The shame, anger and soul-searching that have gripped much of the U.S. Catholic church in the wake of an avalanche of sex abuse scandals this year have been felt acutely by the band of Benedictines who comprise the monastic community at St. John’s Abbey here.
From the shocking revelation in mid-April that one of the abbey’s former abbots had abused two monks, to more recent disclosures against two former teachers in St. John’s Prep School, accused of sexual misconduct with students in the 1980s, the abbey’s bad news has been spread across Minnesota’s media like dirty laundry hung in the picture window.
Adding to public confusion and criticism is the fact that monks accused of abuse remain in the abbey. Many in the outside world cannot fathom how the other monks can continue to live side by side with offenders. Survivors especially do not understand why the order does not chuck the abusers out. “Maybe some day they will understand,” Abbot John Klassen told NCR. When Benedictine monks are professed, we take them “for better or for worse,” he said.
“We are a family.”
That may be the reason the monks are allowed to stay, but it doesn’t make life inside the abbey any easier. The abbey scandals illustrate the tension that many Catholics feel when they try to weigh the bishops’ “one strike and you’re out” policy alongside the church’s call for forgiveness of the sinner and for efforts to reconcile the hurting community. At St. John’s, abusive monks have been removed from all parish and academic duties and restricted in their social contacts, their travel and their use of any university or prep school facility where they could have unsupervised contact with students.
Never in the history of the abbey have “we experienced a more acute awareness of the frailty of human nature and of the need for repentance, forgiveness, atonement and renewal,” Klassen said.
Over the last seven months all of the abbey’s 190 plus men have suffered because of past deeds of 13 or so monks, but most have also suffered compassionately alongside them. A few monks with whom NCR met in September spoke of the “low-grade depression” that gripped their household last spring, and is still around. They credited a renewed and deeper prayer life for saving them in their most despondent days. Some are looking to the future with less fear and more hope.
“As painful, embarrassing and devastating as this has been, it’s also making us connect much more deeply,” said Br. Paul-Vincent Niebauer, associate dean of students and drama coach at St. John’s Prep School. “It’s never going to not be there. It will come up with every prospective novice, at the dinner table, in chapter and with your biological family,” said the monk who spent 13 years as a circus ringmaster before coming under the Benedictine tent.
But Niebauer believes Klassen has acted forthrightly. “He’s not deflecting it or ignoring it.” The abbot has handled the situation so well that Niebauer fears he may be transferred to another abbey or to Rome. In August the Conference of Major Superiors of Men elected Klassen as one of its three new board members. Klassen, 53, is beginning his third year as abbot; his four predecessors served an average of 12 years each.
Besides sparking anger and anxiety, the scandals call into question the future of St. John’s, which includes a university, a preparatory school, a publishing house and an ecumenical institute, each of which appears in good health.
Nevertheless, “St. John’s is at risk,” Fr. Donald Cozzens said earlier this year after ending 10 months as a visiting scholar at the Ecumenical and Cultural Institute. Its monks — like priests across the nation and abroad — are experiencing “the dark night of the spirit,” said the noted author, psychologist and visiting professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
Cozzens is right. St. John’s risks a drop in enrollment, alumni loyalty and fundraising capability just as it is launching a $7 million drive to build a 60-bed guesthouse for visitors and retreatants. The guesthouse has been on the abbey’s wish list since 1979.
Last spring the admissions departments of the university and high school breathed easier when each met its anticipated goals. St. John’s University netted 1,862 students compared with 1,860 in 2001 and its sister school, the College of St. Benedict in nearby St. [Joseph], Minn., enrolled more than 2,000. “I think long term we’ll be fine, but we’d be foolish not to consider this may impact on the future,” said Mary Milbert, dean of admissions for both colleges.
Even if the three schools can draw the same numbers in the coming academic year, attracting new monks to teach in them remains crucial if St. John’s is to remain a center of Benedictine spirituality and scholarship as it has for 14 decades. Currently one novice and five junior monks have joined the abbey.
Fr. Columba Stewart, director of formation, has received inquiries from quite a few prospective candidates — “several of them quite serious,” he said. He regretted that two novices had left, one on the eve of his profession. The scandals “played a role,” he said.
