In an effort to exorcise its own demons, an abbey in Minnesota may be setting a commendable example for the rest of the Roman Catholic Church.
For decades, a group of monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., behind the pine trees that shelter the largest Benedictine monastery in the western world, operated a sex abuse ring. Boys as young as 9 were victimized, as were teenage boys and girls. But most of the victims were novice monks – high school and college graduates who were drawn to the discipline of monastic life, which consists of prayer, study, teaching and living in a religious community of like-minded men.
In an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a former monk recalled that during the 1970s, the novices would enter the dining room, and a group of older monks “would descend like vultures.” The lid blew off the scandal in the 1990s, when a series of lawsuits was filed against the abbey, most of them by a lawyer in St. Paul named Jeffrey R. Anderson. The flamboyant 54-year-old Anderson has represented nearly 500 priest abuse victims since the mid-1980s, and has the hate mail on his office wall to prove it. But this year, as the Roman Catholic Church in America has been enveloped in the priest abuse scandal, as the Archdiocese of Boston teeters on bankruptcy, as hundreds of priests have been implicated and thousands of victims have come forward, something weird and beautiful has happened behind the pine trees at St. John’s Abbey.
In October, the Rev. John Klassen, abbot of St. John’s, and Jeff Anderson, the church’s nemesis, announced that they’d reached a settlement, and not just on the dozen cases Anderson had pending. The St. John’s solution offers a framework for ending the priest abuse crisis in the United States, letting victims go on with their lives, and letting the church go on with God’s work.
In addition to making personal apologies to victims and paying for their counseling, Abbot Klassen agreed to put accused clergy on leave and report any new case to law enforcement officials. The abbot agreed not to hide behind either canon law or the statute of limitations. Most significantly, Klassen also agreed to set up an outside board to handle all clergy abuse cases against his monks.
The board will include two survivors of clergy abuse, two current or former law enforcement officials, a current or former judicial official, a parent of a clergy abuse survivor, and a mental health professional. The board will make decisions, and the abbey will abide by them.
In short, the abbot acknowledged that he has neither the expertise or the right to make decisions on the subject, and agreed to abide by the decisions of lay people who do. And because a religious superior like an abbot has the same authority in his realm that a bishop does in his diocese, there’s nothing to stop a bishop from agreeing to the same kind of settlement in his diocese.
“I’m in negotiations with the Archdiocese of Chicago, with Cardinal (Francis) George, and with the Archdiocese of Cleveland, the Diocese of Sacramento and others,” said Anderson. “We’re using this as a framework for where we go from here.”
Financially, Anderson said, the dioceses he works with would spend more on lawyers to defend themselves than they will under the terms of a settlement agreement – thus avoiding the possibility of multimillion dollar verdicts, ugly court cases and bankruptcies. The victims get what they want: apologies, a recognition of their suffering, and the assurance that no one else will be hurt. Anderson will lose hundreds of cases potentially worth millions, “but if I could get myself out of this business, I would do it today.”
“The church is culturally and institutionally incapable of dealing with this issue,” he said. “If they’re ever going to address this issue comprehensively, they have to turn it over.” Anderson thinks that someday, perhaps soon, some bishop somewhere will agree to the St. John’s Solution. After that, others will fall in line and the healing will begin. He doesn’t know who will be first, but he’s pretty sure that the Archdiocese of St. Louis will be last.
Archbishop Justin Rigali has promised to “continue to deal as swiftly, forcefully and openly as we can with the issue of sexual abuse.”
But Anderson said, “In our experience, working in every state and every diocese, they’re the darkest and most medieval when it comes to helping and healing. They’ve been miserable and mean and unpastoral and hurtful; it’s just ‘batten down the hatches and get ready for war.’ ”
He whose birthday we celebrate Wednesday once said “Indeed, there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” What a great Christmas present that would be.
The St. John’s Solution: Shoulder Blame
By Kevin Horrigan email@example.com
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
December 22, 2002