Father is `lion at the gate’ pressing case against priest

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Ed Vessel said he was “disinvited” to the Oct. 1 news conference at which St. John’s Abbey and Jeffrey Anderson, attorney for victims of sexual abuse by abbey monks, jointly announced a broad financial settlement of claims against the abbey.

“I was stopped from going in by two St. John’s security guards and two sheriff’s deputies, even though I told them I’d had a hand in helping with the case,” Vessel told NCR. Vessel’s case was not one of the ones in the latest round of settlements.

For 24 years Vessel has been, by his own account, “the lion at the gate” of St. John’s attempting to get the abbey to acknowledge that Fr. Richard Eckroth molested his son and exhibited inappropriate sexual conduct with two of his three daughters in the 1970s, when the monk took them and scores of other children to the secluded lakeside cabin owned by the Benedictines near Bemidji, Minn.

In court papers, several alleged victims of Eckroth have testified how the monk inveigled or coerced them to lie naked with him in the cabin’s outdoor sauna. They relate instances of fondling, rape, sodomy and even death threats from Eckroth, who ordered them not to tell their parents.

Eckroth, 76, who lives on restriction in the abbey’s retirement home, has repeatedly denied the sexual abuse allegations, though has admitted that he lay naked with some of the boys at the cabin and exchanged “nonsexual” massages with them.

In September, Abbot John Klassen told NCR the abbey would initiate an investigation of Eckroth, adding that it is “almost impossible to uncover what happened in 1970 with any degree of accuracy.” Nevertheless St. John’s wants to reach some form of accord in the Vessel case, said Fr. William Skudlarek, abbey spokesman.

Vessel believes a confession from the monk would help his son heal. Ed Vessel Jr., now 42, has twice tried to take his life and has been hospitalized frequently, including five stays in a state psychiatric facility. “He functions like a 10- to 12-year-old,” his father said.

Eckroth first took young Ed and his sister Mary to the cabin when the boy was 10 and Mary 11. Ed also visited along with four other boys when he was 11. Ed and Mary accompanied the priest to the cabin when Ed was 13. Ed’s sisters Elizabeth and Sue visited together when they were 9 and 11 and again when they were 13 and 11. The monk kept a log of 84 visits and the names of guests–most of them children–to the cabin between April 1971 and July 1976. NCR obtained a copy of the log.

Eckroth was assigned to a mission in the Bahamas in the late 1970s, but ordered back to the abbey when two men filed a personal injury lawsuit against him in 1993, accusing him of sexually abusing them at the cabin as children. One accused Eckroth of having anal intercourse with him when he was 6; the other alleged that the priest sexually abused him when he was 6 or 7.

The monk’s consistent denials of the abuse led to his release from St. Luke’s Institute in Suitland, Md., in 1994. The institute specializes in the treatment of clergy accused of sexual abuse.

In documents from St. Luke’s obtained by NCR, psychologists who evaluated him over a three-month period concluded that Eckroth’s “sexual attractions were both immature and not well understood by himself.” Despite the priest’s denials, the evaluators held that the allegations and their specificity suggested they were “quite credible.”

“There is substantial evidence that Eckroth has been sexually inappropriate with minors,” psychologists said. In keeping with their findings, they advised Abbot Timothy Kelly in May 1994 that the monk not be allowed unsupervised contact with minors.

The abbey has paid $12,000 to at least one of Eckroth’s victims, Helen Olson, who told Klassen that Eckroth bad raped her at the cabin when she was a child.

Vessel, 63, who has worked for The Liturgical Press at St. John’s University for 41 years, said he cannot afford to retire. Besides looking after his son, he also cares for his wife, who has been ill for many years. Vessel himself has suffered from two bouts of cancer.

In addition to allegations concerning his own children, Vessel has kept detailed notes about children from 20 other area families. All were guests of Eckroth at the cottage. Two of the young girls were murdered; two attempted suicide while in high school; four boys took their lives by age 21; three boys lost their lives in auto accidents between ages 15 and 21; seven boys were recurrently hospitalized in mental health institutions; and 14 boys and girls “became heavily enmeshed in drug use,” Vessel said.

He believes the number of accidents, deaths and drug use among such a small community of children Of similar age is no coincidence and needs more investigation by law enforcement officials. Vessel has fried the list with his attorneys.

While he has been unable to prove the abbey responsible for any of these events, Vessel said he will not give up trying. “The dead cannot speak for themselves,” he told NCR, his eyes flooding with tears.

Besides an apology, a financial settlement for his family and that of several other alleged victims, he also wants to alter Minnesota’s statute of limitations law, so that abuse victims will have up to 30 years to sue their abusers after they become adults. He said lawyers for the abbey have told him that his son’s allegations became known after the legal reporting time had elapsed.

The current code calls for notification within six years of the age of maturity, when the victim knew or should have known that the abuse caused him or her harm, said attorney James Lord of Chanhassen, Minn. “Your life may have been terribly altered in the past, but you did not put together that it was the sexual abuse that altered it,” Lord told NCR. Lord and St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson are seeking to have the State Supreme Court revisit its ruling interpreting the statute of limitations.

Vessel is also determined that the abbey reimburse taxpayers and state and county services for the social security and medical benefits that have been expended for his son’s health care, which he puts at $260,000.

In the past Vessel said that the abbey offered him $10,000 plus a paid leave of absence for his silence. Early in his efforts to seek counseling for his son, a therapist suggested that he and/or his wife had sexually abused the boy. Other therapists have told him that the boy has inherited “bad genes from his parents” Vessel said.

But Vessel believes his son’s “massive depression and total lack of self-esteem” are the result of sexual abuse, of having been “multiply traumatized” and having heard his parents “threatened with the loss of their job or even death.”

The sorrow that “eats at my soul” is made more acute each day, he said, by the presence of one of the offender monks, who is on restriction but has worked as an editor at the press since 1994. Vessel, who “begged” his own father to send him to St. John’s and who graduated from its prep school and university, no longer attends Mass in the abbey church. He said he has been “sickened” by the sight of two of the offender monks serving as eucharistic ministers. Vessel and his wife drive 27 miles each Sunday to attend Mass in St. Cloud, he said.

But the crusader is not without hope. A social worker who once called Vessel “crazy” told him he has changed his mind in the light of recent disclosures about abbey monks. Vessel said his greatest cause for hope lies with Klassen, who has spent much of the year apologizing for aberrant monks, assuming responsibility for their wrongdoing and taking public steps to prevent its recurrence. “John Klassen is a brave man, a fair and decent man,” said Vessel, who added that he remains distrustful of “those below him, of others in the chapter who knew Eckroth and let him get away with such crimes.”

PATRICIA LEFEVERE
Collegeville, Minn.

Father is `lion at the gate’ pressing case against priest – Church In Crisis – Monks at St. John’s Abbey pay restitution to victims of sexual abuse

National Catholic Reporter, Dec 27, 2002 by Patricia Lefevere
Father is `lion at the gate’ pressing case against priest

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Topics: Jeff Anderson, John Klassen, Richard Eckroth, The Liturgical Press, William Skudlarek

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