Movers & Shapers: Abbot John Klassen

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COLLEGEVILLE — He’s the man they call on to get the job done whether on the farm, with soon-to-be monks, in the chemistry department or now as head of the St. John’s monastery.

Abbot John Klassen, self-labeled as “home grown” from rural Stearns County and known for his integrity, authenticity, faith and conviction, acted in a way no other abbot did before him.

He did what few Catholic leaders have done nationwide.

Just a year after becoming abbot, Klassen named names, met with abuse survivors, publicly apologized and settled with victims and families before some had even sued. In August, leaders and advisers of men’s religious orders tapped him to share lessons learned, making him the first abbot to serve on their board since the 1980s.

As the spiritual leader of one of the two largest Benedictine communities in the world, Klassen is responsible for the monastic life and work assignments of 185 monks, as well as the community’s spiritual and material well-being.

The 53-year-old brings to his position experience as a St. John’s Preparatory and University student and teacher, priest, monastic formation director and Benedictine values instructor.

He gets strength from daily prayer, his monks and the extended St. John’s community.

“Without sounding pious or theological, the Holy Spirit is at work with this,” he said of the consuming task of addressing past clergy sexual abuse at St. John’s.

“There will be a profound transformation that will come to this community and the church from this crisis,” Klassen said.

Younger years

Klassen learned how to work hard at a young age, when his mother needed his tall, lanky body to help her manage tasks on their family’s dairy farm in Elrosa.

By age 6, he drove a tractor and plowed fields.

“John grew up under some really difficult times,” said Mark Herickhoff, a childhood friend and neighbor to the Klassens.

“His family struggled and worked really hard to make a living. They weren’t poor, but they weren’t rich,” he said. Klassen’s labor was needed as his father suffered the effects of rheumatic fever.

“I think John learned compassion for people having difficulties at a very young age,” Herickhoff said.

The long work hours often caused Klassen to miss class at the parochial school the two attended, a challenge Klassen overcame with smarts, he said. But they also enjoyed bicycling, playing softball, eating Popsicles, hunting pheasant (or shooting porcelain insulators off a neighbor’s electric fence) and serving as altar boys.

Around the time Klassen was first stretching to reach the tractor pedals, he came to understand what would shape him: He professed intentions for the priesthood.

Klassen’s parents trusted his vision, sacrificing his farm labor and sending him to St. John’s Preparatory School to pursue his dream.

Years later, when his community elected him its 10th abbot, Klassen said his rural roots had shaped him. Despite years of feeling shy and uncertain, Klassen said he never doubted that his parents would pick up him and his siblings after school.

Amid this environment of stability, durability and “utter ordinariness,” he learned human relationships were to be trusted.

Grounded in prayer

Klassen’s homilies make an impression.

He doesn’t belabor his points. Each metaphor of chemistry or farming is intentional, simple and memorable. He steps from behind the lectern to give his body and message more room.

The Rev. Columba Stewart, someone Klassen names as a mentor, described the abbot’s preaching ability: “You have the sense that you are listening to a real person that takes it from his head and runs it through his heart, and that’s enduring and distinctive.”

Stewart serves as the abbey’s formation director, succeeding Klassen after the abbot left the job in 1999. The abbot later said that the decisions required of this role — especially telling a monk in training that he’d chosen the wrong path — were some of the most difficult he faced, until this spring.

Klassen succeeded as formation director and making these tough decisions because he creates empathy and trust, Stewart said. “There’s no pretense, no guile … what you see is what you get.”

To stay grounded, Klassen said he prays. But he also finds comfort hauling dirt, pulling weeds and nurturing bright annuals in an 8-by-12-foot garden he set aside on the monastic grounds.

“He talks about having one place where he can put his hands back in the earth,” Stewart said. “You can see him there and he looks really happy.”

Fix-it man

If an instrument broke in the chemistry department, “we’d call on John before we’d call the repair person,” said Sister Carleen Schomer, who worked with him at the university since 1983.

Students knew when they could go to Klassen with questions and be nurtured toward answers rather than knocked down for errors, she said. After graduation, many asked him to serve at their weddings.

Bernie Kunkel, a St. John’s alumnus and college friend, said he saw Klassen’s ability to fix things earlier in the abbot’s life.

Students gathered around the abbot during his college years because of his ability to listen deeply, he said. It’s no surprise to Kunkel that one of Klassen’s dreams for a new abbey guest house — placed on hold this spring — is another way to exchange ideas.

