Sins of a Father: ‘Sauna Kids’ Abuse

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Sins of a Father: ‘Sauna Kids’ Abuse; a Remote Retreat in Minnesota Allegedly Was Turned into a Sexual Playhouse by a Catholic Monk Who Has Been Accused of Repeatedly Molesting Young Boys and Girls.

by Kelly Patricia O’Meara

In the summer of 1985 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops held a closed meeting at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., a major center of the Order of St. Benedict in the United States, to address the problem of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The bishops were provided with a confidential report — a copy of which INSIGHT has obtained — that not only acknowledged a “problem” but laid out plans to cope with it by, among other things, increasing specialized sex-therapy clinics for priests.

It is an ironic twist in view of recent news stories about pedophilia and homosexuality among Catholic clergy that this meeting of American bishops 16 years ago somehow managed to overlook alleged wrongdoing at the very meeting place of the conclave. INSIGHT has learned that nearly a dozen of the abbey’s Benedictine monks since have been accused of sexually abusing minors or adults in their spiritual care. Of these, at least eight are known to have confessed to such acts.

St. John’s is a nationally known center of liturgical revolution, redirecting Catholic liturgy away from worship of a transcendent God to community-centered participation. Thousands of Catholic parishes use its manuals weekly.

An investigation by this magazine suggests that nearly two dozen cases have been settled privately by the Roman Catholic Church there and that, according to victims, parents, lawyers and priests, there are likely to be more cases. These are cases that, as with the scandals in New York and Boston, could unfold into a worse nightmare than currently even imagined. Meanwhile, ironically, the document given to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops so many years ago could open the floodgates against the church for its failure to protect children and other sexual innocents entrusted to the care of its clergy by a system that was warned but failed to deal rigorously with the widespread problem of sexual predators.

As INSIGHT goes to press, the Vatican has responded to a media frenzy by summoning the entire conference of American bishops to Rome for a meeting with Pope John Paul II. But even now little attention is being paid to the victims and the ordeals they have suffered for years. Here, in an exclusive report, Insight looks at the personal stories and allegations of sexual exploitation at the hands of just one priest, the Rev. Richard Eckroth, a veteran clergyman accused of molesting both little boys and young girls over many years.

This is their story — the story of youngsters called the “Sauna Kids.” It developed between 1971 and 1976 when “Father Richard” invited scores of children in groups of four to six for weekends at a remote log cabin on Lake Swensen near Bemidji, Minn., owned by St. John’s Abbey. These youngsters ranged in age from 7 to 13. They tell INSIGHT they saw a happy time turn into the nightmare of a life dealing with painful memories of what occurred at the abbey’s cabin where, they claim, they suffered abuse at the hands of their trusted priest. While Father Richard never has admitted in public to any of the allegations of sexual abuse brought against him, INSIGHT has obtained confidential medical records maintained by the abbey in which church-run therapy clinic doctors said that he engaged in inappropriate touching of children and encouraged them inappropriately to touch him.

Medical teams reported to the head of the abbey that they could not prove or get the cleric to admit the overt allegations. But they found that details of at least two internally reported incidents of alleged sexual abuse by Father Richard were so strikingly similar that “We believe there is a strong possibility that Father Eckroth has engaged in sexually inappropriate contact with these people.” The recommendation was that Father Eckroth have “no unsupervised contact with minors” — even after a stay of several months at one of the half-dozen “sex” clinics run by the Catholic church.

Among victims willing to go on the record about molestation charges against this monk, the alleged modus operandi of Father Richard is remarkably consistent. For example, according to one of the Sauna Kids, much of the discussion during the three-hour drive to the log cabin revolved around the priest’s explanation about the sauna, a building detached from the main cabin where the clergyman insisted on nudity.

“On the drive to the cabin,” explains Betsy Westerhoff, “Father Richard told us we’d be taking a sauna, and he said it would be fun — the best thing we’d be doing up there — and afterward we’d go swimming in the lake. I was 11 years old and didn’t even know what a sauna was, but he told us that we had to be naked in the sauna.”

Westerhoff says, “That bothered my sister and me, and we asked if we could wear our swimsuits. Father Richard told us that we couldn’t wear our suits because it gets too hot and the metal clasps on the back of the suits could burn us. He said that he had `bands’ at the cabin that we could wrap around us. I remember thinking at the time that the only `band’ I knew of was a rubber band and I couldn’t imagine how that would cover us. When we got to the cabin it turned out that the `bands’ were strips of cloth that weren’t long enough to fit around our chests. I wore my bathing suit but left the clasps unhooked so I wouldn’t get burned. I remember swimming in the lake afterward, and one of the other girls was naked and she was diving off of Father Richard’s shoulders. I remember feeling ashamed that some of the kids didn’t have their clothes on.”

According to this victim: “Another time, Father Richard took just us girls down to the beach and he wanted us to cover him up with sand. He had us bury him and form breasts on him, and one of the girls stuck a stick where his penis would be. I don’t remember how this all started, but I remember Father Richard was laughing and encouraging us to do this to him. Again, it made me feel embarrassed, but I didn’t tell my mom about these things. I thought I had done something wrong. There was a general sexual atmosphere at the cabin among the kids. It’s funny but I don’t remember doing anything `normal’ at the cabin. It bothers me that I can’t recall what we did. I don’t remember fishing or board games, cooking or washing dishes. It just seems that the whole weekend revolved around getting firewood for the sauna and taking a sauna.”

