Legal experts say there is little that the victims can do in the wake of accusations of sex abuse at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. Dozens of people have come forward over the years alleging sexual abuse by monks from the central Minnesota abbey, but Minnesota’s statute of limitations keeps cases of sexual abuse out of the courts once the victim turns 25. Some victims say if the statute of limitations doesn’t change, they’ll never see justice or compensation. Officials at St. John’s Abbey say they prefer to keep the cases out of court, saying a trial hurts those involved a second time.
The accusations of sexual abuse against monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville aren’t new; the stories have popped in the media for years.
But the recent sex scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston has again shined a spotlight on the allegations.
Of the more shocking are claims made against Father Richard Eckroth. He’s accused of molesting several boys and girls in the 1970s at a cabin near Bemidji owned by the Abbey. Although Eckroth has never been charged with a criminal offense, he was named by Abbot John Klassen as one of several monks whose movements are restricted as a result of abuse allegations.
Ed Vessel says his son and one of his daughters were abused by Eckroth. Vessel said he first heard of the allegations from his son several years after the abuse occurred. Then years after that, his daughter came to him with similar stories.
“She remembers going up this vertical, winning a game, spin the bottle, going up a ladder, standing naked in front of this guy, Eckroth, and he’s got his hands in her pubic area, and he’s swearing at her.” Vessel says.
Father Eckroth denies the allegations. He’s one of 13 priests at St. John’s Abbey under restriction, where he’s confined to the monastery without access to minors.
Eckroth won’t talk to the media, but St. John’s Abbot speaks on his behalf. Abbot Klassen, who’s been the leader of St. John’s Abbey for about a year and a half, says Eckroth is deeply pained by the allegations. He says the retired priest also denies the more serious charges of abuse that victims say took place in the 1970s in a sauna at the Abbey’s cabin.
“He steadfastly holds to his own innocence with respect to inappropriate touching. He admits to some of the behavior in the sauna and the use of the sauna. At that time that he was and kids were nude in the sauna. And he looks back on that and says that was probably not a good idea,” Klassen says.
Eckroth was subsequently assigned to one of St John’s parishes in the Bahamas in 1978. Abbot Klassen says officials at the abbey knew about the allegations of sexual abuse against Eckroth in the late 1980s, but allowed Eckroth to stay in the Bahamas until 1993. Klassen says that was in part because of what the abbey – and society – knew about sexual abuse at the time.
“In many cases people would have sought therapy, but then would’ve been placed in ministry again. We simply didn’t have a sense of – as a culture, as a church and as a community – the problems of recidivism. It would have still been thought of as failure in celibacy, rather than an addiction,” Klassen says.
Ed Vessel says he approached the abbey’s leadership in the early 1980s and told them about the abuse alleged by his son and daughter. Vessel said he was told by the church and by law enforcement officials that there was nothing they could do because the statute of limitations had run out on the cases in the late ’70s. Vessel’s rage toward Eckroth extends to the entire abbey. He says they knew what the man was capable of, but didn’t take measures to keep him isolated.
“That the guys in that abbey, that shunted him from place to place assignment to assignment are as much culpable as he is in his illness. I believe that to the bottom of my heart,” Vessel says.
Vessel wants a confession from Eckroth and he wants compensation for his son and daughter. Vessel isn’t sure if there is any amount of money the church could offer to help his children deal with what they’ve been through. He also wants to see the statute of limitations changed in Minnesota so that cases can be taken to court years after the abuse happens.
Attorneys familiar with the case say unless there is a change in the statute of limitations, victims of sexual abuse don’t have much chance at a settlement.
Jeff Anderson is a St. Paul attorney who filed two suits against Eckroth in the mid-1990s. The suits were on behalf of two men who say they were abused by Eckroth. The suits were settled out of court. Anderson says because of the statute of limitations, St. John’s Abbey has been able to avoid going to court over sex abuse cases.
“I know of dozens of victims of abuse who have come forward over the years, many of whom I’ve had to tell quite painfully there’s nothing I can do. And when we’ve gone to the abbey and the order, largely they’ve shut them out, shut them down and hidden behind statutes of limitations, and frankly have deceived us and these victims,” Anderson says.
Anderson wants a change in Minnesota’s statute of limitations. He says victims sometimes need 10 or 20 years to realize that they’ve been abused, and then time to bring the allegations forward.
Abbot John Klassen says when a victim comes forward with credible accusations, the abbey offers money to the victim for counseling. Klassen says settlements have also been reached outside of court for a victim’s suffering. Klassen agrees that the Abbey tries to keep cases out of court. But he says that’s because they don’t want those involved to be revictimized.
“It can be pretty brutal, and, in fact, the victim can feel like they’ve been hammered again. So to me it’s always a last resort. I’ve heard too many horror tales,” Klassen says.
Attorney Jeff Anderson disagrees. He say keeping abuse cases from playing out in court is what causes “re-victimization.”
“The outcome for the victims in those cases has really been frustratingly bleak,” he says. “The way it’s been handled by the abbey and that order is to circle the wagons, deny responsibility, deceive the clients, deceive the parishioners and, in fact, deceive the police and public and so the outcome has been very destructive.”
Officials at St. John’s Abbey say they’ve been open with law enforcement, with victims and with the public. And they say now is a time of more openness in the church with regards to sexual abuse. They also say cases of sexual abuse will be handled differently in the future. Up to now it’s been primarily an internal process. Now they say more outside sources will be used to investigate abuse, settle cases and treat offenders.
Ed Vessel says he doesn’t believe St. John’s Abbey will be able to take care of a problem within its ranks. He says he lost trust in the abbey when his children were allegedly abused by Father Eckroth. Vessel says he’d like to see the statute of limitations in Minnesota on sex abuse cases lengthened by 20 to 30 years.
An effort to extend the statute of limitations to 30 years was brought up in the Minnesota Legislature this session. But the measure failed. Victims of sex abuse hope the issue comes up again next year. They say the measure should take on new importance because of the recent allegations of sexual abuse at St. John’s Abbey.
St. John’s scandal shows need for legal reform, abuse victims say
By Tim Post
Minnesota Public Radio
May 14, 2002