Abbey has turned corner in abuse scandal, victims’ attorney says


Only five months ago, attorney Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul lambasted Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., as “the worst among the orders — the darkest of the dark.”

Anderson said he was angry at how “brutal they have been to the people they have harmed.” Their attitude toward victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by their own monks was one of “if you come forward we’re going to beat you down, wear you out and bury you,” he told The Washington Times in May.

But Anderson’s attitude appears to have altered since he, Abbot John Klassen, abbey attorney Robert Stich and a group of survivors spent weeks this past summer crafting a settlement of all the cases in which Anderson was defending victims of sexual misconduct by abbey monks. The agreement was made public at the abbey Oct. 1.

Today Anderson hails it as “a new dawn” for the church. He has invited Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento to meet in their respective sees with him, with a local survivor of clerical sex abuse and with representatives of SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests).

Known for his grandstanding and also his defense of victims over the past 22 years, Anderson admits that his is not the first number a prelate might dial. “The bishops are afraid, so they run and hide and try to keep their secrets. They think I want to bring them down, but I want to clean things up and take this burden from their shoulders,” Anderson said.

“I’m sending them a message,” he told NCR: “Be part of the solution, not the problem.” That’s what the abbey has done by “genuinely engaging” in the process of reconciliation, healing and prevention, the attorney said. “It has come out of the dark; it’s now the brightest star in what it means to be a new church in terms of safety for children.”

Anderson put St. John’s “much farther ahead” with its agreement than are the U.S. bishops, whose Dallas charter has taken on less than mandatory status with the Vatican’s revisions.

The settlement includes creation of a review board independent of the abbey, which will immediately report abuse allegations in keeping with state law.

St. John’s has agreed to collaborate with four professionals from the judicial, law enforcement and mental health sectors, and with at least two survivors and one parent of a survivor. The abbey and the local survivors’ network will have equal say in who sits on the board.

“That’s a fundamental breakthrough,” Anderson said. “The abbot doesn’t control this panel.” The attorney, a Lutheran, noted that all other current review boards that he’s looked at “are creatures of the bishops or of a religious superior.”

He believes St. John’s will not have to abrogate canon law by working with a non-church-appointed review board. The board could be a cooperative effort with the St. Cloud diocese or the abbey might participate in the process alone, he said.

“Bishops and the church at large have to turn over the power they have coveted for centuries,” he said — “the final say in all matters of life and faith. They’ve shown themselves incapable of dealing with this issue. Whenever they try, they only bungle it.”

According to Pat Schiltz, an attorney who has handled more than 500 clergy sex abuse cases, a third of them involving the Catholic church, much of St. John’s settlement has already been featured in agreements reached by dioceses over the past decade. What is unusual is the greater amount of lay involvement, said Schiltz, associate dean and law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

However, Schiltz noted that courts don’t try rape cases with rape victims on the jury. Similarly, he said, St. John’s is making a mistake by investing so much of the advisory role in survivors, who will find it “hard to be objective” in future cases. “In the end the decision must rest with the bishop or abbot.”

— Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002

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Topics: Jeff Anderson, John Klassen, SNAP

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