The Rev. John Eidenschink, former St. John’s abbot, has admitted that he sexually abused two abbey monks, one before he was elected abbot in 1971 and another during his eight-year tenure, current Abbot John Klassen said Friday.
“We are deeply sorry that the abuse happened,” Klassen said. “In each case, there is no question in my mind that the abuse did occur.”
The abbot is the highest-ranking member of the monastic community. The abbot directs about 196 monks who sponsor and work at St. John’s University, the Preparatory School and The Liturgical Press. St. John’s Abbey monks also serve in parishes, hospitals and retirement centers, mainly in Minnesota, and in small monastic communities in Nassau, Bahamas, and Fujimi, Japan.
Eidenschink, 87, admitted to Klassen that he sexually abused two adult monks who had professed their vows but had not been ordained, Klassen said. Eidenschink abused one monk for a “significant amount of time” during and after the monk’s stay at St. John’s, Klassen said.
Klassen sent a letter late Friday to all St. John’s and College of St. Benedict students and alumni confirming what he told the Times on Friday morning in a 90-minute interview. The entire monastic community found out about Eidenschink’s admission at a special mandatory meeting Monday night at St. John’s.
“The only fair word to describe (the reaction Monday night) is very painful, sad,” Klassen said. “I don’t know if devastated is the word. It’s very hard.”
Both of Eidenschink’s victims were compensated for counseling services and other expenses, and the allegations never progressed to a lawsuit.
Klassen wouldn’t reveal how much money the abbey paid in that or other instances. But he said victims have been and will continue to be compensated in a commitment by the abbey to “work like the devil in the community to understand what it is that allowed this to happen in the first place.”
Eidenschink is in poor health at the monastery and was not available for comment Friday.
In the interview with the Times, Klassen also confirmed that a second abbey priest molested two area boys in the 1970s.
He also said he is investigating claims that a third priest molested several local children, also in the 1970s.
Klassen’s revelations are the first time the abbey has acknowledged publicly that any of its own have committed sexual abuse. The admissions come as the Catholic Church worldwide is dealing with clergy sex-abuse scandals.
All three priests discussed by Klassen live at St. John’s monastery. They are among as many as a dozen priests or brothers who are restricted in their work activities and movements at St. John’s because of their possible risk to others, Klassen said.
All of the allegations – whether confirmed or denied by the accused – happened in the late 1970s. Klassen has heard only one allegation of sexual abuse since then, referring to it as a “boundary crossing” that occurred in the early 1990s with a young adult.
The second abbey priest Klassen commented on Friday, the Rev. Cosmas Dahlheimer, didn’t admit to any allegations, Klassen said, but “compelling evidence” exists that Dahlheimer abused two children in the 1970s.
Klassen recently received reports from two other victims who accuse the third priest, the Rev. Richard Eckroth, of molesting them more than 30 years ago at a Cass Lake-area cabin owned by St. John’s.
The abbey hasn’t revealed the names of accused abusers to law enforcement, Klassen said, because legal counsel advised against it.
State law requires clergy to tell law enforcement when they are informed of abuse allegations that have occurred within the last three years. If they become aware of an allegation while hearing confession, they aren’t required to report.
“In every case where minors are involved, the names have been turned over. They are in the public domain,” Klassen said. In the early 1990s, the names of several priests accused of abuse became public when civil lawsuits were filed in Stearns County. Dahlheimer and Eckroth were among those priests; Eidenschink wasn’t.
The abbey’s legal counsel has advised it not to reveal the names of priests accused by adults who said they were abused as minors, Klassen said.
Helen Olson is one such person who said she was abused at age 11. Eckroth abused her in 1971 at a cabin St. John’s owns on Swenson Lake in Beltrami County, she said. She brought her allegations to Klassen’s attention, and a month ago received a $2,000 check from Klassen with a letter apologizing for the pain she has been caused.
“I am hoping that this will be of help over the short haul,” his letter said.
“Why aren’t there bunches of priests speaking out and demanding disclosure?” Olson said from her Woodbury home in late March. “I don’t care if it is scary for them if they come out, it is just a fraction of what the victims feel.”
Eidenschink was the seventh abbot of St. John’s Abbey, serving from 1971 until 1979, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 65.
While at St. John’s, he was a novice master, training young monks for monastic life. He also was a professor of canon law and liturgy for 25 years.
After the election of Abbot Jerome Theisen, Eidenschink became pastor at Seven Dolors Church in Albany. He was removed from parish work in the late 1980s after Theisen received one allegation of abuse.
Eidenschink was assigned as chaplain of the nursing home, “a position in which no risk was ascertained,” Klassen said in his Friday letter.
The second allegation was made to the abbey in the mid-1990s, Klassen said. While many in the monastic community knew of the allegations against Dahlheimer years ago, few knew about Eidenschink’s offenses when he was abbot, Klassen said, and the allegations never were discussed openly.
“Nobody had a clue,” Klassen said.
Ed Vessel, an employee at the Liturgical Press for more than 30 years, was surprised to hear of Eidenschink’s admission.
Vessel has worked for 24 years to get something done about the abuse he says his children suffered because of Eckroth. He’s spoken with the three abbots since Eidenschink, whom he considered an ally receptive to his concerns.
“I was shocked,” Vessel said. “He was the only guy that did anything.”