Westerhoff counts herself among the lucky. She has no memory of being assaulted by the priest. Others, however, can’t forget the alleged assaults.

Feelings of having done something wrong and hiding the secret appear to be constants in these accounts. Elizabeth Vessel remembers being taken to the cabin between the ages of 7 and 11 and recalls specifics of four instances where Father Richard touched her inappropriately. “One time I was in the sauna where a small group of us were in the sauna and I was lying naked on the top rack of the sauna,” she recalls. “There were a couple of other girls who were naked, too, and Father Richard was naked and he was caressing me on the backside and he penetrated me with his finger. That was the first strong memory that never seems to go away.”

Vessel continues: “One time, all the kids were in the cabin one night, we were playing spin the bottle and Father [Richard] Eckroth would take the winner of the game and bring us over to an old chest and there was clothing in it, described to us as costume clothing, which weren’t really costumes but just old T-shirts and men’s shirts, and we got to choose some of the clothes. I chose a T-shirt and I remember he followed me to the loft of the cabin and stood me on a mattress in front of the window and he knelt in front of me and stripped me naked. [Then] he started cussing at me in my ear, calling me horrible names — he said I was a little bitch, a whore, that my daddy wanted him to do this and if I told anyone he would kill me or my mom.”

It gets worse. “He also had a knife in this instance. I don’t remember returning downstairs to the game. I remember he had a knife to my throat and he penetrated me with his hand. Another instance, we would be in the water and he would be holding me on his hip and he would be penetrating me with his finger and whispering in my ear, threatening me not to say anything. I never told my dad about any of this. None of the kids ever talked about it. I was afraid of what would happen. If I said anything, I don’t know what he would have done to me or my family.”

According to people who have stepped forward (and others not ready to be identified publicly) Father Richard did this repeatedly. “I was 11 years old,” says Helen Olson, “when my sister and I went to the cabin. My dad knew Father Richard because they we t to school together, but we had never met him before. There were three or four other kids there, too. I think it was two boys and four girls. Father Richard was in the same bed with me that night and he raped me. In the morning he made me take a bath. There was a water pump outside and he brought in a couple of inches to fill the tub, and I remember he said `If you say anything to your parents that will make them mad at me they will go to hell because it’s a sin to be mad at a priest.’ I never went back to the cabin, and I didn’t tell my parents about what happened until 1993.”

In February of this year, Olson met with John Klassen, the abbot of St. John’s, and told him her story. Klassen wrote Olson a check for $2,000 to help with mental-health costs, but acknowledged nothing. As with other cases emerging in the news, and with the Olson case, the churchmen dealing with them seem more interested in making them go away as quietly as possible. But sadly, as some victims now recount, the paying of “hush money” without confession and repentance only furthers the psychological abuse of those victimized. Consider that Olson wasn’t told what the church knew about two other families whose children also were part of the Sauna Kids circle. Before legal cases went to trial, St. John’s made out-of-court settlements stemming from allegations of Father Richard’s pedophilia.

“That’s normally the way they like to handle it,” says a lawyer who has handled such cases on behalf of the church in another jurisdiction. “And, frankly, it tends to be easier for the victims it seems. Is it right? That’s not for me to say. But I can tell you these happen more than you know. It’s disgusting.”

Church leaders still are reticent to talk openly about such cases, but INSIGHT sat down with the Rev. Rene McGraw, the liaison on such claims between the Benedictine monastery and lawyers. He acknowledges claims have been made against at least nine monks (including one abbot) for abuse of minors and involving at least 16 children from the 1940s to the mid-1980s. Eight of the nine monks admitted to the abuse and one reportedly is senile. Father Richard is not considered to be among this group of nine. Despite the settlements, allegations, confessions and therapies, each of these clergy still lives on the St. John’s campus.

One of the issues that remains a mystery is whether Father Richard was the only monk to take kids to the cabin. Father McGraw tells INSIGHT: “I don’t know if others went out there. I don’t know how I can find that out. Since then, though, we’ve put in rules that only monks are allowed to use the cabin. I don’t know if anyone knew [Father Richard] was taking children to the cabin. Father Richard would have to sign for use of the cabin, but I don’t know that anyone knew who was going with him.” But they do now, INSIGHT learned.

Asked if the names of confessed pedophile monks had been or will be given to local law enforcement to be added to the statewide list of sexual predators, Father McGraw dodges the question. Instead, he explains the processing of claims: “When an accusation is made, we usually are contacted by lawyers about a claim, and we turn over documents as they are requested. We find out about these things through attorneys.”

Father McGraw also sidesteps the issue of why the abbey has not turned the names of the confessed monks over to law enforcement, saying: “All of these cases are public, and you can get the information from the local courthouse. It’s public knowledge, and it’s been written up in the newspaper.” Father McGraw apparently is referring to a separate issue of sexual abuse by the monks at the prep school run by St. John’s. The accusations from the Sauna Kids have yet to be addressed by the abbey, and few articles have been written about the scandal. This is the first national story.

