Its reputation for learning and liturgy, publishing and holiness, ecumenism and even bread-making are legendary and have grown over its 146-year existence, making St. John’s Abbey here — with its impressive abbey church and signature bell tower — a jewel in the Minnesota prairie landscape.
But the jewel has been tarnished with the disclosure in recent months of a history of sex abuse by a handful of monks, much of it perpetrated 20 to 40 years ago and hidden by the leadership. The revelations have shocked and saddened members of the Benedictine family and thousands of alumni of St. John’s University, its prestigious St. John’s Prep School and its sister campus — the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn.
For six months, headlines and television cameras have highlighted ugly aspects of the history of St. John’s Abbey, home to 196 monks, the largest Benedictine men’s community in the Western world. The revelations and their aftermath have demonstrated the resolve of Abbot John Klassen to set the abbey’s house in order, to punish perpetrators, apologize to and compensate victims, take personal accountability and design steps to assure that such abuses are not repeated. The abbey has won praise for its belated openness and Klassen for his courage and integrity in handling the painful sins of the past.
On April 15, Klassen called a mandatory meeting of all monks at which he disclosed that former Abbot John Eidenschink had sexually abused a monk during his tenure as head of the Benedictine community (1971-79) and another at an earlier date. The news “rocked” the chapter, Br. Paul-Vincent Niebauer told NCR. “It is messy, cruddy stuff and it had happened in our house,” said the associate dean of students at St. John’s Prep.
Many monks had not only served under Eidenschink’s leadership, but had studied canon law and liturgy in his classroom over a quarter century. For some, he was novice master.
Because Klassen had been part of the monastery staff for a decade before being named abbot in 2000, he knew of two allegations of sexual abuse against the former abbot, he told NCR during a lengthy interview in his office in September.
When Klassen confronted Eidenschink, now 88 and living “on restriction” the past 10 years — most recently in the monks’ retirement center, St. Raphael’s Hall — the former abbot admitted the abuse. Both men were nearly in tears, Klassen recalled.
The pain Klassen is feeling, the pain he has found in the faces of his monks only reminds him “of the deeper pain I have seen in survivors of sexual abuse,” he said in a recent statement announcing the abbey’s settlement of a number of abuse allegations brought against several of its monks.
Monks on restriction
“It is a pain that strengthens my resolve to reach out to assist survivors wherever they are in their process of healing,” Klassen told a news conference Oct. 1, at which the abbey announced the terms of the settlement. The pain he has witnessed has also bolstered his determination “to achieve healing within my own monastic community.”
Nine of at least 11 abuser monks have been placed on restriction at the abbey; two have left to discern whether they still have a vocation to Benedictine life. At least two more monks are also living on restriction for sexual infractions related to pornography on the Internet or other sexual misconduct not involving another individual.
A monk placed on restriction cannot say Mass in public. He may not preach, teach or mix with students or staff in either the university or high school. He cannot use the athletic facilities, swimming pool or cafeteria, but may use the library and walk the roads and byways around the monks’ 2,500-acre property and lakefront.
Allegations this year against two retired monks, Frs. Cosmas Dahlheimer, 93, and Richard Eckroth, 76, who are both living on restriction in the retirement home, prompted Klassen to go public and for the first time acknowledge that members of the abbey have committed sexual abuse.
Dahlheimer, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, has never admitted wrongdoing, but Klassen told NCR there was “compelling evidence corroborating” his abuse of two children in the 1970s. Eckroth, who took scores of area youngsters to a St. John’s-owned cabin near Bemidji, Minn., between 1971 and 1976 and allegedly molested a number of them there, has denied the accusations.
The alleged victims, now in their 30s and 40s have described sexually charged weekend trips during which Eckroth talked of nakedness and of the cabin’s sauna while driving five or six boys and girls to the remote log cabin on Lake Swensen. The accusers have testified to being tricked or coerced into going naked in the sauna and in the lake.
Victims have described being fondled, assaulted, raped and sodomized by Eckroth as well as receiving death threats from him. Two of Eckroth’s weekend guests in 1972, Mary and Susanne Reker of St. Cloud, Minn., were stabbed to death in 1974. Their bodies were dragged to a quarry.