Newcomers know it
The community has expressed its gratitude to the newcomers. “They know everything there is to know about us, yet choose to join us. Priesthood is a heroic choice now,” Stewart said.
The scandals have also forced the monks to re-examine their vocations. This year’s renewal of vows was “much more significant” Stewart held, than in the past. A new commitment to the basis of monastic life, a “call to re-founding” is emerging, he said.
On a practical side, monks have considered the graying of their community, the financial and societal costs of the lawsuits that the abbey recently settled and the shortage of men to fill their shoes once they’ve passed on. For years teaching monks have earned the same salary lay instructors receive in the colleges. The difference is that monks return 55 percent of their pay to the university. With fewer drawing salaries, monks may have to decide to give back less to the university, retaining more for their own care, Stewart said.
The scandals have “heightened these concerns and put our future development under a shadow,” said Br. Bradley Jenniges, assistant treasurer in the business office.
Jenniges, who cuts checks each month for the therapy costs of those abused by abbey monks as well as for ongoing therapy for the monks themselves, said that falling market prices have had a greater effect on St. John’s holdings than have payouts to victims. In recent weeks the university has been paying for ads in major Minnesota dailies to bolster its image.
A few months ago Jenniges wondered “whether this was the right place to be. I felt a lot of calling into question of a celibate vocation in general,” he said. But his commitment to the community “and what it says about trusting in Christ who has promised to be with us” is solid. “It may be that additional changes in our lifestyle will be forthcoming,” he said, “but I’m willing to anchor into that process if my fellow monks are. I’m willing to stay in this community. I’m hoping others feel the same.”
A relative newcomer to St. John’s, Fr. William Schipper, said he senses that the atmosphere in the monastery has changed. “I’m not oblivious to it, but I don’t feel it dragging me down,” said the monk who is a faculty resident in a freshman dormitory.
Schipper, who teaches a course on male spirituality and sexuality said that students have been very supportive of the monks. “They don’t think we’re lurking around corners waiting to play with someone’s genitals.”
A lot of the hurt that Schipper finds inside the house happens because sexual abuse actually occurred and because “it’s being gone over again and again. We can’t have a future because of these [news] stories. It’s like an endless sentence for the community and the perpetrators.”
‘These men are suffering’
Very few monks shun those on restriction, said Fr. William Skudlarek, spokesman for the abbey and liaison with the monks on restriction — none of whom has chosen to talk to the press. Certain members feel uncomfortable with the abuser monks because “these men are suffering a lot and some people have a difficult time with suffering,” Skudlarek said. “I believe there’s forgiveness which still needs to take place in the community.”
Skudlarek told of two monks who tried to send letters of apology to their victims. In one case the victim refused the gesture, in the other the abbey’s lawyers ruled against it.
Last month Fr. Fran Hoefgen issued a public letter of apology to his victim.
Although on restriction, Hoefgen, 52, tends the Grotto Garden that overlooks Lake Sagatagan on St. John’s 2,500-acre property. An ace photographer and lover of nature, Hoefgen’s work features prominently in the current issue of The Abbey Banner. Finian McDonald, 73, another monk on restriction, is also a gardener whose hobby gives him “great pleasure both to watch it grow, taking care of it and to know that other people enjoy its changing beauty.”
Schipper, who came from St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana four years ago, said he has seen a lot of fraternal support for the monks on restriction. “The community has shown itself to be loving in the face of something that has been horrible. Most of these monks have had 10 to 15 years to process this stuff.
“I would be surprised if most of them didn’t have a spiritual adviser. Some are very healthy as a result of all the therapy, guidance and their willingness to be different,” Schipper said. But it’s difficult for victims to accept this, he noted.
At the most recent renewal of vows ceremony — held since the scandal broke, each monk was asked: “What do you seek?” Niebauer recalled well his feelings and his answer: “I seek the mercy of Christ and fellowship in this community.”
The monk said he realized anew that “my commitment is to this place, to these bricks and these men. It’s our community and we have to own it if we want to wear this,” he said, tugging on the apron-like front of his habit. “And today I do want to wear it.”
Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.
Monks suffer with abusers in the family
Last in a two-part series
By PATRICIA LEFEVERE