Dahlheimer was sued in 1994 by two siblings who accused him of abuse in the 1970s when Dahlheimer served at St. Augustine Church in East St. Cloud. The case settled before coming to trial with no admission of guilt.
It was one of at least 10 lawsuits filed up to that point against St. John’s Abbey alleging sexual abuse of boys or young men by members of the monastery. Many of the lawsuits were dismissed because too much time had passed between the alleged abuse and the filing of the lawsuits.
“There seems to be compelling evidence here” that Dahlheimer did abuse the boys, Klassen said, although Dahlheimer denies the allegations.
Two independent sources of information essentially corroborated the claims against Dahlheimer, Klassen said.
St. John’s policy is to investigate all allegations. If an allegation is deemed credible, the accused is required to undergo treatment. When the accused returns to the monastic community, they are allowed to work only in positions where others would not be vulnerable, Klassen said.
“When they are here, they are in our community and the public doesn’t have to worry about what’s happening in the larger community,” Klassen said.
Klassen vows to investigate abuse claims against Eckroth, who remains at St. John’s. Olson and Vessel within the past few months have brought accusations to Klassen that Eckroth abused boys and girls at the Swenson Lake cabin.
Klassen was visibly shaken when discussing the depth of Vessel’s claims against Eckroth, who once worked in the same Albany parish in which Eidenschink served after his tenure as abbot.
Eckroth was sent to a parish in the Bahamas in the late 1970s and was brought back when two men sued him in the 1990s in Stearns County. He underwent psychological evaluation and was removed from his duties.
One of the allegations against Eckroth was that he threatened to kill the boys if they reported the abuse.
“At this point, Father Richard maintains his innocence,” Klassen said.
The abbot said he hadn’t gathered enough information to make his own judgment about the validity of the claims against Eckroth.
“I don’t know what happened in Brother Richard’s situation,” Klassen said. “I’m continuing to work on that.”
He’s also continuing to work on helping victims, he said, something that is a learning experience for him.
“One of the things I have learned about abuse is … you don’t know how much damage has been done,” Klassen said.
He pointed to examples in which victims have come forward years after an initial report and years after getting counseling help. Those victims have ongoing needs that the abbey won’t abandon, he said.
“The only way I can keep my sanity is to keep my focus on the victims,” said Klassen, who was elected abbot in November 2000. “But the community is a secondary victim.”
Text of Abbot John Klassen’s statement
Full text of a letter sent to students and alumni Friday night by Abbot John Klassen
Dear friends of St. John’s,
The last months have been filled with painful stories about sexual abuse committed by priests and religious. The fact that the stories are most often about events which occurred years, even decades ago, does not diminish the anguish which so many members of the Catholic church are experiencing.
As you know well, allegations of sexual abuse were lodged against some monks of St. John’s Abbey in the 1980s and 1990s. As persons came forward, often after years of excruciating suffering, St. John’s responded with assistance to allow such persons to address the awful secret they had been living with and to remake their lives. At the same time, the monastic community established clear policies requiring interventions with monks who were accused of being perpetrators. Every case was investigated promptly. If the accusations were credible, the accused were required to undergo treatment; and upon returning to their monastic community, they were allowed to work only in positions where others would not be vulnerable.
In the course of my first year as abbot, I have listened to victim’s stories, and spoken with counselors and other leaders in the therapeutic community. The tidal wave of reflection going on within our Church led me more recently to review with our legal counsel every past settlement which St. John’s has made with victims. I want to ensure that those settlements are informed by the most recent knowledge we all have gained about the grievous pain associated with clerical sexual abuse.
In the process of this review, I have determined that one set of allegations, so far not made public even within the monastic community, needs to see the light of day for the sake of the integrity, healing and continued vitality of St. John’s Abbey.
In the late 1980s, then Abbot Jerome Theisen received an allegation against former Abbot John Eidenschink by a former monk of St. John’s Abbey, who was abused for a significant amount of time both during and after his time in our community. Following our policy we offered funding for the settlement, which included counseling, legal fees, as well as a living stipend. According to policy, Abbot Eidenschink was removed from his responsibilities as the pastor of a parish and assigned as chaplain of nursing home, a position in which no risk was ascertained.
In the mid-1990s, another allegation against Abbot Eidenschink was made, again by a former monk of St. John’s Abbey. Funding for counseling and other expenses was part of the settlement.
Given that these abusive actions occurred within the monastic community and were in the past, the allegations against Abbot Eidenschink were never discussed openly within the monastery. St. John’s Abbey has been working hard over the last decade and a half to build healthier understandings of what is necessary to prevent the occurrence of sexual abuse and exploitation. Many commentators have observed that a culture of secrecy makes sexual abuse and exploitation possible.
Therefore, I have determined that the monastic community and, you, a member of the larger St. John’s family, ought to know about these incidents involving a past leader of St. John’s.
Other allegations made against monks of St. John’s are a matter of public record and will be re-examined periodically by the media. Perhaps this is the only way our culture can reckon with the true pain caused by clerical sexual abuse. I ask you for your prayers as St. John’s Abbey works, with the rest of our beloved Church, to address the pain caused by sexual abuse and prevent such pain in the future.
Sincerely, Abbot John Klassen, OSB
Saturday, April 20, 2002 – St. Cloud Times
Former abbot abused 2 monks
`We are deeply sorry the abuse happened’
By David Unze and Kristin Gustafson
Times staff writers