(PBS) BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: One famous Catholic center that has tried to balance the rights of victims against the rights of accused priests is St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. As members of the Benedictine order, those there are not covered by the U.S. Bishops’ rules, but are responsible to the Vatican. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on how St. John’s has responded to sex abuse complaints.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For one of Catholicism’s most revered monastic communities, October first must rank as one of its most painful days — as public as it was painful. Abbot John Klassen welcomed some of the victims who’d suffered sexual abuse in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s by monks and priests.
Abbot JOHN KLASSEN: I want to tell you on behalf of the community how sorry I am for the pain you have suffered.
DE SAM LAZARO: He apologized to the group, then, with their attorney, outlined a settlement of their long-standing cases.
There was cash compensation for some. Counseling at St. John’s expense would be offered to all. Members accused of abuse would be immediately suspended from active ministry pending investigation. And, in a radical departure from Church practice, a new lay oversight committee, which includes abuse survivors, will not only investigate any new allegations but make binding decisions on the fate of the alleged abusers.
JEFF ANDERSON (Plaintiff’s Attorney): I have waited a long time for this day.
DE SAM LAZARO: The Benedictine monks and priests here lead both monastic and secular lives as faculty for their prep school or St. John’s University and sometimes in nearby communities as parish priests. In the heavily Catholic Minnesota farm country, St. John’s Abbey is a pillar institution.
MICHAEL VOGEL (Sex Abuse Victim): Anyone that wore the collar, anyone who was affiliated with St. John’s — those people were respected. They couldn’t do anything wrong. They were kind of put on a different level than other people.
ARLENE VOGEL (Mother of Michael Vogel): And I think we instilled that into them when they were very little that they were right next to God, you know. And I think maybe that was probably a fault of mine and I think maybe that’s why they hesitated to come to us, to tell us.
DE SAM LAZARO: What Arlene and Raymond Vogel were never told was that three of their six children were molested for years by two St. John’s priests. Michael Vogel says it began for him at age 11 and lasted almost two years.
MICHAEL VOGEL: Your father and mother said, “Clergy don’t sin, don’t make mistakes. When they tell you something, listen. They are great examples of [the] type of person you should try and be.” And that’s where the confusion came in.
DE SAM LAZARO: Confusion led to problems with drug abuse, gambling, and poor grades in school. Michael Vogel says it was only after years of therapy that he was able to tell his parents.
Ms. VOGEL: We had no clue about where to go and what to do. It was just striking out. We didn’t know where to go.
DE SAM LAZARO: They went to the abbey, and the response, they say, was total denial, only deepening the pain.
MICHAEL VOGEL: It was kind of a threatening resonance to that message that not only do we not believe you, but you shouldn’t be taking our organization through the mud. And you have no credibility, so don’t bother talking about it. And that’s when there was the decision that we ought to get legal advice and we ought to take legal action.
DE SAM LAZARO: The Vogels contacted St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, a prolific plaintiff attorney in cases against Catholic dioceses nationwide. A decade of negotiations followed in theirs and about 20 other cases against the abbey, which settled some of them on the way to the new agreement.
Mr. ANDERSON: They were motivated by pressure. Pressure that the survivors have put on them publicly and in the courtroom. Second, by the realization through all this exposure that they were not doing a good job at this issue, and they needed outside help and they for the first time were willing to trust the survivors and us.
DE SAM LAZARO: Abbot John Klassen declined to appear on this program, saying it was time for St. John’s to move forward — that there’d be no more media appearances after the news conference on October 1.
In keeping with existing policy, he said 11 of the abbey’s 200-odd monks are now restricted for sexual misconduct. With one exception, all accusations concern conduct prior to 1990, beyond Minnesota’s statute of limitations. In any new cases, Klassen reiterated, St. John’s would leave judgment to the new oversight committee.
Mr. ANDERSON: It’s about power and it is the power of the Church, which they have coveted, that has kept them from dealing with what they really should be dealing with, kept them from living even their own values. And it’s that secrecy and the power that they have kept that they are now beginning to give up, and acknowledge: “Hey, we’ve blown it. We’ve shown ourselves as incapable of doing it the right way; let’s turn it over to people who can do it the right way.” And that’s a breakthrough.
DE SAM LAZARO: But it’s not likely to get very far, according to one prominent attorney who has advised Church officials in sex abuse cases. Patrick Schiltz says it’s the fundamental right of any religious community or diocese to run its own affairs, without interference from outsiders.
PATRICK SCHILTZ (University of St. Thomas Law School): Accountability can often mean, you run your order as I, the plaintiff’s lawyer, want you to run your order. That kind of accountability I don’t think we need. It bothers me as a Catholic that the Bernard Laws out there have not been held accountable. But I have the same option that every other Catholic does, which is to vote with my feet if I can no longer in good conscience support my church. That’s the way you hold people accountable, the people in the Church hold them accountable.
DE SAM LAZARO: As for the St. John’s agreement, though well-intentioned, [it] could deny a fair hearing before the oversight committee. He feels abuse survivors will inevitably drive the group’s agenda.
Mr. SCHILTZ: Imagine, if you would, if we had a civil justice system where if you’re accused of rape you’re tried to a jury of rape victims. We instantly understand what’s wrong with that. We can’t be objective when you have that kind of personal stake in it.
DE SAM LAZARO: Under the agreement, the oversight committee is to be established by June of next year.
For their part, survivors like the Vogels say they’re satisfied with the agreement but doubt [it] can ever erase their pain and guilt.
RAYMOND VOGEL (Father of Michael Vogel): I don’t have difficulty with my faith, but I have lost my trust when it comes to dealing with the priests, and the sad thing for me is I feel failure toward my children simply because I never thought of them people being capable of what the God-awful people have done. I just have a very, very hard time.
MICHAEL VOGEL: All I wanted was acknowledgment, apology, and action.
DE SAM LAZARO: And despite an agreement that brings some vindication to survivors, experts say St. John’s, like the Church in general, will still struggle to balance the rights of victims with those of clergymen accused of sexual misconduct.
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred De Sam Lazaro reporting.
St. John’s Abbey
By Fred De Sam Lazaro
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly
October 18, 2002