Dear SJP Community,
Recent news stories about clergy misconduct, and especially those involving monks from Saint John’s Abbey, have prompted questions and concerns from many of the people who care most deeply about Saint John’s Abbey, Saint John’s Prep and Saint John’s University. They have shared with me their disappointment and frustration. In particular, many have questioned whether our responses to allegations of abuse by members of our community have fallen short of what is expected of the Abbey. One alumnus put it directly in a recent letter: “I am asking where is the public voice of Saint John’s as it leads with Benedictine, Christian values…?”
That’s a fair question and one that has prompted some personal reflections that I want to share.
The cases of sexual abuse involving children have been heartbreaking. I grieve for the victims of abuse and their families. They have been betrayed by the clergy they trusted. The pain they have had to endure is unimaginable.
Since the first claims of abuse surfaced nearly three decades ago, we have worked hard to create processes in which allegations of misconduct are reviewed thoroughly and with respect for those who may have been harmed. The External Review Board – a panel that includes a victim, those who work with victims, and other experts – meets on a regular basis to evaluate claims of potential abuse and to review the safety plans for members of the monastery who likely have offended against minors.
We have taken other steps, including a voluntary release of the names of monks who likely have offended against minors, had numerous frank conversations with victims, their representatives, and the news media.
Still, every time an allegation or controversy surfaces in a news story, I know we are bound to disappoint some of our friends who believe we respond too timidly and others who see our responses as incomplete and even disingenuous.
All of this is front of mind these days as the news media regurgitate two-decade-old claims against Fr. Timothy Backous. Many of you, like me, have known and respected Fr. Timo for years. I have worked side-by-side with him, and observed his many, many interactions with children and young people. When the media contacted us, I reviewed the reports from nearly 25 years ago when the issue first was raised. The allegations were not substantiated and we found no cause to place any restrictions on Fr. Tim.
Unfortunately and unfairly, the news media published the allegations with no corroborating witnesses, evidence or documentation. News stories accepted the untrue claim that restrictions were placed on Fr. Backous. All of this has come at a great personal cost to Fr. Backous. We will continue to do all we can to clear his name and help him regain his reputation.
These news stories about Fr. Timo also underscore some of the realities we confront with almost every issue that comes forward.
First, we rarely have more than a couple of hours between the time we first are called for a comment by the news media and the deadline reporters impose on us. In these few hours, we must review old records or, in some cases, make judgments about claims that are presented for the first time and that are coming from reporters, not those directly involved. Whenever an allegation comes forward, we are committed to pursuing the truth while being respectful of the rights and the reputations of those against whom these allegations have been lodged.
On some occasions, we simply don’t have all the facts at hand. We do our best, but almost all of the media stories in recent years have dealt with issues that are decades old. Often, we are confronted with questions from reporters who have spent days or even weeks collecting information from those who believe they have been harmed, their attorneys, and others. We are questioned – and given little time to respond – only after a narrative has already been created.
We have to walk a very fine line in these stories. It is our commitment to be respectful of those who believe they have been victims of abuse and, at the same time, to protect the legal rights of those who may be wrongly accused. There are times when we wish we could be even more proactive in laying out what we know to be the facts of a case, but we are constrained by legal realities – those that affect possible victims and members of Saint John’s Abbey.
There are occasions when we have been able to refute potential media stories. In one instance, for example, we showed the reporter that a priest alleged to have abused a person wasn’t even in the same state as the alleged victim at the time the incident was supposed to have occurred. Had we not been able to uncover this kind of evidence in the short time available, the reputation of an innocent person would have been irreparably damaged.
There are many instances in which the media have uncovered stories from around the country that were important to report. But there also are other cases – including some involving members of Saint John’s – where innocence has given way to the rush to publish a “breaking story.”
Second, we are often chasing rumors. Spurious and malicious claims pop up on websites or in email chains. We have pursued legal remedies to get information removed and have been successful, but too often by the time we can provide the facts to the people communicating through these sites or to the internet companies that host the sites, the damage has been done. And, quite frankly, the truth simply doesn’t matter to some people.
Through all of this, our commitment is to do all we can to be transparent in confronting credible allegations and accepting responsibility when warranted. We also will be respectful of those who are innocent, but are caught up in an environment in which too often allegations – even without substantiation – are news. Those who have been faithful to their vows and their values should not have to live under clouds of doubt because of the actions of others.
I will do my best to keep you posted on these matters as they unfold.
Abbot John Klassen, OSB