Abbey could offer guidance amid scandal


In an idyllic campus setting 80 miles from the Twin Cities, the world’s largest Benedictine abbey houses a university, prep school, monastery _ and more than a dozen monks under restrictions for life for sexually abusing adolescents or young adults.

Until two weeks ago, only the 196 brothers and priests at St. John’s Abbey were aware of the offending monks _ and few of them knew that the restricted group included former Abbot John Eidenschink, who admitted molesting two young monks.

But some experts are suggesting that St. John’s unusual policy of treatment and long-term restrictions might help the wider church as it struggles with its unraveling scandal of sex abuse and ecclesiastical coverup.

It could provide a model for the nation’s bishops when they sit down next month to grapple with the church’s sexual crisis, said California psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe. A former priest, he has studied thousands of Catholic sexual-abuse cases and is the author of “Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis.”

Thirteen priests and monks at the abbey abused about 25 young people ages 15 to 22 from the 1960s to the early 1980s, said Abbot John Klassen. The victims included students at the university and the prep school, as well as some young monks and youths in some parishes, he said.

Activities of two other monks are restricted because of other sexual compulsions, including addiction to Internet pornography, he said.

“All but one has admitted his acts, and several have met with their victims to express their profound sorrow and remorse,” Klassen said. The other monk had admitted no wrong-doing, “but I am convinced of the facts.”

All of the men have been in treatment and continue in 12-step programs, he said. Although not under “house arrest” and free to move about, none has resisted the restrictions imposed on them or asked to leave the abbey.

“St. John’s abbot truly is a national leader in the way of dealing with this issue,” said Sipe, who as a young man was a monk at the abbey. “This is a very big step in terms of a reformation of the issue and in terms of the way we handle things.”

Not everyone is so effusive. “It is better than what we offer in the community at large for aging sex offenders,” said Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist who is a nationally recognized expert on clergy abuse. “But [it’s] not a solution for the main problems.”

By all accounts, the St. John’s program is unusual nationally in its breadth and comprehensiveness, although there is disagreement among sexual-abuse experts about its ultimate effectiveness.

Elsewhere, individual priests accused of sexual misconduct occasionally have been assigned to de facto quarantine at abbeys, most recently in Kansas and Oregon. Experts are unaware of any program resembling St. John’s.

Most of the recent national discussion has focused on what the church should do with priests, victims and parishes when sex abuse is reported. There has been far less talk of what the church should do with offending priests in the long term.

Consent required

Could St. John’s Abbey, for instance, take in wayward priests from the region to spend restricted lives doing work that kept them away from children or adolescents?

“It’s an interesting notion,” said Klassen, who ended a decade of secrecy about the situation at St. John’s in letters April 19 to students and alumni of St. John’s University.

Klassen said he could open the abbey to offenders from outside only with the consent of the other monks, who 17 months ago elected the former chemistry professor their 10th abbot at the 146-year-old Benedictine monastery northwest of St. Cloud.

“Not all men are suited for life here; they would have to agree to come, ” he cautioned. But he noted that until about 1950, bishops routinely sent troubled priests to St. John’s for six months or a year.

St. John’s established its sexual-abuse policy in 1989 and revised it in 1992 and 1993 _ about the time Catholic dioceses were starting to get serious about forming their own policies.

“What we set out to do was establish how we would care for the perpetrators and the victims of sex -abuse,” Klassen said. He has met with about a half-dozen victims of the St. John’s monks since he became abbot.

Safety and treatment

“For our monks who have harmed others so deeply, we want to hold them accountable and keep them from situations in which they might offend again,” he said. “But we also want to get them intensive and ongoing treatment, and allow them to do meaningful work,” for instance, ministering to nuns or nursing-home residents. Some choose to stay inside the abbey walls.

“This is a community that takes deep responsibility for our calling and the communities we serve,” said William Cahoy, dean of the school of theology at St. John’s. “But at the same time, we do not abandon our brothers. We do not just expel them. That would serve no good.”

At St. John’s, previous administrations “faltered along the way” in dealing with sexual abuse, Sipe said. “This is a very bold, creative, courageous act of leadership. The new abbot has really taken charge of this.”

Gerry Kaplan, longtime head of the Alpha Human Services sex-offender programs in the Twin Cities, said the abbey’s plan “makes sense. It’s not any different from the way you want to restrict a sex offender’s access to kids. It ‘s a good strategy for a longer-term solution.”