“All of this is terribly painful for the abbey,” Father McGraw says, “as it creates an atmosphere of ill will among the people who feel they’ve been victimized, and great fear and sadness for the church. Yes, the church is culpable in this, and one of the sad things is that 90 percent of the dioceses tried in the mid-1980s to put policies in place, and many are very sad and angry at those that did not.” Apparently he is referring to that confidential policy paper that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reviewed to try to halt or otherwise deal with homosexual pedophile cases involving abuse of children.

Despite the fact that Father McGraw admits believing that “this is criminal behavior and should be treated as such,” St. John’s still has not taken steps to report to police or prosecutors the known pedophiles residing at the abbey.

To Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who recently made national headlines for filing a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit on behalf of victims of a Missouri seminary, this is all very familiar stuff — including the specific allegations made against Father Richard and other St. John’s clerics. Anderson has represented several of these families in claims. “I have come to believe that what they [St. John’s] have gotten away with is outrageous,” he tells INSIGHT. “I don’t believe they are evil men, but I believe they have been doing evil things and they have been convincing the public, the courts, our lawmakers and everyone in Minnesota that they are doing good things and the right things for the right reasons. I’m angry and committed to exposing what they’ve been doing so we can do something about it.”

Anderson adds: “For a long time there has been a cleric culture created there at St. John’s of sexual abuse of minors and adults, and it is huge. Every time we try to address it legally, they put up barriers, hiding behind statutes of limitations. They are deceiving everybody that there isn’t a problem out there.”

By now the St. Paul lawyer seems filled with indignation. “There are dozens of monks,” he seethes, “who are involved in this abuse. If a victim comes forward they [the abbey] basically try to keep them in guilt and secrecy, and if these kids have the courage to go to a lawyer the abbey shuts them down, treats them terribly, victimizes them again. And it’s really ugly. I’ve brought some dozen cases against St. John’s and have settled on most of them, but because of the statute of limitations in Minnesota I have not been able to get justice for these kids. I’ve received about 20 cases in the last 10 years about abuse out at St. John’s and because I’ve not been able to expose any of them in court, the number of victims out there is probably 10 or 20 times higher than that. I’ve talked to a half-dozen victims involving Eckroth alone, but have never been able to bring a case against him.”

For how much are the victims settling? “The average settlement with St. John’s is about $20,000, but that’s one one-millionth of what it should have been,” Anderson says, finally exploding. “Eckroth is a pedophile! I think he goes for both pre- and postpubescent children — with multiple victims such that I don’t even dare to think how many.”

Many similar stories of frustrations and settlements, with some on the East Coast reaching the $200,000 range, have been shared with INSIGHT. They have in common that the lawyers involved are almost universally furious at how church officials have bullied and intimidated the victims and their families. “It’s really outrageous,” says one lawyer. He complains that his hands have been tied because he has done what was in the best interest of his clients, usually religious people who have been betrayed and emotionally shattered by the experience, even when he personally was disgusted and outraged by what had happened and how it was tolerated. “I think they should be in jail,” this lawyer tells INSIGHT. He says the RICO statute should be used against both perverted clergy and the church itself.

“I filed a RICO lawsuit in Missouri, which pertains to a seminary down there, and in it I claim that every bishop in the United States is involved in concealment, obstruction of justice and protection of pedophile priests,” Anderson tells INSIGHT. “So I assure you that the St. John’s kids are on my radar, and if I have an opportunity I will bring a RICO suit there as well, because I think it applies.”

The passion comes through loud and clear when Anderson says, “More and more of these people are coming forward every day. I’m sick and I’m angry about what has happened out at St. John’s. I feel pain for the people I’ve tried to help, and every time I’ve been involved with them on one of these cases, I’ve never seen [the church] be helpful to these kids. The attitude is that if you come forward we’re going to beat you down, wear you out and bury you. It isn’t the lawyers’ fault, it’s the [Benedictine] order’s fault because they have control of their lawyers. St. John’s is the worst among the orders — the darkest of the dark. Those are unkind words, but I’m angry at how brutal they have been to the people they have harmed. And that’s the nicest thing I can say.”

Anyone looking into the Sauna Kids’ accusations must wonder what the abbey knew of the monk’s cabin activities. In 1976, three years before he was transferred to St. Augustine, a sister monastery in the Bahamas, Father Richard inexplicably stopped taking children to the secluded church-owned cabin. The abbey denies any accusations were pending at the time and claims Father Richard’s transfer to the resort island was routine.

Father Richard did not respond to INSIGHT’s requests for an interview.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The pictures of the child victims in this story were contributed by their families and used with permission. The parents asked INSIGHT not to reveal the children’s names.]

KELLY PATRICIA O’MEARA IS AN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER FOR Insight.
Sins of a Father: ‘Sauna Kids’ Abuse

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Topics: Bahamas, Jeff Anderson, Rene McGraw, Richard Eckroth, Vessels

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