Eckroth was a suspect in the killing, but passed a polygraph test in the early 1990s when he was sued in a personal injury case alleging sexual abuse of other children. The homicides remain unsolved and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office has recently begun DNA testing of the girls’ clothing.
Fred Reker, father of the pair and a deacon at St. John Cantius church in St. Cloud told NCR “there’s no evidence” linking Eckroth or the abbey to his daughters’ deaths. He and his wife continue to hope that law enforcement officials will crack the case. Notes and photos from the original investigation disappeared some years ago.
Allegations against Eckroth from other alleged victims are still outstanding, though there is no current lawsuit against him or the abbey. Klassen told NCR he planned to initiate an investigation of abuse claims against the monk. The probe would involve both criminal justice and psychological professionals, he said. Currently he believes there is “insufficient evidence” to corroborate stories that date back 30 and more years.
Compensation for survivors
In October, the abbey announced a broad financial settlement with 12 to 15 people directly victimized by its monks and with an undisclosed number of other people who had filed suits related to the same sex abuse incidents. Although there was no confidentiality concerning the amount of the awards, none of the survivors with whom NCR spoke chose to specify a figure. Money for the settlement came from a combination of insurance payments and monks’ salaries, the abbot said.
The agreement — prompted in part by the crusading victims’ advocate, attorney Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn. — has been hailed as a model for religious congregations, dioceses and churches nationwide in a year in which sex scandals have scarred the Catholic church and continue to unfold. (See accompanying story on Anderson.)
Besides compensating victims and their families with direct awards, the settlement includes payment for survivors’ ongoing group and individual therapy. It also offers funds for spiritual direction.
Another feature of the settlement is a provision of a direct apology to each victim — either from the offending monk or from Klassen. In a letter to Benedictine Oblates, persons who follow the Benedictine rule and are formally associated with the order, former Oblate director and former prep school English teacher Fr. Allen Tarlton, 74, expressed sorrow for his part in the abuse. Fr. Brennan Maiers, 66, who formerly worked in a parish near St. John’s, apologized directly to a victim. Fr. Francis Hoefgen, 52, a former pastor, released a public letter, detailing his contrition and daily prayers for healing and forgiveness.
The apology from the abbot on behalf of offending monks meant more to Arlene and Ray Vogel than did the financial settlement and payments for ongoing counseling for their sons John, Allen and Michael. The three sued the abbey after detailing how Dahlheimer and Eckroth abused them in the 1970s and early 1980s. They alleged the abuse occurred at the abbey’s cabin, and in Dahlheimer’s room, his car and in the sacristy of St. Augustine church in St. Cloud, where he was pastor and where Allen Vogel an altar boy.
They moved away
After Ray Vogel labored 30 years in St. John’s paint shop and Arlene Vogel worked part-time on campus for 20 years, the couple said they felt “we had to get as far away as possible” and moved 150 miles from the place they had known and loved all their lives. Their sons — troubled for many years with depression and unable to hold jobs or stay in a relationship — began, while in therapy, to piece together the puzzle of their lives and what had happened to them 20 years earlier as children.
Today none of her sons “is in the Catholic faith,” Arlene Vogel told NCR. “They all believe in God. They’re all trying for the same end. It doesn’t matter what building they go to.” The abuse has made Vogel question her own faith. “I find it pretty hard to go to Mass sometimes. I have mixed feelings about it,” she said.
But Vogel praised the actions taken by Klassen to unveil the abuse and be accountable to the victims. “He is wonderful,” she said. “I believe he is moved by the Holy Spirit and not by lawsuits.”
Vogel said she is relieved that after many years, someone finally believes her sons. Klassen told NCR that he is saddened that over the years “the leadership of the church did not stand with the families to feel what moms and dads feel about their children.”
A hallmark of the settlement is the creation of an external review board whose members will include at least two clergy abuse survivors, two current or former law enforcement officials, one current or former judicial official, one parent of a clergy abuse victim and one mental health practitioner. The abbey intends that the board be ecumenical and that the local network of clergy sexual abuse survivors and the abbey will have equal say in deciding who sits on it.