During the long hours of college debate, Klassen brought “the voice of reason,” Kunkel said. He solved problems then as he does now, using his no-nonsense approach and saying: “We’re making a big deal of this … let’s just do it and make it better.”

Everyday John

As an adult, Klassen is a big man, standing at 6 feet 3 inches, with high energy and hands that gesture each point.

His mind doesn’t miss a beat, handling a range from organic chemistry equations to tracking each community member’s needs. With close friends, he maneuvers in and out of quick-witted sarcasm and shares humor laced with irony.

His jibes include his failed attempts as he strives for lofty Benedictine ideals.

Klassen’s laugh comes from deep inside.

When golfing or visiting old friends, he wears blue jeans and button-down shirts instead of the traditional black habit and large silver pectoral cross. He insists they call him John.

His face opens kindly toward those in his presence and pauses before most words, which are thoughtful and to the point. Klassen speaks of wrongdoing without condemnation.

His days are spent meeting with individuals and groups, and addressing mounds of correspondence.

He wakes to pray and meditate at 5:30 a.m., before joining his brothers to pray four times from morning until night.

Opening doors

Elected on the second ballot, with more than two-thirds of his community’s vote, Klassen walked into his role as abbot with immediate support.

Many abbey members liked that he attended and taught at the prep school and university. He displayed excellent pastoral skills as formation director. And his relative youth allows him to bring years of vision and energy, as he guides the abbey into the new century.

Klassen spoke then of building a new guest house and his commitment to environmental pursuits and hopes to strengthen vocations and establish closer connections with students.

During his first day as abbot, he told a reporter he had zero tolerance for sexual abuse. But Klassen never expected how much time would be spent on the questions and demands of the issue, he said.

He bucked the trend toward silence on such matters after he met for months with one of former Abbot John Eidenschink’s victims. It became clear, Klassen said, that keeping this story quiet “was harmful to real recovery for this person over time.”

He met with other victims one-on-one, something he said is the right thing to do according to the abbey’s policy and to help victims heal.

He frequently made himself accessible for media questions, operating out of his belief that “when it comes to these heavy-duty issues, there are points when I should speak directly.”

By August, Klassen said he was tired, but less afraid.

Many within his own ranks say outwardly the abbot took the right course. However, he said he knows not everyone on the outside or inside agrees with his decisions.

“I think he thought it was the thing to do,” said the Rev. Cletus Connors, an abbey member and pastor at St. Boniface in Cold Spring. “He’s not the kind to hold back because of peer pressure,” he said.

Connors is “on the fence” about Klassen’s openness — wondering if the abbot, who serves as a spiritual adviser to each community member, should name names. It saddens Connors to see restricted brothers assigned to menial work after being removed from ministry.

And while he praised Klassen for trying to do what he can for victims, he also worried “he may have gone dry helping his own.”

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who has fought the Catholic Church for 22 years on behalf of abuse victims, said there was a time he worked against Klassen.

But Anderson said he saw another side of the man after this summer’s negotiations and October’s settlement, which included abbey approval of an external review board that is “unprecedented” in the Catholic Church.

“Sincerity and genuineness is kind of a scarce commodity in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church,” he said. “I think he stands a head above others we’ve encountered.”

Sexual abuse survivors mostly want to be believed — “to hear it and feel it” — instead of being given token gestures by church leaders, Anderson said.

“It was time for someone to step up, and he did,” he said.

Abuse victim Allen Vogel said the abbey rebuffed him when he told his story 12 years ago. But things went differently with Klassen.

“He’s the leader St. John’s has been looking for for decades,” Vogel said.

St. Benedict’s Rule

As a Benedictine monk and as abbot, Klassen agreed to abide by the Rule of Benedict, a book that outlines rules for religious communities to follow on obedience, humility and other topics.

In the midst of criticism for housing former sexual perpetrators, Klassen remained loyal to the promises and obligations of this sixth-century rule — first written to guide those in the monastery St. Benedict founded in Italy.

There is “no question” the rule shaped Klassen’s actions during the past two years as abbot, said Sister Ephrem Hollermann, prioress of the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.

“He had to take responsibility for what happened,” she said.

This fall, Klassen apologized directly to victims on behalf of his community members who either could not or would not apologize.

