Fr. Gordon Tavis Addresses Abuse Scandal; Misleads Community

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Did we get hurt?  Absolutely Saint John’s Prep got hurt.  And it may take years to find out just how badly we were hurt.  As I say that, I’m not just talking about the institution.  Every Alum of all ages, classmates of the victims, every person associated with Saint John’s has been touched by the embarrassment, pain, anguish, and anger.  I can only guess at how much Alums and others feel disillusioned, betrayed, robbed of a piece of their heritage.  Yes, indeed, the school and each one of us has been hurt.

To bandage our immediate wound, following the lead of Abbot John Klassen, we have truthfully communicated to students, parents, Alums, admitting what happened.

ALUMNI REUNION TALK
ARMOR OF LIGHT BANQUET
, June 29, 2002
Fr. Gordon Tavis, OSB

Alumni/ae, Members of the Board of Regents, Faculty and Staff, Students, Friends, my sister Lou O’Day, my brother Ron Tavis ’56, members of my monastic family, and all who know what a gem we have in Saint John’s Preparatory School.  There is a wonderful little story in scripture about receiving 100-fold.  That is where I have found myself, ever since coming to head the Prep School.  I’ve said on many occasions, that no matter how much I am able to give to our students, I get 100-fold back from them.  And, tonight, being honored by the Alums with their highest honor, the Armor of Light Award, I feel like it has been raised to 1000-fold.  Thank You to the Alumni/ae Board.  And from the bottom of my heart, Thank You to all Alums.

When I think of myself as the recipient of the Armor of Light Award, my mind goes back to when I was being interviewed for the position of president.  Among other things, I said that in my opinion the school was ready to turn the corner, but that it would take a leader who knew that and who could shepherd it around the corner.  Of course, I told them that I was that person. —  So what I see in this award is the Alums witnessing to the fact that we made it around that corner.

I now know why previous Armor of Light Award recipients spoke of it as a humbling experience.  And for me to receive this honor while still in office, it is especially humbling.  In true humility, as Saint Benedict has taught, I am required to see truly and rightly the realities that happened here at Saint John’s Prep in last four years.  In humility I have to admit and own all the things that have happened on my watch.  —  Thus:

  • I recognize the roles that our amazing students have played, and acknowledge how their successes, are the number one attraction that brings other students to consider and choose the Prep School.
  • I am obliged to stay constantly aware of the dedication, love and service of hundreds of people who have made it possible for this remarkable school to regenerate as it has.
  • I have to realize and admit the amount of the leadership, on all levels, that it takes to move this institution forward, and to keep it pointed in the right direction.
  • I am called on to see the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which have inspired all of us in making these four years successful.

Therefore, in humility, and not in any way discounting the fact that I was the leader, I have to broaden my Thank You.  It is on behalf of all those who played vital roles in turning that corner, that I accept this 34th Armor of Light Award;  namely, all the members of the Board of Regents, all the faculty, all the staff, all the students, all the parents, and all of you alums young and old.  And it is on behalf of all these people that I say, Thank You.  What a Team!!

You all know the results of these four years, but let’s celebrate them again.

  • Enrollment rebounded from a low of 173 six years ago, to 312 in the year just completed.
  • The Middle School tripled in size to become one of the most exciting, innovative Middle School programs in Minnesota, and it has gained some national recognition.  It has played a huge role in establishing our image as being academically excellent.
  • The Weber Center has proven to be the versatile building it was planned to be, but it surpassed all expectations as a place to form community.
  • The 5th floor Science building, the Meyers Center, in its front and center position, has moved Science into a featured part of our Academic Program.
  • The Boys Dorm has a roof that works and safety features that are fully up to the standards.  Acoustics in the residential section was improved by at least 300%.  And the Dorm directors have housing that befits their needs.
  • Art has more than doubled in size, and is producing outstanding student work.
  • Music, given a chance to expand by the Weber Center, has grown in the number of musicians and in the tremendous quality of their sound. But, with that growth and success, it is again cramped.
  • Theater, which works with almost no space of its own, has gained a wide-spread reputation for excellence.
  • Faculty has been supplemented in English, German, History/Social Studies, Mathematics, Spanish, Theology.
  • Extra attention is being given to International Students, through the English as a Second Language program, and through a dedicated full-time person, ½ time doing international admissions, and ½ time Counseling the enrolled international students..
  • Campus Ministry has been lifted to a role of prominence.
  • Guidance/Counseling, now with 2½ counselors, has reached a new level of student engagement.
  • Development has succeeded far beyond my wildest dreams, with each of the previous three years exceeding $1,000,000 in gifts.  And the current year, because of the awful stock market, the September 11 tragedy, and the sexual abuse scandal, is not going to reach the $1,000,000 mark, but it is running ahead of budget.
  • We have ended each of the last 6 years in the black, but because of the stock market in the current year we may not make it into the black, but I think it will be relatively close.
  • 2001-2002 was the 36th year of the Melk program.  Our second group of students is studying in Segovia, Spain at this very moment.  And last year we extended our relationships with the Okinawa Shogaku School, with Colegio del Tepeyac in Mexico City, and with Colegio Santo Amerigo, in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
  • And while all of that was happening, one parent kind of summed it up in a question to me, “What in-the-world happened at Saint John’s Prep that it has all-of-a-sudden become the academic school of choice in the Saint Cloud area?”  Truly, that is who we are.

