychology.
When reached for comment for this story, Immelman explained that the profile, which was first drafted in January of 2003, was “a boilerplate description from the FBI Crime Classification Manual of the kind of sex offender that would abduct a student without leaving any evidence of a crime.”
St. John’s Abbey, however, recognized the profile… as Father Bruce Wollmering. Wollmering had a long history of misconduct. [ View ]
Delayed Public Disclosure
By 2006, the leadership at St. John’s University (Reinhart) and St. John’s Abbey (Klassen) had yet to make Wollmering’s name, or any of his misconduct or crimes, public.
Internally, reasons for keeping his name from the public were being discussed.
Around 2005, Abbot John Klassen provided two:
1. The effect that such an announcement would have on the capital campaign.
2. The effect that such an announcement would have on University recruitment.
Early in 2006, a third reason was discussed:
3. Releasing details of Wollmering’s crimes could tie him to the disappearance of Joshua Guimond
A paranoid Abbot John Klassen worried that claims against Wollmering, combined with Immelman’s profile, would be used against the monastic community. Klassen questioned his ability to lead the monastery if that happened.
Had Wollmering’s name been cleared when Joshua Guimond disappeared in 2002, it is unlikely that Abbot John Klassen would have been so defensive when a profile of Guimond’s likely abductor first circulated in 2003 and was publicly released in 2006.
Officials at St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University had known about Wollmering’s “relationships” with students for years. A link to Guimond or a prized target like a member of the Johnnie football team, for example, would be devastating.
When an institution’s leadership put money ahead of integrity, and deception ahead of disclosure, that institution is in trouble.
But both leaders, Reinhart and Klassen, who were also looked up to as the institution’s spiritual leaders, did just that.
On May 12, 2006, lawyers for the abbey were served with a complaint.
In a July 28, 2006 press release that reportedly went to only one news outlet, St. John’s finally announced that Wollmering was on restriction. It made no reference to the allegations that led to Wollmering’s forced leave of absence in 2003. The release minimized Wollmering’s behavior, claiming “sexual misconduct early in the 1980′s”. The statement said that there had been no “subsequent allegations” against Wollmering and, or course, left out all prior allegations. [ View ]
In an interview, Father William Skudlarek, the spokesperson for St. John’s at the time, did let it slip that St. John’s first learned about the specific allegations against Wollmering two years earlier, in 2004. [ View ]
On July 29, 2006 at 9:59 PM, Aubrey Immelman’s profile was published for the first time on the message boards of the St. Cloud Times web site. It was subsequently published on this web site. [ View ]
An Unattended Death
On February 4, 2009, Father Bruce Wollmering died in the basement of the monastery. When Shawn Vierzba from St. John’s Life Safety at St. John’s called the sheriff’s department, he reported that, “there’s some trauma”. [ More ]
A great deal of wordsmithing went into the abbey’s unofficial version of events, offered recently by Br. David Klingeman:
“He went to the locker room and to the sink to contain the bleeding. Next he probably turned to perhaps go to the health center before it closed and tripped over the bench directly behind the sinks and hit his head on a locker. It is believed that he got up several times and fell again on the concrete floor since there was now a great deal of blood lost. Bruce was found about 10 minutes after the fall unconscious. The EMT and ambulance were called and CPR was performed. I believe from the fall he had cracked his skull and a rib punctured his lung thus causing the massive blood loss.”
The sheriff’s department has yet to release the findings of their investigation into the unattended death of Father Bruce Wollmering. Until they do, the public won’t know how he died, what they found in Wollmering’s room or on his computers, if they found evidence of any misconduct or crimes, what the leadership of St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University may have know about Wollmering’s crimes or the effort that went into covering up those crimes.
There is speculation that the sheriff’s file on Wollmering is sealed because it contains information related to the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling or the disappearance of Joshua Guimond, or to both.
Regardless of Wollmering’s involvement (or non-involvement) in those crimes, the Abbey and University should have done more to protect its community.
Wollmering had access to thousands of potential victims.
According to Wollmering’s obituary [ View ] :
The bulk of Father Bruce’s professional life was devoted to teaching psychology and working as a counselor.
Father Bruce conducted more than 50 workshops and seminars in psychology that dealt with subjects such as dream analysis, therapeutic hypnosis, human sexuality, and healthy spirituality.
Full Disclosure, not Damage Control
For over 30 years, the St. John’s Abbey, Prep School and University knew about Bruce Wollmering’s misconduct, said nothing, and did little to protect his targets or assist his victims. They did the same with Fr. Francisco Schulte, who started abusing students in the late 70′s. His name was finally made public in 2010.
To believe that St. John’s Abbey, Prep School, Liturgical Press and University have fully disclosed the crimes and misconduct of all personnel is wishful thinking, even for an optimist.
Had they done so, the public would know about Br. Steve Lilly, Fr. Peregrin Berres, Br. Robert Burke, Terry DeSutter, Steve Pavkovich, Roger Julkowski, Fr. Othmar Hohmann, and many others.
The victims of abuse and misconduct had little in common except their vulnerability. History shows that it made no difference whether the target was a confused student, the child of a distinguished graduate or employee, or a member of the Johnnie football team. The experience of being betrayed by someone in a position of authority — and in many cases a spiritual mentor — forever changed the lives of innumerable victims, and their families.
When a lawsuit against one of these perpetrators is imminent, or when the media starts asking questions, look for a statement from St. John’s. It will likely not be truthful, have wide distribution, be posted on the university or prep school web sites, and if it gets posted on the abbey web site, won’t be there for very long. This statement will be enough for St. John’s. They will have “done their part”.
In the vast majority of cases, the public doesn’t hear about personnel at St. John’s with credible allegations against them — and neither will potential students or potential donors.
St. John’s wants it that way.
Updated March 26, 2011
Updated November 9, 2011