Abbot opens monastery records on monk abuse


[Webmaster’s note: Klassen was not being truthful when he said for this article that 13 to 15 monks at the monastery have been accused of sexual abuse in cases dating from the 1960s to early ’80s. The Abbot also said there were 25 victims. Fr. Dunstan Moorse has over fifteen known victims, Fr. Francisco Schulte at least nine and Fr. Richard Eckroth may have over 25 of his own.]

Abbot opens monastery records on monk abuse

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — For decades, there were dark secrets behind the walls of the monastery. But now Abbot John Klassen wants to make it clear the abbey will no longer follow a code of silence on allegations of sexual abuse by monks.

Since becoming abbot 17 months ago, Klassen has reviewed long-sealed files alleging sexual abuse by monks at St. John’s Abbey. He has sat down with victims and heard secrets they had carried for years and years. And he has prayed.

Finally, Klassen took a dramatic step that has echoed far beyond the abbey walls. He publicly disclosed that the Roman Catholic monastery in Collegeville housed up to 15 Benedictine monks accused of sexual misconduct and issued an open letter acknowledging the “grievous pain” of clerical sexual abuse.

Klassen also revealed a secret that had never been discussed openly even within the monastery – that one of his predecessors, former Abbot John Eidenschink, had abused young monks under his charge.

“What we’re learning is we’re simply moving into a time of greater candor and openness within the church about this whole set of issues,” Klassen said Thursday. “Our church, laymen and laywomen just simply said, ‘Look, we need more transparency.’ “

The revelations come as the Catholic Church faces intense scrutiny on the issue of sexual abuse by clergy. Klassen said he made the disclosures in order to end the culture of secrecy that has allowed abuse to continue in the past and to promote healing.

Klassen sat down Thursday to explain his actions in a conference room overlooking a walled courtyard at the monastery.

“We weren’t trying to be unusual,” said Klassen. “We were really just trying to respond to the situation we find ourselves in, and trying to respond to what’s happening in the larger church. And the path in front of us is not all that clear in terms of the way we need to change. Clearly, we simply have to take steps to work with all people in the church to rebuild trust.”

Klassen said that 13 to 15 monks at the monastery have been accused of sexual abuse in cases dating from the 1960s to early ’80s. The monastery has 196 monks.

He estimated that there were 25 male and female victims, who were generally between the ages of 15 and 22 when the abuse occurred. He said the majority of victims were boys or young men.

Klassen said all but two of the monks had confessed.

“These men have gone through serious, intensive treatment and have had support groups here in the monastery for years after they have come out in terms of their own healing process,” said Klassen. “This kind of abuse is considered to be an addiction. They continue to this day to work 12-step programs.”

The monks have remained at the abbey with certain restrictions, such as staying away from the adjacent college and preparatory school. Klassen said none of the cases he has reviewed has required him to notify law enforcement.

“As a general statement, for all of these cases, we were notified or the victim came forward 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years after it happened,” he said. “You’re talking a classic statute of limitations issue.”

“But I assure you that if there was a situation where I had a monk who was abusing a minor, that would go directly to law enforcement,” he said.

In reviewing the old cases, Klassen said he came to see some patterns. In decades past, he said, monks entered a closed seminary system when the screening process was much less extensive than today. He said some simply “stalled out” in their psychosexual development in their adolescent years.

“What you have in that situation is someone who is 18 years old in terms of psychosexual development, interacting with someone who is 18 years old,” he said. “It looks, on the face of it, peer to peer. But in fact, it’s not. What you have is an adult who has enormous responsibility, and so it’s abuse. So that’s the way I make sense of it.”

After becoming abbot in November 2000, Klassen said he reviewed every case involving sexual abuse by St. John’s monks.

He said two cases in particular leaped out, both involving his predecessor, Eidenschink. Two former monks at the abbey had reported being abused by Eidenschink in the late 1980s and ’90s. Both cases were settled confidentially and included money for counseling, legal fees and living expenses and were never discussed within the abbey.

Klassen said he met with victims, spoke with counselors and members of the community. He said he wrestled with the issue for six to eight months before issuing his open letter of April 19.

Some welcomed the revelations as a step toward healing and reform.

Maxine Barnett, director of Anna Marie’s battered women’s shelter in St. Cloud, expressed admiration for Klassen. “Getting rid of the secrecy is something John is very committed to,” said Barnett, who is helping St. John’s work with victims.

One former victim, Helen Olson, is encouraged by Klassen’s pledge of openness. Olson, 42, of Woodbury, said she was abused by the Rev. Richard Eckroth 31 years ago at a lakeside cabin owned by the monastery. Eckroth has denied the allegations.

“I am trusting the sincerity of the abbot,” she said Thursday. “However, you know I have a history of naively trusting people. I struggle daily with whether he (Klassen) believes me.”

Some took a dimmer view. Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who specializes in cases of clerical sexual abuse, characterized the abbey’s recent disclosures as a public relations ploy aimed at deflecting further scrutiny.

“They have been successful in promulgating a lie and have deceived the police, the public and the parishioners and everybody else into believing that they have dealt with the problem or that they don’t have one,” said Anderson, who has represented a number of people in abuse claims against St. John’s clergy and others. “When victims have made claims, they ignored them or coerced them into insulting compromises. When there has been litigation, they have hidden behind the statute of limitations.”

Klassen, however, quietly insists that the abbey is sincere. Over the last two weeks, he said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The community overall has been very, very supportive,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s painful.

“But they’ve faced that with a resilience and courage that’s pretty inspiring. I’m sure there’s nervousness of ‘Oh my God, where’s this going to go?’ We’re testing this out and seeing what the right path is.”

Posted on Fri, May. 03, 2002
Abbot opens monastery records on monk abuse
St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Topics: BS, Dunstan Moorse, Francisco Schulte, Jeff Anderson, John Klassen, Richard Eckroth

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