Priest is among suspects in ’74 deaths


ST. CLOUD, MINN. — A Benedictine priest suspected of sexually abusing young people as far back as the 1960s has re-emerged as a possible suspect in the 1974 slayings of two girls in the St. Cloud area.

Stearns County authorities are investigating the priest and several other suspects in the stabbing deaths of 15-year-old Mary Reker and 12-year-old Susanne Reker, Sheriff James Kostreba said Tuesday.

The priest, now 75, has denied any wrongdoing.

He is among 13 monks who are sequestered at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville because of allegations or admissions that they sexually abused teenagers or young adults between the 1960s and the 1980s.

The bodies of the Reker sisters were found in a gravel quarry west of St. Cloud on Sept. 28, 1974, 26 days after they disappeared while shopping for school supplies.

The priest was questioned in 1993 by the Sheriff’s Office about the deaths, and at the insistence of the girls’ parents took a polygraph test.

According to St. John’s Abbot John Klassen, the priest apparently came to the attention of authorities in 1993 because of a lawsuit and several other allegations then that he had sexually abused children at a cabin near Cass Lake owned by the monastery.

The priest took hundreds of children to the cabin for weekend getaways from 1972 to 1976, Klassen said, adding that the priest has denied any involvement in the girls’ deaths or in any sexual abuse.

The priest could not be reached for comment.

Kostreba said that his deputies soon will interview the priest and other suspects.

“We have been looking at a number of suspects for a number of years,” Kostreba said. “[The priest] is just one that we’re taking another look at.”

A mother’s doubts

“We have no evidence whatsoever to connect him to our girls’ murders,” said Rita Reker, their mother. “And murder cases are based on evidence.”

Standing near photographs of her slain daughters in her St. Cloud home Tuesday, Reker said she and her husband asked in the early 1990s that the priest take a polygraph test after allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused children at the cabin.

Several of her six children, including Susanne and Mary, had gone to the cabin on two occasions two years before the killings, she said. When allegations of sexual abuse surfaced years later, Reker said, they asked that he be interviewed because “it was just more suspect . . . the fact that our kids had been to the cabin.”

Reker said she and her husband hadn’t worried about sending their children with the priest, who would take groups of six or seven children for overnight trips.

Her husband, Fred Reker, worked at the Liturgical Press at St. John’s and knew the priest. The first time her children went, she said, they came back saying that they’d had fun. The second time, she said, they wouldn’t say much.

“I thought they did not have any fun and they just seemed so relieved to be home,” she said. So she decided not to send them again.

Reker said her older children told her that Mary had refused to go into a sauna at the cabin with the priest and other children.

In the early 1990s and again recently, she and her husband talked with their other children, now grown, who had gone on the trips. She said they feel assured that their children were not sexually abused. But, she said, “there were strange things that they did see . . . we feel they were exploited.”

Reker said the family reported to authorities what her other children told her in the early ’90s.

Devout Catholics, she and her husband, an ordained deacon, went to authorities again in recent weeks, she said. She declined to say what she asked authorities to do.

“We feel that things did happen there [at the cabin] that need to be cleared up, not covered up,” she said. “I think you need a pure church.”

‘Case never closed’

Kostreba wouldn’t discuss evidence in the case, but said that national attention to sexual abuse by priests has led his department to take a new look at cases of abuse by priests.

“This case was never closed. We’ve continued to follow leads as we get them,” he said. He said four deputies have been working part-time on the case.

Kostreba also has examined records for six or seven other monks at St. John’s, Klassen said. Most of them – like the suspect – had been sued by alleged victims.

The abbey settled all of those cases out of court, he said. In some of those cases – and in others where no lawsuit was filed – the abbey paid for counseling and living costs for alleged victims. It continues to help some of them, Klassen said.

The abbot and sheriff said they met last week to talk about the priest and the murder investigation.

The priest served two parishes in the St. Cloud area in the 1970s, and in 1976 was reassigned to the abbey’s mission church in the Bahamas. He was recalled in 1993 when the lawsuit against him was filed. The abbey settled the suit out of court, said Klassen, who has been abbot for 17 months.

The priest is one of two living under restrictions at the abbey who were accused of abusing young people and who have denied the allegations, Klassen said. He said he has reviewed the cases and is convinced that evidence supports the abuse allegations.

Those restrictions bar them from visiting the adjacent university and prep school campuses and limit where they can go and who they can see.

Priest and chaplain

The priest under investigation grew up in Mandan, N.D., and attended St. John’s Prep School and St. John’s University, both on the monastery grounds, before joining the Benedictine order as a monk. He was ordained a priest and served in two nearby parishes and as a chaplain for nuns, in addition to his work with the Bahamas mission, Klassen said.

In 1991, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s “cold case” team worked with the sheriff to reexamine evidence in the murders, “and that gave us some things to look at, but it just didn’t go very far,” Kostreba said. At that time, investigators were looking at 10 suspects, some with criminal records of sexual assault.

There were allegations that the original investigation had been mishandled, and the deputy in charge of it was removed in 1977 for allegedly not sharing information with other agencies.

After that deputy died in 1993, officials found evidence they had not known about in his desk.

Warren Wolfe and Pam Louwagie
Star Tribune
May 8, 2002

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Topics: John Klassen, Richard Eckroth

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