Because the setting is an abbey instead of a parish, “you can severely restrict someone’s duties without it being a high-security environment.”

Under the program at St. John’s, any allegation is investigated by the abbot. If it involves a minor or legally vulnerable adult such as a nursing-home resident, law-enforcement authorities are notified.

Victims are directed to nearby advocates and offered financial help for counseling and sometimes for living expenses or other costs.

Accused monks are urged to choose another monk or someone else for support during the investigation. If the monk admits guilt or is found culpable, he is sent to a therapist for evaluation and treatment. The abbot requires the monk to live at the abbey, to continue treatment, to find appropriate work or retraining and establishes restrictions.

Those restrictions spell out where the monk may go, whom he may see and whom he may not see. For instance, the university and the prep school are off limits.

“A student asked me, ‘So can one of these guys just walk out to the highway?’ And the answer is yes,” Klassen said. “But in these cases, the men abused people by abusing positions of trust. They didn’t jump out of the bushes and attack somebody. And they are surrounded by 180 or so other monks who know of the restrictions. I’m not aware that anyone has abused the restrictions.”

Klassen expects to revise the policy this year “in light of what we’re learning from the problems the church is experiencing elsewhere.” He wants to add a lay committee to oversee the process, both to ensure matters are handled well and “to make sure that, as one of the brothers, I’m not missing anything.”

‘Not a solution’

Not all outside experts are convinced that the abbey’s program can be transplanted elsewhere _ or even that it’s an effective tool at St. John’s.

Schoener, the Minneapolis psychologist, said St. John’s “restrictions can be done easily _ they live on the grounds.”

But he cautioned: “This is not a solution for the Catholic Church or anyone else. It is what one abbot and one order decided to do with some elderly priests who might be at risk to reoffend.”

David Clohessy, the national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was harsher in his assessment: “Skeptics would say these priests are being sheltered and getting minimal help. It’s frightening because you can’t effectively monitor someone 24 hours a day, or these offenders might try to cover for one another.”

But the church must take some long-term responsibility for offending priests, said the Rev. Steve Rossetti, president of the St. Luke Institute, a treatment center for abusive priests in Maryland.

“Under the alternative, a zero-tolerance policy that expels abusers from the priesthood, they will be released into society and will no longer be supervised by the church or anyone,” Rossetti said. “I let your imagination suggest what is likely to happen.”

That is what occurred in the case of former priest James Porter, one of the nation’s most notorious clerical sex offenders. More than 100 people in five states, including Minnesota, have said Porter molested them as he was moved from parish to parish. After he left the priesthood, he was convicted of molesting a teenaged baby-sitter in Oakdale.

Sipe said St. John’s program is a counterweight to what he described as “a culture like a police culture, where you’re all brothers together. You discipline each other within the system, not talking about the problem, covering it up.”

Instead, the entire abbey community “takes responsibility for the system that created these people. Everyone in the community knows my past and I have to be accountable to them. At the same time they’re supportive, and if I fall out of line, they’re there to pick me up.”

St. John’s Abbey

What: A Benedictine community in Stearns County about 15 miles northwest of St. Cloud off Interstate Hwy. 94. The 2,400-acre site includes a monastery, the Liturgical Press, St. John’s University and St. John’s Prep School for grades 7-12. The monks work as teachers, chaplains, parish priests and in other professions.

History: Started in 1856 by monks from Latrobe, Pa., to serve northern European settlers in the region. They came to America in 1846 from Bavaria. The 196 monks form a community about four times larger than any other Benedictine abbey.

Governance: The entire campus is led by Abbot John Klassen, 53, elected 10th abbot of St. John’s by fellow monks in November 2000. He may serve until he is 75.

For information: To learn more about the abbey and it’s sexual-abuse policy, go to

Abbey could offer guidance amid scandal; Some experts say St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, which houses monks who sexually abused teens and young adults, might be a model for the Catholic Church.

Sunday, May 5, 2002 – Star Tribune
Warren Wolfe; Bob von Sternberg; Staff Writers
Collegeville, Minn.
Abbey could offer guidance amid scandal

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Topics: David Clohessy, John Klassen, Richard Sipe, SNAP, St. John's History

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