But he also honored the vow of stability — a part of the rule — each member makes when joining the abbey by not ousting any of the guilty men.

In June, the abbot pledged to comply with the U.S. bishops’ sexual abuse policy. Though this action was hailed by many as a step toward zero tolerance, Hollermann said it grieved Klassen because it did not allow for the Rule’s call to approach each monk individually.

“He’s facing it head on, not hedging,” said Sister Mary Helene Juettner, OSB, who co-directed a Benedictine Values program with Klassen, teaching lay faculty and staff about prayer, work, community, hospitality, stewardship and stability.

Klassen has the integrity and trust needed to lead his community forward, she said.

“He just has to keep on being what he’s been his whole life,” Juettner said. “You do more by example than words. Benedict said that, too.”

Name: John Bernard Klassen (though he rarely uses Bernard).

Born: March 25, 1949.

Hometown: Elrosa.

Favorite song/lyrics: “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.

Reading: Basil Pennington’s “On Contemplation,” John Cassian’s “Institutes,” and Susan Faludi’s “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.”

Volunteering: Giving talks at university groups, parishes, etc.

First paid job: The packing line of Melrose Produce, a turkey-processing plant.

Hero: Dorothy Day.

Handling of abuse crisis …

— Nov. 24, 2000: Abbot John Klassen is asked about recent publicity about past allegations of sexual abuse by several St. John’s monks. “There will be zero tolerance for sexual abuse,” the new abbot said then. “Zero tolerance.” As abbot, he began meeting one-on-one with victims, some with allegations of decades-old abuse that survivors said had been concealed with coercion or threat.

— March 20, 2002: After coming forward with abuse allegations from about 30 years ago against the Rev. Richard Eckroth, Woodbury resident Helen Olson receives a $2,000 check. It includes a letter from Klassen apologizing for the pain she has been caused and said, “I am hoping this will be of help over the short haul.” Weeks later, she receives another check, this time for $10,000.

— April 15: Klassen meets with his community in a closed-door meeting, telling them that former Abbot John Eidenschink admitted he had sexually abused two adult St. John’s monks who professed their vows but had not been ordained. One was abused during Eidenschink’s tenure. The other was abused before Eidenschink was elected in 1971.

— April 19: During an interview with the Times, Klassen made the information about Eidenschink public. He also said there was no question that sexual abuse occurred at the hands of the Rev. Cosmas Dahlheimer, who suffers advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and Eckroth, who denies the allegations. Klassen said victims had been and would continue to be compensated, some without what had been a standard confidentiality agreement. The abbot also named almost a dozen community members facing restricted jobs and social activities because of past sex abuse or inappropriate sexual actions. That evening, he notified students, alumni and staff of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University and Preparatory School of the Eidenschink news via e-mail.

— June 6: A lawsuit with new allegations of abuse from decades past is filed in Stearns County against two abbey priests.

— June 9: After numerous public and private apologies in letters, interviews and on the Web, another apology is published in the Times saying the abbot is “deeply sorry” some members of his community engaged in abusive sexual behavior. “I acknowledge the wrongdoing, apologize for it and pledge my determination to assure that appropriate boundaries between members of this monastic community and other persons are never violated again.”

— June 14: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops agree on a new sexual abuse policy. Within days, Klassen agrees to apply the policy to all St. John’s members, expanding it to include nonordained monks and those who abused adults. However, he will not oust any community member, citing the vow of stability.

— July 10: Klassen removes the Rev. Fran Hoefgen as guest master and the Rev. Allen Tarlton as director of its Oblate program after victims threaten a silent protest. The abbot said the two events were unrelated.

— Aug. 12: The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, a group of leaders and advisers of Catholic men’s religious orders in the United States, elects Klassen to its board.

— Oct. 1: After meetings began in June and negotiations in mid-August and September, St. John’s Abbey settles with about a dozen victims, agreeing to create an external review board and pay an undisclosed amount to about a dozen victims and parents.

Movers & Shapers: Abbot John Klassen
Profiles of Central Minnesotans Who Make a Difference
‘Profound Transformation’ Will Come from Abuse Crisis
By Kristin Gustafson
St. Cloud Times [Collegeville MN] Downloaded April 9, 2003

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Topics: Allen Tarlton, Columba Stewart, Fran Hoefgen, Jeff Anderson, John Eidenschink, John Klassen, Richard Eckroth

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