The largely lay panel will also review and make recommendations annually on the abbey’s sexual abuse policy and its implementation.
The board will invoke a three-person subcommittee to examine any abuse claims made against St. John’s monks, faculty, staff or volunteers. Anyone accused of sex abuse will be placed on immediate administrative leave and monks will be removed from all ministerial duties while the allegations are investigated. A monk accused of sexual misconduct would not be permitted to resume his ministerial role until the board reviews the claims and recommends his reinstatement.
Although the abbey developed a Policy on Sexual Abuse and Exploitation 15 years ago under Abbot Jerome Theisen (1979-91) and made revisions to it under Abbot Timothy Kelly (1992-2000), the new policy has “legal teeth,” according to attorneys familiar with such cases. It does not rely solely on the abbot’s promises or his efforts to correct conduct within the abbey.
While former cases were treated in house for the most part, new reporting rules comply with state law and ensure that accusations made by any minor, vulnerable adult or person in therapy will be disclosed to law enforcement officials immediately.
In 1994, Kelly initiated the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute, an ecumenical group of clergy, therapists and survivors dedicated to preventing sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment through research, education and publishing. The institute is part of St. John’s University School of Theology. LINKUP, a national network of survivors of sexual abuse, held its annual meeting at the institute in 1994, at Kelly’s invitation.
However, in the recent past, A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former St. John’s monk, has found the institute “compromised,” noting that one of its board members was an alleged abuser. Klassen, aware of Sipe’s criticisms, said that St. John’s has always envisioned the institute as an educational endeavor rather than just a review board. “We need to have offenders, victims, health care professionals as well as theological and pastoral input all focused on this issue.”
“How do you create a safe faith community?” he asked, adding that an offender can bring insight to this question that others may not be able to give. “You’ve got to know that. You’ve got to learn how come certain individuals were victims, others not.” In founding the institute, “we wanted to make a contribution to the whole church. That intention is and was honest,” he said.
One of the things Klassen has gleaned from listening to offender monks is that some were unaware of how much power they possessed as a function of being a priest, of wearing a habit. They knew even less in some cases about “the power attached to sex itself,” he said. In November the abbey hosted a discussion on the subject of power.
Klassen admitted that the abbey has been learning from its mistakes over the last 15 years. To avoid a recurrence of sexual abuse, St. John’s will continue to educate all monks and all employees, volunteers and students on issues related to appropriate human boundaries. For the past decade a human rights officer has visited high school and college classrooms and assemblies to facilitate this learning. “Sex abuse is on our students’ radar big time,” Niebauer said.
At about the same time the U.S. bishops were meeting in Dallas in June, Klassen, attorney Anderson and their representatives commenced negotiations aimed at resolving cases without going to court. Following three months of meetings, both sides believe that the settlement represents the best efforts to tailor a program of prevention, healing and reconciliation. Reaching agreement proved arduous and might have failed had it not been for the strong motivation of both sides and the unique mediation process employed.
Mediation sessions involved victims telling their stories to two independent persons chosen by the two sides. In so doing victims bypassed the more painful process of disclosing to attorneys within the frequently confrontational deposition setting. St. John’s selected the Rev. Margo Maris, an Episcopal priest from Oregon, and Anderson picked attorney Mike Ciresi.
Ciresi reported that mediation sessions lasted up to 12 hours in his office and were intense during four days in mid-August and another in September. The fact that St. John’s stepped away from the statute of limitations argument — both to avoid a trial and to hasten resolution of the outstanding complaints — won praise from both survivors and their attorneys.
For survivor Allen Vogel, the settlement and the strong policy to prevent further abuse, which the settlements provides, is validation that he was telling the truth when he brought his accusations against Dahlheimer a dozen years ago. That plus a personal apology from the abbot should go a long way in providing accountability and in “stopping the trail of deceit, lies and cover-up and acknowledging that this has occurred,” Vogel told the St. Cloud Times.
Anderson hailed the survivors as “the real heroes” in the accord. They had the courage and perseverance to come forward and not to cower in the face of denial of the abuse on the part of the abbey, he told NCR.
Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.
Part 2 of this series will be published in the Dec. 27 issue of NCR.
Scandal at the Abbey