These are some high-lights of what this award is celebrating.  And what an exciting, challenging, and rewarding time it has been.  Yes, indeed, we have turned the corner.

But I have to tell you, recently, with all of the media concentration on the sexual abuse perpetrated by members of Saint John’s Abbey, much of which took place at our beloved Prep School, it felt like we had just run headlong into a brick wall.  But you know, in humility, I have to make a confession.  I have even had experience running into a brick wall, and I have the scar on my forehead to prove it.  So what do you do after running into the wall?  What did I do?  First, I had to clear my head and sort out whether I ran into the wall, or it ran into me.  Second, did I get hurt?  Third, I had to get up, and get my wound bandaged.  Next I figured out what had happened, so I’d never make that mistake again.  And finally, in humility, I had to go back to work, with a knob on my head, admitting what happened.

No, it isn’t a direct parallel with the bad news in the media, but with my personal experience and with the help of Alums and Parents, I am finding the way to lead Saint John’s Prep through this critical time.  And the key to our future is the truth.  Absolute truth.

  • So, did we hit the wall, or did it hit us?  The media barrage definitely hit us.  But while we may feel dumped on, the basic point of truth is:  It was our fault.
  • Did we get hurt?  Absolutely Saint John’s Prep got hurt.  And it may take years to find out just how badly we were hurt.  As I say that, I’m not just talking about the institution.  Every Alum of all ages, classmates of the victims, every person associated with Saint John’s has been touched by the embarrassment, pain, anguish, and anger.  I can only guess at how much Alums and others feel disillusioned, betrayed, robbed of a piece of their heritage.  Yes, indeed, the school and each one of us has been hurt.
  • To bandage our immediate wound, following the lead of Abbot John Klassen, we have truthfully communicated to students, parents, Alums, admitting what happened.  —  We were included in Abbot John’s apology that ran in St. Cloud and Twin City newspapers.  And the Abbot sent a letter to every Prep Alum offering to help anyone who is hurting.  —  The Prep School community has made a special effort to reach out to Alums of the years in which the abuse happened, suggesting that we get together, to share.
  • To avoid that problem in the future, my predecessors had put into place policies and procedures that have proven effective.  In my time faculty and staff have built on the cultural changes initiated by Fr. Mark Thamert and Sarah Pruett, and have continued refining procedures, so we stay totally aware of the issues and the vigilance that is required.  This includes scheduling elements of this topic twice a year, with students and with faculty/staff meetings.
  • Finally, we have had to go back to work, ready to admit the history and the damage that occurred, but concentrated and working on what lies ahead.  Parents and Alums have told us not to get sucked into the vortex of this storm.  Rather, to put our efforts into taking Saint John’s Prep to new heights.  That is why we exist, that is why parents send their children here.  Only that will build and rebuild trust.

So now, where was I before we ran into the wall?  Oh yes, we’re looking ahead to our big 150th anniversary coming up in 2007.  We were trying to imagine all of the ways in which we could move, so we will be the very best that we can.  We’ve studied the space that some of the program enhancements might require, and where best to locate additional space.  Since the school’s financial health continues to be a problem, with renewed vigor we will investigate ways to reach and maintain financial stability.  And no one would be able to celebrate a Sesquicentennial without a Capital Campaign.  A few thoughs on each of these.

150th Anniversary.  In 1857, in its second year of existence, Saint John’s Abbey opened a school in the monastery building located on the banks of the Mississippi River.  An historic marker now points out the site of that first foundation.  It’s on the Tillston Mill Spur walking path, south of St. Cloud State, about due east of the Children’s Home.  You may want to visit this historic location.

