New information is passing between St. John’s Abbey and the Stearns County sheriff about monks accused of sexual abuse. Officials at the abbey say the information was never restricted. But recent interest in cases of sex abuse by clergy led the abbot at St. John’s to begin talking more openly about monks who have been accused of sexual misconduct. He revealed that a former abbot, still living in the monastery, had abused two monks in the 1970s. Twelve other monks and priests continue to have their activities restricted in some way because of sexually-related allegations.
Stearns County Sheriff Jim Kostreba does not want anybody jumping to conclusions about his talks with St. John’s Abbey.
He met with Abbot John Klassen late last week. The sheriff says the abbey has already provided some of the information he requested. Much of it relates to the whereabouts of certain monks and priests during the past 30 years.
Kostreba says for now the exchange is just about being thorough – not a witchhunt for any particular crime or monk.
“I think there was a renewed interest because of what’s been going on in the news media the past couple weeks with the Catholic Church,” says Kostreba. “There was some information with some names published, and it just became our job to make sure that we had those names and what we could find out from them.”
Kostreba says it’s too early to speculate on where any of the information might lead. The sheriff refused to give any details about the information he asked for, citing the privacy of ongoing criminal investigations. But Kostreba did hint he might have new information to release to the public before long.
Kostreba wants to know more about the 13 monks and priests St. John’s says it has already disciplined for sexual misconduct. This is not because the men are considered especially dangerous today. Of the 13, four committed acts that did not involve another person. Two accessed Internet pornography.
All of the abuse incidents happened before 1985. At most, only two of the cases involved children. Three of the offenders live a sequestered existence in the abbey retirement home. The other 10 live at the abbey, but are bound by restrictive recovery programs.
Kostreba is asking for information from St. John’s because of unsolved local crimes. This includes the murders of two teenage sisters found in a St. Cloud gravel quarry in 1974. Mary and Susanne Reker spent time at the lake cabin of Rev. Richard Eckroth in the 1970s. Ten years ago, allegations arose that children had been sexually abused at the cabin. At that time Eckroth asserted he did not murder the girls in a polygraph test, which he passed.
But the recent clergy abuse scandals have brought renewed scrutiny to Eckroth, now 75. St. John’s Abbot John Klassen says Eckroth lives quietly in the retirement center, and continues to deny all charges.
“I have to, I think in fairness to Father Eckroth, listen and to respect his integrity. But at the same time, I’m also going to do my very best to those who are coming to me in conversation, to listen to their stories,” says Klassen.
Klassen says this continues a long history of joint investigations between the abbey and the Stearns County sheriff. He says it would surprise him if a link were established between any of the local crimes and residents at the abbey. But Klassen hopes further investigation can at least bring some peace of mind to the parents of the Reker girls, and people like Patty Wetterling.
Wetterling’s son Jacob was abducted in nearby St. Joseph in 1989, and he has never been found. Patty Wetterling went on to found the Wetterling Foundation for missing or sexually exploited children.
She says over the years they have known St. John’s housed monks with a history of alleged sexual misconduct. She says the specific information now being exchanged will be a new tool.
“It’s a very frightening thought that anyone out there might have been involved in Jacob’s disappearance, or the Reker girls. I think that would be devastating to everyone. I hope that’s not it. But we need to know,” says Wetterling. “I would certainly want to talk to every one of these people and find out if they have information – where were they – and do some digging.”
The Stearns County sheriff and his deputies may begin to interview some of the monks at St. John’s next week.
St. John’s Abbey responds
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
May 9, 2002