(StarTribune) COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. — After more than two decades at the helm of St. John’s Abbey, John Klassen is resigning as leader of the central Minnesota monastery.
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During his 23-year tenure, Klassen oversaw the creation of outreach programs and helped with the recent transition that better integrates the two private schools it’s connected to — St. John’s University and College of St. Benedict — under a single president.
He also led the organization as it reckoned with rampant sexual abuse by nearly two dozen monks that was kept hidden for years — long after the statute of limitations for the crimes had run out.
“I can’t undo what’s been done,” Klassen said in a parting interview three days before monks will gather to elect a new abbot in his stead. “I think the most important thing I could do was to listen carefully and compassionately to individuals — their account of what happened and its impact on them.”
That willingness to listen earned Klassen the respect of Jeff Anderson, an attorney who has filed thousands of cases on behalf of survivors of childhood sexual abuse over the past four decades.
“I would call him a reformer and a revolutionary. He got a lot of pushback from the community that elected him,” Anderson said.
“Time and time again, as we would negotiate new settlements or new ways to deal with the problems of the past, he always stood outside the traditions … and was willing to stand up and speak the truth that gave survivors hope.”
‘Among the most predatory’
When Klassen was elected by his peers as the 10th abbot of the organization in 2000, the decades of unchecked abuse were just starting to come to light. The accused monks worked as teachers, counselors, parish priests and chaplains across Minnesota and beyond. Files released in recent years show the monks were transferred to other religious work even though the abbey was aware of sexual wrongdoing.
Since then, the abbey has faced dozens of civil lawsuits related to sexual abuse. And, as part of a settlement, the abbey was ordered to turn over the files of every St. John’s monk accused of abuse.
The abbey now lists 21 monks credibly accused of sexually abusing children, though some think that number is a drastic undercount. Four still live on campus.
Anderson started representing survivors abused by monks at St. John’s in the early 1980s. He said the culture there was “among the most predatory” in the country.
“They’re a monastery, and that means they live together, they eat together, they pray together, and they are all so loyal to one another,” Anderson said. “As I unraveled their secrets and their practices, I found them to be among the most perilous … of all those I had encountered — that was dozens and dozens across this country.”
Anderson said he found it difficult to work with Klassen’s predecessor, Timothy Kelly, who is also accused of child sexual abuse but is not listed on the abbey’s site. But where Kelly was combative, Klassen was kind and willing to listen.
“I realized there was something very different and authentic about him,” he said.
Patrick Marker, a former St. John’s Preparatory School student who has long run a website documenting alleged sexual misconduct at the abbey, said the abbey’s list of abusers is incomplete. On his website, he lists 58 monks and 13 other members of the St. John’s community who abused minors or adults such as college-age students.
Marker, who previously worked with Klassen on an external review board created to investigate allegations, said he doesn’t think Klassen has done enough to support survivors or increase transparency.
“Here’s my problem with him: There has never been a name announced that wasn’t about to be announced by law enforcement or a filed lawsuit,” Marker said. “He has not been forthcoming and proactive. He has been extremely reactive and has settled with victims for pennies on the dollar.”
Rebuilding trust with the community has been slow, Klassen said. During his tenure, the abbey implemented better screening of candidates for the monastery and implemented protocols to raise awareness about abuse and keep minors safe, similar to protocols implemented by youth organizations such as the YMCA and Boy Scouts.
The abbey also created “safety plans” for credibly accused monks still living on campus: They cannot officiate at Mass or associate with students.
Klassen said because of the protocols, he knows of no incidents of sexual abuse of a minor by a St. John’s monk in more than two decades. He said the abbey has no outstanding lawsuits in Minnesota, though there are three active cases related to the abbey in New York.
Bells will signify a new abbot
St. John’s Abbey leader John Klassen during noon prayer at St John’s University on Jan. 5, 2024 in Collegeville, Minn.
Renée Jones Schneider, Star Tribune
Klassen is now just one of about 100 monks in the monastery, which, at its height in the early 1960s, had more than 400. Klassen became a Benedictine monk in 1972 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1977.
He’s called Collegeville home most of his life. After growing up on a dairy farm in western Stearns County, Klassen attended the prep school on campus and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. John’s. After obtaining a doctorate, he taught chemistry before being elected abbot.
As part of monastery rules, an abbot must step down before they are age 75. The monks will gather beginning Monday to elect a new abbot during a somewhat secretive, nonpublic process that could take a few days. The abbey church will then ring its bells to proclaim a leader has been selected, and the monastic community will march into the church with the new abbot at the end of the procession.
When Klassen reaches his 75th birthday in March, he plans to be practicing his newly learned Spanish at a monastery near Mexico City.
“I’d really like to become competent, I think, is the right word,” he said with a chuckle. “Fluent is too high a goal I think in my life.”
And when Klassen returns to Minnesota in the summer, he plans to spend time writing and focusing on environmental issues.
“And then I’ll do what the abbot tells me to,” he said.
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January 7, 2024