Be The Best We Can.  That 150th Anniversary has become the date by which SJP wants to have its Academic, Spirituality, and Whole Person Development programs refined and in place.  Every hiring becomes an opportunity to move in this direction.  The way in which we prepare for the ISACS evaluation two years from now, will push toward this goal.  Every time we fine-tune existing programs, we take a step toward this end.  —  Saint John’s Prep being the best, it can possibly be, is what parents want, what every Alum wants, and what institutionally will build the basis of our public image.

Some Program Enhancements Require Space.  Many steps have already been taken in this direction, and many more can be taken without a need for additional space.  These are the ones we are concentrating on.  But as we have studied the programmatic changes that will be most different, some of them require space.  Namely: a) Room for a 6th Grade, b) Dining in line with the values taught by Saint Benedict, c) Theater and Music brought fully into a Saint John’s Prep liberal arts education, d) Liturgy that intentionally includes all the enhancements that the arts can provide, and e) while our preference is to stay forever in the Old Gym which Alums know so well, at some point we will probably need a gymnasium of our own.   —   What am I saying?  We know the program changes we should be made.  And, with the help of architects, we know the amount and kind of space that is required, as well as the best locations.

Financial Stability.  In turning the corner, we’ve accomplished lots of wonderful things.  But financial stability is not one of them.  Yes, growing in enrollment means that we are much better financially, but much, much more is needed.  After testing different concepts, it seems to me that some serious rethinking and redesigning of program is needed.  Three things are in process, working on improving financial stability.  1) The staff and I have begun thinking about some management changes that could help move us toward that goal;  2) Our Board of Regents is reexamining its fiscal responsibility role, which, without a doubt, will move us on a governance level;  and 3) In the development area, Mike Mullin is ready to unveil a new initiative to Alums and Friends of the Prep School.  We are forming a community of support which will be known as The Sagatagan Community of Saint John’s Preparatory School.  Its goal is to unite many donors in a community effort to raise $1,000,000 annually so the Prep School will remain accessible to talented, hard-working students, regardless of their family’s ability to pay the full tuition.  Kurt Salzl ’87, has technically worked out and donated the handsome granite plaques with a scene from the Prep School, that will be the 2002 collector’s item for the members of The Sagatagan Community.  Each year the collector plaques will carry a different scene from Saint John’s.  The propaganda for this piece will be in the mail soon.  And I just happen to have brought one of the plaques along, if you’d like to see one.  This well thought out and well-designed initiative should go a long way to helping build Financial Stability.

Sesquicentennial Capital Campaign.  As we prepare for the Prep School’s Sesquicentennial, we will couple it with a Capital Campaign.  The other segments of Saint John’s will also have fund-raising campaigns, celebrating that anniversary.  Since a 150th Anniversary is rare in Minnesota, we think this might be the time to ask Alums, Donors and Friends to think about making what Development people call the Ultimate Gift, i.e. the one truly major gift that the individual or family will make in their lifetime.  If enough donors would find that to be feasible, such a campaign would lift the Prep School to a totally new plateau of capitalization.  With that thought in mind, we have identified the program improvements we want and need, together with the space that might be required.  —  You know, some of our Alums and Friends have said they will split their lottery winnings with the Prep School.  And even though the odds aren’t good at all, if one of them was to win the lottery, and give us $20 million, we would know exactly what to do with it.  Do we expect that to happen?  Doubtful.  So, could the Prep School possibly raise that kind of money in a Capital Campaign?  It sounds awfully high and out of reach, but who knows.  With good luck, and with everyone interested in Saint John’s Prep contacting persons with the ability to move us toward that goal, who knows?  Stranger things have happened in this world, when people have decided to make their Ultimate Gift.

In this fund-raising effort, since each part of Saint John’s will be engaged in fund-raising at the same time, we at the Prep School will do everything in our power to coordinate an overall approach to joint Alums and Donors.

Conclusion.

The State of the School?  Exciting, challenging, rewarding.  But we hit a brick wall.  In absolute truth we recognize and claim our history.  We are embarrassed and ashamed of the sexual abuse portion of that history, but it is our history.  Remembering it always, we will stay vigilant, as we enter the future.  And we see that future to be a time for making Saint John’s Preparatory School the very best that it can be.  We will use management, governance and development to affect this improvement.

One final Thank You to all Alums for presenting the Armor of Light Award to me.  I will do everything in my power to make the next four years significant and memorable for Saint John’s Preparatory School.  But remember, it will take all of us.  Thank you all for coming.  Have a safe trip home.

 

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Topics: Gordon Tavis, John Klassen

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